Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I don't have a smartphone, I have ...

Those of us who haven't quite gotten with the smartphone wave are stuck using, you know, older cellphones. While everyone we know goes on at tedious length about their iPhone or Android or Windows 7 phone and all the many apps that they play with, we have ... that other kind of cellphone. What kind is that, exactly? Not a dumbphone, except in jest. (Or exasperation.) Do you know?

There is a formal term, actually: it's a feature phone. (2.6 MM hits on Google.)

There are some interesting things here. One is that this is a kind of retronym; the term feature phone is defined primarily by what it's not. What it's not, however, has changed a bit. If Wikipedia is to be believed, a feature phone was originally a phone that had more features than the original set of monochrome, just-talk cellphones. (Cite.) However, these days, since those old-skool phones are pretty much gone, a feature phone is a phone that has fewer features than its successor, namely a smartphone. Or both at once -- this article describes it this way:
Feature phones, [which] are dumb phones that have elements (but not the full connectivity) of smartphones.
And here's another wrinkle: the term smartphone itself has had something of a movable definition. Or even a circular one. Here's Wikipedia:
A smartphone is a mobile phone that offers more advanced computing ability and connectivity than a contemporary feature phone.
The article goes on to describe the first smartphone (1992) as having many of the features that people would probably consider smartphone-ish:
[...] it also contained a calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, notepad, e-mail, send and receive fax, and games. It had no physical buttons to dial with. Instead customers used a touchscreen to select telephone numbers with a finger or create facsimiles and memos with an optional stylus. Text was entered with a unique on-screen "predictive" keyboard. By today's standards, the Simon would be a fairly low-end product, lacking for example the camera now considered usual.
1992? Impressive.

Note that this implicitly says that smartphones today include cameras, i.e., part of the definition (necessary but not sufficient) is that there's a camera. It don't do the trick if it ain't got that click.

But the term smartphone itself is even older than that. Paul McFedries finds a cite that goes back to 1984, where of course it meant something a bit different:
Part of the transparent keyboard facility is the ability to deal with the telephone through the "smartphone" option, which makes it possible to answer the phone (using a headset) with the computer.
Not today's definition, I think we can agree. It's tempting to say that smartphone simply means "whatever the newest state of phone technology is," but that isn't supported by actual usage citations. Still, it does lead a body to speculate what we'll call the next generation of phones, which will have the ability to ... golly, what? I can't even imagine. But it's a sure thing that the current generation of iPhones et al. will someday seem quaintly primitive. At that point, it's hard to imagine that we'll still be calling them smartphones. Or what we'll call the new ones.


Paul_Sch said...

Retronyms fascinate me. Not surprisingly, the speed of their appearance probably matches the rate of technological innovation, which explains their proliferation since the Industrial Revolution (and especially since WWII): Renewable energy, conventional weapons, Black-and-white TV, Rotary phone, (wet-)film camera, even ... tap water? But some developments are ancient; I wonder how long ago their retronyms appeared -- I guess we might never know in cases where the innovation preceded writing: wild animals, whole grains.

WordzGuy said...

@Paul -- I was recently reading Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God," and he points out that in (e.g.) animistic cultures, there is no word for religion as we understand the term, because there is no distinction between religion and, you know, the world. Talk about yer retronyms. :-)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post - thanks!

I seriously, not only in jest, refer to my dumb phone as a dumb phone.

Some day it would be fun to have a smart phone, but right now, I'm too cheap - being of on or those generations that still does (gasp!) my surfing online from an actual 'puter!!!