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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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About

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...

21 comments
Alistair at The Resourcebox
Alistair at The Resourcebox

Its your telco gouging you there. I can get a perfectly good smartphone free on an 18 month contract at about ??15 per month with inclusive texts, minutes and data from any high street retailer here. My wife just got a Blackberry Curve on 24 month for ??7.99 a month: calls, texts and data inclusive.

Alistair at The Resourcebox
Alistair at The Resourcebox

The issues with usability are the keyboard and screen - same with a desktop or laptop - these are what the users will find cause RSI or other issues with usability. Sure apps and websites which try to mirror exactly what a 19" monitor can show are failing. You have to customise what you are doing to meet the demands of the technology as much as the user requirement. You can attach a screen, mouse and keyboard to a smartphone, sure, but that won't be any use to me when I'm sitting in a car park or in a cafe or on the train or bus or whatever. The joy of the smartphone is I can whip it out and see what email is coming in, prune that which is junk, forward that which someone else needs to deal with and have a think about the rest until I can get to a proper PC to write out the response needed and attach the files that I need to, etc. I don't think anyone seriously expects anyone to use a smartphone as a replacement for a PC and the technophobic types who argue against smartphones always come at it from this position.

nepper
nepper

Back in the day, I had a Palm Pilot and a Motorola Startac phone, e.g. technology in both pockets. I then got a Kyocera with a touch screen and Palm OS, and have never looked back. Complexity can be handled with a good user interface. The biggest issue today, arguably, is battery life, perhaps the hot battery swap is the way to go? My old Startac came with an extra battery - if you could do the swap in under three (?) seconds, you could do it without dropping your call! My soon to be replaced HTC Touch with Windows Mobile is painful to use for all but short emails, but it sure goes into my pocket nicely. What is the right size for a screen? I think the 4.3 inch screens are pushing it.

kschlotthauer
kschlotthauer

I personally think that the Moto ATRIX is the wave of the future. Not that I have one or want one, but I think you will see more and more smartphones that can dock to a computer station with duel monitors and an HDD to store files. You can already get 125GB+ flash memmory (netbook), who's not to say that within in a few years you will be able to get that much on a smartphone. For the time being, I am happy with my new Thunderbolt.....just wish Verizon could get the 4G back up and running!.

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

I'm more concerned with smart phones that store too much information about me. I would want more control over that information. I would also want some strong file encryption.

dogknees
dogknees

People learn the basic lesson. If you want to make effective use of a product, you need to invest time and effort learning how. This has always been the case, and I see no reason to change it. If you can't be bothered making the effort, you accept that you won't be able to use it effectively.

dhays
dhays

If you are going to "dumb down the phone", why check your email on a small screen? Use the larger Tablet screen. My wife prefers a phone that is mostly a phone, she doesn't text, or anything else--just uses her phone for what it is--a phone--a way to communicate with another person, personally. Text messages are not personal, neither are emails. In the comment by Jaqui--she shows she ain't too smart neither. the words are too, and you're not to, and your. Maybe we need to drop all but a simple phone to make calls with and do all of the other stuff some other time, where we can take time to learn to spell and use words correctly. There is no excuse for not using words correctly. Too many use /your/ for /you're/ and /to/ for /too/, who knows, maybe even for /two/. If you didn't learn in school, maybe you were sleeping, or didn't try.

rhmccool
rhmccool

There are more than three options. Along with "smartphone that does everything," "basic phone with a tablet," or "tablet that does everything," there's also "smartphone that does everything PLUS a tablet." That, to me, is the best of both worlds... you can maintain all key functions in a very portable device, but also take advantage of the larger screen size and (usually) greater processor power of a tablet when it's convenient. RIM has started down that road with their Playbook tablet, which links fairly easily to BlackBerry smartphones and can obtain basic connectivity without the need to pay for a separate data plan for the tablet. The concept is great, and I think RIM will eventually get it working smoothly and have a great device, but at the moment the Playbook's software is still not quite ready for prime time. Hopefully Google will follow suit soon and build tablet-to-phone linking functionality into Android. Being able to use either, or both together in a linked system, would be ideal.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

I really think "smart phone" is a misnomer; these things are much more than phones. We have desktop PCs, laptop PCs, so why not belt-clip computers? They are small computers with a phone app built into them. Semantics aside, we should really change our basic philosophy regarding these devices. They should be treated the way we treat other computers. Don't tie them to a single ISP, don't tie them to a single OS, don't restrict the user's ability to add or delete apps. The idea that I have to buy a whole new machine just to switch from Sprint to AT&T really frosts me. With my home PC, if I get tired of Comcast, I can change to another ISP any time I want. I should have the same freedom with my belt-clip computer. As for being too complex, that's a matter of taste. A user should be able to get what he/she wants, from a basic phone that does nothing but make phone calls to one that will cook dinner and walk the dog -- and choose which apps are to be installed. I find it convenient to be able to pull up a dictionary to settle an argument with a friend, or to play a game of Sudoku or read a book while waiting at the doctor's office, but I know not everyone feels the same. There's room for customization to individual tastes, so let's concentrate on making it easier to build the machine you want.

Jaqui
Jaqui

the users are getting more stupid from brain rot. no thinking is turning idiot phone users into idiots. [ it can't really be smart to carry a device with that many distractions when your driving, so IDIOT phones not smart phones ]

vegesm
vegesm

I see that being 'too smart' is shown at battery life. I have to charge my old Nokia phone only once in a two weeks. But a current smartphone with a large screen has a battery life of 2-3 days and only with not using its 'smart' features! Using more and more features will decrease the battery life quickly

Bolaris
Bolaris

Simply put, all technology advances, whether it be mechanics, medical or electronics. There isn't really any point in starting up a debate as to whether it's necessary to create a complex device because as a technology becomes more advanced it is inherently "able" to take care of multiple tasks. Now this ability will slowly get better and quicker and simpler to use. Press the phone icon, press the email icon, press the games icon, blah blah you know the drill.

adimauro
adimauro

They are too smart only for the phone companies, who make a ton of money off of these over-priced, badly-functioning devices. They make it seem like a 'great deal', only $200-300 with a 2-year contract! Woo hoo! $200 + $60 (minimum) per month contract + $30 per month for data (required) = a minimum of $2360! Can you imagine the computer power you can get for that price? It's a total rip-off. And yet, as a programmer, if I don't soon learn how to program for these tiny wastes of time and money, I'll probably have a tough time finding work, as people everywhere are falling for this gimmick.

captainpj
captainpj

We all know that an all in 1 device won't happen as the phone/internet providers would lose 1/4-1/2 their service contracts. It's too much to expect that customer needs or wants be considered more important than profits! Me I'd love to have only 1 device that does it all weather it be a tablet or a smartphone. Right now the phone comes closest but as my eyesight get worse with age an all in 1 tablet becomes more apealing.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

As those using smartphones for everything age, their vision will naturally deteriorate. As the data on the baby screen becomes harder and harder to read, they will move away from the all-in-one devices and small screens to larger displays such as netbooks and laptops.

jdev1
jdev1

It is my current opinion that we are being suckered to buy wave after wave of out of date IT products be it iPhone, Android etc. What customers need is common sense rock solid products with stable applications and not trivial gimmicks

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I have always thought that a phone is for phone calls. Silly me. I maintain that if you play games and listen to music on your phone all day it could lead to you missing that crucial call when your battery dies. Even the Doc on Star Trek kept his medical PDA seperate from his communicator.

dhays
dhays

While we are at it, make them read .pdf files for those that have books or magazines in that format. Or at least make your tablet do so. The little screen makes it hard to get much read on a phone. I have years of technical magazines in .pdf format and some Doc Savage books, that I can't look at on my phone. (Would need a larger memory card, too, but put them on it and plug it in to the phone.)

nwallette
nwallette

The price of my PC didn't include the fees I pay my Internet Service Provider to get it online. So really, my PC was quite a bit more expensive than my phone. Also, you can buy "just a smartphone" without having a service plan. It's called an iPod Touch. :-) Anyway, I don't have a real problem with the contract thing. I haven't changed providers since high school. (Well, technically I did, when the national provider dropped out of Alaska, then later bought that same network back from Cellular One. But I had the same contract during that whole fiasco anyway.) Compared to that, 2 years in exchange for a couple hundred bucks off the hardware is no big deal. I didn't intend to use it without a service plan anyway, and if I had, I could buy my way out of the contract for about the same cost as the subsidy.

JJFitz
JJFitz

Yes, $2360 could buy you a very nice computer but can you put it in your pocket? Can you carry it around all day? - not exactly the same functionality. I am just hoping that people will do the numbers like you have and look for the no contract plans. It would be great if they became more competitive. I am paying more per month for my family plan than I did for my monthly payments on my first car loan in 1983!

kschlotthauer
kschlotthauer

I don't know what smartphone you are using, I am using the Thunderebolt (previous was the Moto Droid) and I have my RESUME on my phone in Word and a PDF file and can read both of them (zooming in of course) without any issues.