Chapter 2 - Smartphones Rule

Cellular phones have been around for quite a while, and their effects were not particularly transformative - they did liberate the caller from the need to be in a specific physical location, but nothing more than that. The smartphone, however, has had a much more dramatic impact.

The Personal Computer

The author reflects on the path followed by computers. The original computers were massive machines that were little more than glorified calculators. When the size and affordability decreased, they caught on with a few enthusiasts.

Computers gained some inroads with applications such as spreadsheets and word processing, and have been popular for playing games. However, it was not until the Internet that most people had any use for them - because until then they were not really all that useful for most people.

The Cell Phone

The author takes a closer look at cell phones, which were very bulky, inconvenient, and expensive. Again, they were not very useful, so they were not widely adopted. There was some growth in use through the 1990s, as text messaging became popular (though inconvenient on a twelve-key interface that could display two short lines of text).

Larger screens and integration with digital cameras draw additional users, but the cell phone did not gain significant popularity until it, too, was connected to a data network and became a smartphone.

The Two-Phone Era

During the present day, we are in a two-phone era, meaning that many people carry multiple devices (one for work, and one for personal use) - and until very recently, the company-issued device was a cell phone. Even though firms have upgraded most users to smartphones, the desire to keep professional and private lives well separated (by company policy or personal choice) means that most users still carry two devices. (EN: Some carry more than two, as they wish to compartmentalize their lives further.)

The author notes that this is not merely an American phenomenon, but is true around the world - and is even more pronounced in some cultures. It's also speculated that this may be the reason for the low usage rate of the telephone functions on smart phones: the smart phone is primarily a data device because the cell phone is used for voice.

Usability and the iPhone

The "turning point in mobile" came with the launch of the Apple iPhone, a device that was not only capable, but easy to use. The impact of usability cannot be overstated: mobile's functions had previously provided capabilities that were difficult to use, and were therefore not used and failed to become popular until Apple made them accessible. (EN: Apple had done the same thing with the personal computer and the digital music player - it's often overlooked that their success is based not on inventing new technologies, but making existing ones easier to use.)

The author provides a few details about the way in which the iPhone impacted the consumption of mobile content - services that had received little attention for years were suddenly flooded with consumers when the iPhone or a custom application made them easily accessible to more users.

The Platforms

One common issue in mobile marketing is that of platform. While the iPhone is popular, Google's Android and Microsoft's phone products have substantial user bases, and to capture these customers, service providers must offer several versions of applications and make their mobile Web sites broadly compatible.

The proliferation of models is similar in some ways to the proliferation of operating systems and browsers for the Internet, but making services compatible is more difficult and there are no central standards for application developers.

Platforms are often concentrated by region (certain phones are more popular in certain countries) as well as by demographic. Ultimately, a mobile service operator needs to survey their market to determine which platforms they must support to reach their target markets.

Old vs. New Phones

Further complicating the chaos of platforms is the sped of evolution: every few months a new version of system software introduces new capabilities and deprecates old capabilities. The phone hardware changes as well, but at a slightly slower pace. This requires mobile service providers to constantly evolve their applications and sites to keep pace.

There's some discussion of whether to support older phone technology or smartphone, to build a web site or write an app, etc. (EN: This is all largely moot - it depends on the behavior of the audience.)

The author asserts that there is still opportunity for the older cell phone models, but does not substantiate this claim.

Features versus Applications

The author draws an analogy between smartphones and high-definition television sets - people have devices that have more capabilities than they are using, but it is up to the networking companies and content creators to provide support. He also suggests that the users themselves fail to recognize the potential power of their devices, citing a statistic that suggests only about 29% of users have downloaded applications to their phones.

(EN: This becomes a chicken-and-egg argument. Do people not use the power because there are no applications that require it, or are applications not being developed because developers think people would not use them? My sense is that it gets back to the notion of value - if an app provided genuine benefits, people would use it - but most are either frivolous or redundant/inferior to what they can get on the mobile web.)

Some survey results are presented to show the ways in which smartphones are used:

It's also suggested that when smartphone owners are shopping for a new phone, they are generally more interested in the device's capabilities than the availability of applications. It's also noted that users download free applications, but "fewer than a third" have any applications that they paid for. The author concedes this survey was skewed to Blackberry users, and that iPhone users are more active in all regards when it comes to applications.

There is also the issue of promotion: many developers simply upload their applications to iTunes or other sites and expect users to find them on their own. Little effort is put into attracting users to an application, except by large and well-funded brands that can leverage their traditional marketing materials to tell people about their apps.

It is far more common for smartphone users to learn about new applications by word of mouth - and more specifically, they discover apps when they see someone else using them in the real world (as opposed to social media). This has been highly successful for games, but less so for other applications.

The Vanity Factor

The author dismisses the iPad as a "vanity buy" that technophiles and attention-seekers would buy to be the envy of others. "It may not be critical to success or career advancement but people sure want one."

(EN: I expect this is true for some, possibly many, but it sells short the value of a tablet computer. And given that the iPad and others have sold well, I don't think it should be quite so easily dismissed - but it is not the same as the mobile device. Given that most iPad users I've seen have the device connected to a keyboard, I suspect it's more analogous to a notebook computer than a smartphone.)

He also points to the feeding frenzy each time there is a major upgrade to the iPhone, and the way that many people will rush to be among the first to upgrade so that they have the very latest device to show off.

(EN: Less objection here - given that the new phones offer marginal improvements, the need to upgrade is largely driven by technophile gadget envy.)

Continuing Evolution

The technical underpinnings of smart phones are rapidly improving: processor speed, storage capacity, and network speed are key factors. While the improvements are marginal from one version to the next, users who wait a few years to upgrade generally notice significant improvements in speed.

Another factor that is evolving is location services. Civilian-grade global positioning is roughly accurate, to within about 100 yards, but this is not quite good enough for some commercial purposes (you can tell someone is in a shopping mall, but not which store). This is being made more granular, and augmented by more sensitive technologies in certain environments such as WiFi triangulation, which is accurate within about ten yards.

(EN: The author doesn't mention what is likely the best area of potential for growth: software development. There are few applications that deliver more than marginal or amusement value, and even those remain somewhat clumsy and limited. There's been a lot of work in this area, but not much progress as yet.)