I’m old enough to remember, rather fondly, when we all got our telephone service from The Phone Company. When all phones sat or hung on a surface and had a wire that ran into the wall. When it took a repairman with tools to come and change out your set. The phone was a simple, universal device we all knew how to use and the call quality was GREAT. It is not progress that we spend so much of our time these days shouting, “You’re breaking up! Call me back when you get in range.”
On the other hand, I’m not a total codger. I just moved my older daughter into her first apartment and had a chance to reflect, while staring at the phone jack in her wall (bent over, recovering from carrying one of many boxes up the stairs), that she is quite likely to never use it or any like it in any wall in any living space she moves into in her life. Instead, her phone service just goes with her – no missing work to wait for the installer, no making sure all her friends know her new number. In fact, her friends don’t even know her OLD number; their phones just know it for them. I think that is progress.
But the one thing you cannot claim for the cell phone market these days is that the choices are simple. The problem isn’t just the bewildering, exploding variety. It’s that, since folks are making up the technology as they go along, they are also having to make up vocabulary to describe it. And I think even they would admit their focus is on ‘catchy’ not ‘highly explanatory’.
Which leads us to smartphones: If your phone is a smartphone and my phone isn’t, doesn’t that automatically imply my phone is dumb?
Nope, sorry. That kind of logic is for grammar teachers, not technologists. For the moment, our U.S. mobile phone market (*see Big Disclaimer) can be roughly divided into three categories: basic phones, feature phones, and smartphones.
Basic phones are, well, basic: they make phone calls. If you just listen to the service provider hype, you might guess this is a fading category, but, actually, in some niches, simple still sells. The Jitterbug, marketed aggressively to seniors, and many of the ‘disposable’ phones provided by pay-as-you-go providers fall into this category.
Feature phones are what most of us are carrying around right now. (These are also the most likely phones to be offered ‘free’ when you sign up for new service although smartphones are starting to appear with these offers.) The features offered vary wildly although a camera is so common I wouldn’t be surprised if phones-with-just-a-camera weren’t soon considered ‘basic’ and not ‘feature’ at all. Generally, a feature phone lets you text, receive and send email, and browse the web. Many can be used to play music or videos. GPS is common. But note that you usually pay extra to your service provider if you enable and use any of these features. (You do look at the fine print on your cell phone bill every month, don’t you?) I have one daughter with a feature phone she uses just like a basic phone, having disabled texting since it costs extra. The other uses and pays for a texting plan but doesn’t buy the data plan that would, for example, allow her to use her GPS navigation feature.
Smartphones are truly remarkable devices although, if you just look at a raw list of what they can do out of the box (camera, texting, email, multimedia, web, GPS) they sound a lot like feature phones. The difference is in HOW they provide basic services (with a true computer operating system) and the extent to which those basic services can be extended and enhanced by buying additional ‘apps’ (programs) to run on them. Under the hood, smartphones combine the computing power of my whole college campus, back when I went to school, along with most of the functionality of a Star Trek tricorder. And it all fits in your pocket. How wicked cool is that? Forget the fact you can make a silly old phone call with one, these things are serious mobile computing platforms. Oddly, the one things smartphones are often not highly rated for is call quality; it’s usually characterized as good not great. And, for right now, one of the big barriers to buying a smartphone is the price of the ‘data plan’ your service provider will require you to buy to power it. You can’t buy a smartphone and run it as a feature phone or a basic phone; the extra charges are not optional. So you really don’t want to buy a smartphone if you aren’t going to take advantage of all its extra capabilities. But if and when you have found a handful of extra uses for this computer-that-can-also-serve-as-your-phone, you may well see the data plan as a bargain. More on those ‘extra uses’ later.
* Big disclaimer: The description above is one woman’s view of the US mobile phone market at one moment in time and is unavoidably US-centric. Mobile phone networks, phone features, phone terminology, and the role phones play in society are remarkably fluid and remarkably regional. Only Americans regularly refer to their mobile devices as ‘cell phones’. In Japan, not only can phones be used to buy things out of vending machines but a whole genre of short fiction has sprung up intended specifically to be read on mobile phones during the daily commute. In Africa, where our form of internet may never be widespread due to the lack of infrastructure, the phone is used aggressively for many of the things we’d expect to do on the web. For example, phone banking, including person-to-person funds transfers, is a staple of many rural economies.
If you would like more detail on phones in general, you may want to check out CNET, which seems to be doing a great job of following the cell phone market. And if you’d like more technical detail on the distinctions I make above, including specific brand and model names, try this article.