Smartphones: All-in-One Cell Phones

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2526, 2007-06-29, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 17-18) and their website.

As cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), portable music players, palmtop computers, and other technological products are continually improved, they provide ever greater functionality in smaller form factors. This is making it increasingly possible for manufacturers to combine this functionality — such as cell phones supporting handheld Web access previously only seen in palmtop computers, and PDAs playing music just as well as dedicated portable music devices.

Another major factor in driving this combining of products, is the desire of consumers to minimize the number of communications and organizer devices that they must carry when away from the home and office, and thus the number of devices that they have to keep track of, and prevent falling into the hands of thieves. Even though the leading items in each individual category are being made smaller all the time, if they can be melded into a fewer number of such carry-ables, then so much the better.

For many years, technology industry pundits were undecided as to which product category would eventually emerge the winner, having subsumed all of the functionality of the other categories. It was unclear as to whether cell phone manufacturers would steal the features of handheld devices — such as running small applications on downsized operating systems — or if the PDA and palmtop makers could add wireless telephony to their devices better.

PDAs soon began to trounce palmtop computers, largely as a result of prospective customers — those interested in a portable computing platform — choosing to invest extra money and carrying space to obtain a laptop computer, especially if it was intended to replace a desktop computer. The lead widened as PDA manufacturers made tremendous marketing efforts to get their products into the hands of as many consumers as possible.

Smartphones Winning the Race

Cell phones boasting features beyond wireless telephony have been referred to by many names, including "PDA-based cell phones", "third-generation (3G) mobile phones", and "pocket PC phones". But the most common term now is "smartphone". Even though the term is not yet in any of the major online dictionaries, Googling the term recently resulted in almost 50 million hits.

Regardless of what these ubiquitous devices are called, smartphones have emerged the victor, as non-telephonic PDAs and palmtop computers become increasingly marginalized. In a study reported in late 2006, the research company Gartner noted that, during the first half of that year, shipments of smartphones and PDAs increased 57 percent over the same period of the previous year, totaling 42.1 million units. However, 34.7 million of those units, over 82 percent, were smartphones.

Electronics consumers in Asia and Europe tend to adopt new technologies faster than their counterparts in the United States. This is probably the primary reason why Americans will be the last group to generally abandon PDAs in favor of smartphones. In fact, during 2006, North America was the only region where PDAs managed to outsell smartphones — accounting for a significant 45 percent of worldwide PDA shipments during the first half of the year.

Analysts point to a number of factors in the growing dominance of smartphones. These include advances in messaging technology and personal information manager (PIM) applications, but also the ever-important and ever-shifting consumer fashion. In addition, the PDA market was certainly not helped by its leader at the time, Palm, splitting into separate hardware and software companies, with the latter being taken over by ACCESS.

Winning Smartphones

No printed publication can possibly keep up with the ongoing enhancements being offered by the extremely competitive smartphone manufacturers, nor can we point to a particular product as being the best choice for all readers. Every prospective buyer of a smartphone is going to have their own unique criteria as to what functionality they are looking for, and in what price range.

Some consumers may prefer the networking capabilities of a Bluetooth device. Others may prefer the outstanding VGA camera found in the latest Motorola Razr. Others may fall in love with the user interface and preinstalled software packages offered by Nokia's Symbian OS. Others may want a smartphone that packs a huge number of disparate capabilities into one unit, such as the Nokia 6133.

Just to get an idea of how many features have been combined into a single product, again consider the Nokia 6133. It offers wireless telephony; voice dialing, commands, and recording; speakerphone; text, image, and saved audio messaging; a 1.3 megapixel camera with digital zoom; scroll buttons; Bluetooth; mobile Internet browser WAP; USB; 11 megabytes of memory; an address book for up to 500 contacts; a calendar, alarm clock, reminders, to-do list, and calculator; an MP3 player and FM radio; and a lot more. All this in less than four ounces. This certainly isn't your father's cell phone.

To learn more about the current smartphones available and their features, check the websites of the major industry players, such as Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and palmOne, as well as Research in Motion, which has Blackberry phones.

Even though Apple's iPhone has not yet been formally released, as of this writing, there is already a sizable amount of information online, including specifications and photos. There does not appear to be a single source providing the best up-to-date information, so use your favorite Internet search engine if you are interested in learning more about the iPhone and whether or not you would want to wait for it to be available, and pay what is expected to be a relatively high unit price.

Some Smart Resources

Given that each manufacturer's website will be completely biased towards their particular product line, your next stop should be one or more of the sites that publish independent evaluations of cell phones and other electronics products.

SmartPhone Today has industry news, product reviews, feature columns, and discussion forums (including a dedicated one focusing on Blackberry products). Moreover, it has links for finding downloadable smartphone software, organized by the latest applications and also the most popular. In addition, it has featured software of the day, such as the latest games.

Smartphone Thoughts is slanted more towards reader-contributed material, with active forums organized into three major categories: community, hardware, and mobile operators. Within each category, there are over a dozen subcategories, including one for buying and selling smartphones and their accessories. The site also has front-page and archived articles, free software to download, and a virtual store for purchasing smartphone hardware and software online.

These two sites are just a fraction of the resources available on the Internet for learning more about these remarkably advanced cell phones, which are now smarter than ever.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.