I have been using smartphones since I could afford them roughly seven years ago and have been using PDAs since I was a nerd in high school in the late 90s but only recently have I really had this moment of, "Wow, these are amazing devices that are changing our culture and affording us remarkable convenience." I'm an early adopter and have had virtually every iteration of smartphone from Handspring and Palm's early offerings to their latest and hacked devices running all sorts of things like variants of Linux (MeeGo, Android) and have owned two iPhones (hated it, but I have a serious bias). I'm telling you this to frame what I'm saying: today's smartphones with their elaborate sensors, powerful processors, high resolution touch screens, simple applications and simple application installation processes, and affordable (for many) prices are finally becoming the true realization of personal devices that science fiction writers have been dreaming about.


In other words, smartphones are now something more meaningful than just some sort of mashup between phone, computer, and camera - smartphones more closely resemble Star Trek's tricorder, William Gibson's "Virtual Light" glasses, and Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide" and babelfish. At some point in the past year or two I feel that society reached an event horizon past the point of no return with personal devices and technology. Businesses have been saying, "it's only a matter of time" for longer than I can remember and the technology has been around but Apple really brought it mainstream and has broken that personal technology barrier for more than just early adopters.


"When you were a kid this was the future you read and dreamed about, isn't it," my sister chirped to me as she pulled up directions to our cousin's house on her Droid2 when we were in Las Vegas last Thanksgiving. She's in her early 30s and this year became the first member of my family other than me to own a smartphone.  I was mostly just surprised she had figured out how to pull up GPS and directions on her device because I have seen her surf the web before.  At any rate, I was even more surprised to see her go full MacGuyver with it and use a flashlight app, check constellations using an augmented reality app, check movie times and locations, and look up information on Wikipedia.  She is by no means a power user but is doing things with her phone that were impossible with devices from 18 months ago, and unthinkable in the 90s.


This left me thinking, “How’d we get here again?”


Early PDAs and Pen Computers: Neat toys, but not life changing

In the 90s, when I bought my first touch PDA, a US Robotics Pilot 5000, the handwriting recognition blew my mind but it became quickly apparent to me that the device did little more than a pocket notepad and Gameboy (and be a very handy calendar).  The apps were cool and were available, but the device was hardly connected (I couldn't afford the modem) and did very little more than function as a cool way to take notes and play games on the go.  I dreamed of the days when I could get something that was in color and could connect to networks. I later had the fortune of getting a small Pen-based computing device, the Dauphin DTR-1, that could connect to networks and recognize handwriting (woah, it ran Windows?).  Both devices were ahead of their time, and were never discussed outside circles of nerdery so as to avoid getting really long stares.



Connected PDAs and Single Purpose "Smart" phones: Phone,Camera, (Email, Music, Myspace)

By the time I had purchased my first PDA phone, a Handspring Treo around 2003-2004, computers and the web had long since transformed business and connected apps that would do things like check movie times and list local businesses were real and available. I remember data being prohitively expensive however and very few people used smartphones (or data for that matter). I didn't know it then, but the smartphone was still adolescent in its role in society: people still didn't adopt them because they were expensive and consumers didn't have a clue as to what they would do with them.  Besides consumers not really having a rationale for adopting smartphones and expensive data, phones lacked a killer app and connected experiences.  The screens were black and white for many smartphones stil at this time! *It could perhaps be referred to as a golden age of battery life for this reason*  Blackberry saw the opportunity for the business experience of Email and delivered it in this era of smartphone evolution. The push-based service devices saw steady uptake for business users who needed connected email and by the time BlackBerry introduced a phone they had been proving themselves since the turn of the millennium as a pager devices and services company.


From 2004 to 2007 the market for smartphones changed dramatically with two camps forming the bulk of available phones in stores: those multimedia phones that were like smartphones but were dead simple, attractive, and would poorly do things like surf the web and multimedia smartphones that would surf the web and do email really well but that were questionable in the phoning and texting department.  I ended up with an Audiovox SMT 5600 by 2005 and again was blown away by the capabilities of my device thinking "What!!  I can take pictures of stuff instead of writing them down now!" "Exchange Sync, heck yes!"  Data became significantly cheaper in this time period and phones also began bundling functionality that traditionally required another device (Media player, email apps, camera, MySpace). This was the primetime for the Blackberry Pearl and Sidekick, phones that were well positioned between both camps.  Sony-Ericsson was starting their music phones and camera phones business based on their Walkman and CyberShot brands.  Microsoft's phones in this era were powered by CE 5 which still was obviously the grandchild of Windows CE but that introduced technical competition to BlackBerry's push technology and responded to the multimedia trends with Windows Media Player 10.



Consumer-focused Smartphones: Apple's iPhone, Droid, Palm's Reboot

Apple shook up the market in the second week of 2007 when they brought in the attractive and usable iPhone that gave customers the web surfing experience that they didn't know they wanted on their phones and bundled it with another product that Apple was dominating the market with, the iPod.  At the time, I was the proud owner of a Sony-Ericsson W810, perhaps my favorite phone of all time, and was holding out on the iPhone in the hopes that we'd hear something from Microsoft about a multitouch phone. Later this year, Google introduces Android, I buy, jailbreak, and ultimately sell my first iPhone and use the W810 until I get a Motorola Q9C, an HTC TouchPro, and an HD2.  By 2008, Palm had been integrating Windows Mobile in their smartphone lineup and has been secretly working on the Pre.  Rumors ran abound about secret multitouch phones from Microsoft in this era but those didn't come from Microsoft until the HTC HD2.  Although we didn't see any radical phones come from Microsoft at this time, the time period heralded Microsoft's departure from the CE look/feel to truly mobile / touch friendly UI in the subversions 6.5 and 6.5.3 of Mobile 6 which came out shortly after the iPhone was announced.  Windows Mobile 6.5.x has spawned niche communities of diehard fans who continue to run it, tweak it into custom builds, and alter the Windows Mobile 6.5.x UI.


App Stores:  Killing the sync story one install at a time

Apple released their app store in 2008 which made it easy and convenient for users to install third party software.  Android replicated this in their Marketplace just in time for Halloween 2008.  By 2009 Microsoft had announced its app store, the Windows Marketplace, and Palm announced and released its Pre before summer 2009 with its own store as well. Apple creates a stir by championing stories of developers making money hand over fist in their market which has in the time since created a virtual gold rush for mobile app developers.  The virtuous cycle of consumer and producer is complete and by early 2010 there are real markets with tens of thousands of applications in them available at the fingertips tens of millions of mainstream consumers for purchase. Even more interestingly, the tools for creating these apps have evolved over time to bring development to the masses and the hardware that developers are targeting have modern sensors in them (gyroscopes, compasses, GPS, ambient light, etc) making for interesting ways these devices can be interacted with. At the end of last year, linguists chose the word "app" as the word of the year because of it's dominance in culture and media (marketing).


Smartphones Now: Magic devices that are impossibly handy

I'll try and summarize the generations of smart devices that have built up to where we are:

  • Small devices that are a lot like computers
  • Small devices that are a lot like computers, that are also phones
  • Phone-like computing devices that do something (single task) really well and make them more appealing to some than just a phone would be
  • Phone-like computing devices that are very enticing to many, do many tasks very well, and that can easily be extended in functionality

These phones, the ones that already do many things well and also have extensible functionality that doesn't require a computer and that are highly personal are the true smartphones. These can finally function as the "one device" that you bring around that does everything that your portable devices did before (your music player, phone, camera, and note-taker), can interact with other devices, and they have the special ability to do whatever the developers can come up with based on their extensible capabillties.  At this point, the following things became real for the first time in mainstream tech:

  • Augmented Reality
  • Video Calling
  • Live translation to/from phones of text, video, and audio

We've come a long way and it's taken a lot of generations of devices and technology to reach here, but it has happened in a very short period of time. That said, the tranformational forces of smartphones and smart devices will continue to evolve rapidly and will go through significant jumps in the coming years where the capabilities of these devices eclipse the limitations for what we can do with them.  Manufacturers at CES this year demonstrated netbook-like performance from smartphones, even smartphones that dock to screens and keyboards and function as netbooks.



Smartphones Next:  What happens now that phones are here to stay and are a growing market?

I had another "wow" moment when listening to subscription music on my way to go for a run I thought I'd check the app store for running apps. I ended up installing a workout tracking app. While on my run (at night) it got too dark so I used the flashlight feature of my phone to see.  After the run, the workout tracker had recorded varying aspects of my workout over time such as average running speed, elevation, pace, and so on. After my run I took a picture of myself to motivate me to lose weight. I did this all for free with a single device that cost me about the same as a mid-range media player did when I started working at Microsoft.  That's a big change.  Which makes me believe that there can be other big changes as a result of it.


For example, more elaborate sensors could be placed into phones or accessories such as the heart rate monitors you see on running machines and you could be able to track even more aspects of your workout. Tracking all those variables of workouts could bring world-class training and analysis to the masses, maybe even virtual coaches that analyze the variables of your workout and give you a hard time for slacking off.  If you're keeping / saving this data, how do you secure your data, what do you do with all this data, how do you manage it over time, and can you make smart decisions based on it?  Those tools (instrumentation, data collection, data analysys) will be an important part of what's next and I'm a huge fan of the scaffolding that Microsoft has for building those tools.


Anyways, at this point I'm definitely ranting.  The new smartphones are very different from what was originally considered a smartphone and it's a pretty big deal.  Perhaps this is me trying to give myself a wakeup call about this.


See Also