A misnomer

by Michael O. Allen on March 29, 2008

I can’t say that I’ve ever spent much time pondering why they call this class of computer electronics ‘smart phone,’ but now that John Lancaster mentions it . . .

Here’s Mr. Lancaster:

There is no getting around the fact that the things sound demoralisingly nerdy. To the lay consumer, what “smart” means is “horribly complicated, unnecessarily over-specified, dominated by features no sane person will ever use, liable to do ruinously expensive things to your data tariff without your realising until too late, and weirdly bad at everyday stuff like, you know, making phone calls”.

I want an i Phone, of course, but not at the going rate. The writer had one and marvels at what’s coming down the pike:

So the task for the manufacturers is to make smartphones as simple-seeming and easy as possible, and let the features sort of sneak up on the user – and one way round this is to make the interface as intuitive as possible, so the underlying complexity is hidden. That way, non-nerds will buy them. Engineers need careful handling if they’re to do this right: consider the VCR, for instance, which over time got more rather than less complicated, so that nobody over the age of about 30 could make one work.

LG has had a good go at this and the KF600 menu structure is about as clear and helpful as anything apart from Apple’s iPhone. It uses two screens, the lower one a sliding touch screen with four-way arrows, and the menus are context-sensitive and interactive in a helpful way: so when you’re playing music, they’re play and pause controls; when you’re scrolling through contacts, they’re to do with ways of contacting people, and so on. The phone puts few obstacles in the way of actually being used. I had to RTFM a couple of times, but nothing untoward. And call quality is OK – not fabulous, but OK.

As to whether the phone will win converts, I’m not so sure. My first ever smartphone was an iPhone, and it’s a marvel of usability – but it also makes me keenly aware of just how miraculous these phones are about to be, a year or two down the line, when they have 3G and GPS that really, truly works. That, for the lay user, will mean broadband everywhere, all the time, and that your phone knows exactly where you are. That will seriously rock.

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