Are smartphones getting a little too smart?

As smartphones get more functionality, the devices also become more complex, leading to some negative consequences. Deb Shinder explores this complexity conundrum and discusses two possible solutions.

If you compare today's cell phones (even the less expensive feature phones that are only considered "semi-smart") to the first smartphones, you'll be amazed at how far the technology has come in such a short time.

A very brief history of smartphones

The earliest smartphones were introduced in the early 1990s. This included IBM's Simon and Nokia's Communicator series. The Nokia models were sophisticated, but expensive compared to other brands.

The first touchscreen smartphone to run the Symbian operating system was released in 2000 by Ericsson. The Ericsson R380's screen was monochrome, and it had no speaker, headphone jack, expansion card slot, Bluetooth, camera, or GPS. It did support email and SMS and included organizer, voice, memo, and calculator software. You couldn't install your own apps.

Next came the Palm phones, which added voice calling to Palm's popular PDA, the PalmPilot. RIM came out with the BlackBerry in 2002, and it gained a large customer base, especially among business users. Pocket PC phones evolved from its Windows CE-based PDAs, such as the iPAQ. Windows mobile devices were very much like tiny Windows PCs, but the stylus-centric design made them less user friendly than many people liked.

It was the release of the iPhone in 2007 that really brought smartphones into the mainstream. Android, released the next year, has slowly made inroads to become the overall number one smartphone OS in the United States, but the competition is heavy, with new players such as a completely revamped Windows phone operating system (Windows Phone 7) and HP's webOS, acquired from Palm.

The complexity conundrum

With all of this innovation, each generation of smartphone must do more than the one before — users expect new features and capabilities if they're going to spend money to upgrade to the latest version. However, the added functionality means added complexity, as well. Some of the negative consequences include: user frustration, slowdowns in performance, and security vulnerabilities. Let's take a closer look at each of these consequences, and examine how they impact today's smartphones.

Frustrated users

One of the biggest complaints about the Windows Mobile operating system was that it was too complicated and difficult to use. Even though the interface was very similar to that of the Windows desktop PCs with which most people were familiar, navigating the tiny screen via crowded menus and toolbars just didn't work well. The simplicity of the iPhone's interface has often been credited with its overwhelming success.

Nonetheless, many former iPhone users (along with former Windows Mobile users) have flocked to Android, which offers more options and more ways of doing things. Simplicity necessarily limits functionality to some degree. As Apple scrambles to add new features in order to capture back some of that market, its phones will inevitably slowly become a little more complex, too.

Users really want to have their cake (i.e., a drop-dead simple user interface that's so intuitive a five-year-old can navigate it without instructions) and be able to eat up all the same functions they get with a full-fledged computer, such as the ability to add storage space, view Flash video, and change out their batteries. It's a difficult balance to strike.

Performance issues

Complexity can also lead to performance issues. For instance, the first iPhones didn't support multitasking for third-party apps. Apple finally added it in iOS 4.0, but many developers have noted that it's not true 100% multitasking; that is, all system resources aren't available to all apps. Some apps can run as background services; some are only paused and then resumed.

Android phones likewise suspend apps that aren't visible to the user, or run a service for background processing. Apple restricts the use of background services that use the network, GPS, and other phone-related resources, in order to conserve battery life. Android doesn't have this restriction — but as a result, apps that use those power-intensive types of resources can run down the battery quickly. The limited memory on smartphones (and the lack of virtual memory in the form of a swap file) leads to performance problems if too many programs are running at once, unless a "kill switch" is implemented to shut down apps that use too much memory. Blogger David Quintana explains the differences between the two types of multitasking.

Security vulnerabilities

As a system becomes more complex, the potential entry points for breach of security increase. A fortress is easier to protect because it's simpler: it has no windows, few doors, no skylights, or vent systems through which an intruder might sneak. A building with complexities of design and function is more difficult to secure because there are many more potential entryways. Software is the same: complex code creates more opportunities for hackers and attackers.

What's the solution?

For the past 15 years or more, we've seen phones become more and more complex, until we can now use them to view and send email, view and compose documents and spreadsheets, take and edit photos, track all sorts of information, read books, scan barcodes, and even pay our bills at points of sale via near field communications.

We've also recently seen the rise of a new form factor that fills the gap between laptop and smartphone: the slate-style tablet. It started with the iPad, which sold like hotcakes to consumers and has even started making some inroads into the business world. Now other vendors are coming out with tablets, many of which are designed with the enterprise in mind, in a variety of sizes and running different operating systems. The tablets range from the 5 inch Dell Streak running Android to the 12 inch Asus Eee Slate running Windows 7.

The larger displays and more roomy virtual keyboards on tablets make them more suitable for some of the tasks for which we've been using our smartphones. With the smaller and lighter tablets little is sacrificed in terms of portability. Many early adopters of the smaller tablets are carrying them almost everywhere, since they'll fit into a large jacket pocket or a very small bag. In fact, according to many fellow Galaxy Tab enthusiasts I've heard from, the 7 inch size of the Tab — even more than the expandability and openness advantages of the Android OS in comparison to the iOS — was a primary factor in their decision to choose the Tab over the iPad.

If more people carry tablets along with their phones on a daily basis, this could lead to a reversal in the trend of increased complexity in phones. Tablets could take over the more complex tasks, such as composing documents, browsing the web, and viewing or presenting multimedia. Phones could return to more basic functionality, such as talking, texting, and reading email.

Having one device try to do it all is an attractive idea, but it often doesn't work out as well in practice as it sounds in theory — as many owners of all-in-one multi-function printer/copier/scanner/fax machines can attest. The products work, but they generally don't do any of those tasks quite as well as separate, dedicated devices. As more tablet models become available and prices come down, many people are likely to opt for a simpler phone plus a tablet, instead of looking for more and more features in their next phones.

There's also another direction this could go, with smartphones morphing into tablets. Recent "big screen" phone models such as the Droid X and the HTC EVO have proven very popular, and many customers have complained that the Tab and other tablets don't have voice calling capabilities in the United States.

For those who want a single-device-for-everything solution, there's no technological reason that couldn't be a tablet-sized phone. Sure, a 7 inch device might be awkward to speak into, but many of us already use Bluetooth headsets for most of our calling now, rather than holding the phone up to our faces.

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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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