What is a smartphone? The answer is not so simple, judging by the number of definitions available. In fact, it can be a bit of a mystery.
All the popular definitions rely on the fundamental understanding that a smartphone brings together a computer with a wireless voice device. Everyone agrees on that.
But there are many nuances that separate a smartphone from a standard wireless phone, which also can incorporate some kind of a computer with wireless voice capability.
Mobile industry analysts use these subtle distinctions to determine how to count smartphones separately from other wireless phones. For example, they are able to say that a wireless phone, such as the LG Rumor2, which goes on sale by Sprint Nextel Corp. on Sunday, is technically not a smartphone, although it provides access to e-mail, Internet browsing and a Qwerty keyboard.
The iPhone, just about any BlackBerry, and Nokia N or E series devices are considered smartphones, at least according to Gartner Inc. and IDC, the biggest market research firms monitoring wireless phone and smartphone shipments.
The CTIA, an industry association representing hundreds of wireless device makers and wireless carriers, uses a simple approach (possibly the simplest) in its glossary. It defines smartphones as “wireless phones with advanced data features and often keyboards.” It adds, “What makes the phone 'smart' is its ability to manage and transmit data in addition to voice calls.”
However, a CTIA spokeswoman said there is apparently no industrywide standard definition for a smartphone and that the CTIA's glossary definition is “general.”
Four industry analysts interviewed for this story said the word smartphone is indeed a term of art, subject to the many changes that have been made in wireless handhelds since 2000, when Palm Inc. started adding voice capabilities to its personal digital assistants.
“Smartphone is one of those terms of art that gets bantered about so often,” said Ramon Llamas, an IDC analyst.
IDC conducted a survey of consumers last summer and discovered many different interpretations. For some people, a smartphone has to be able to access the Internet wirelessly, while others think it has to handle text messaging or allow typing on a touch screen or actual keyboard, Llamas said.
“When you talk to the folks on Mainstreet U.S.A., it's a real can of worms,” he said. “There is still a lot of confusion as to what counts as a smartphone.”
IDC first coined the term converged mobile device in 2002 to avoid using the term smartphone, which Microsoft Corp. was using to describe enterprise-focused wireless handhelds, Llamas said. The definition IDC developed has gone through several updates since then, with a key change in 2006 that added the requirement that a converged mobile device include a “high-level operating system.”
Today's definition from IDC for a converged mobile device, which is IDC's equivalent to smartphone in IDC press releases on phone shipments, reads, “A subset of mobile phones, converged mobile devices feature a high-level operating system that enables the device to run third-party applications in addition to voice telephony. Examples of high-level operating systems include Android, BlackBerry, Linux, Mac OS X, Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile. Converged mobile devices share many features with traditional mobile phones, including personal information management, multimedia, games, and office applications, but the presence of a high-level operating system differentiates these devices from all others.”
Llamas said the definition of “high-level OS” has three parts. “High level is the linchpin of the definition,” Llamas said.
A high-level OS, as IDC defines it, means that the OS has to be able to run third-party applications, not just those written by the OS maker; the applications must be able to run on the phone independent of the wireless network; and the OS must be able to run multiple applications concurrently.
By comparison, Gartner Inc. uses a written definition for both entry-level and feature smartphones, with a similar mention of a more powerful OS as an important distinction. Gartner says an entry-level smartphone must run on an open operating system, while the feature smartphone adds support for one or more functions, such as music, video, gaming, pictures, Internet browsing, mobile TV, navigation and messaging. They usually have “larger displays, more powerful processors, more embedded memory and better battery capacity.”
Gartner also says the feature smartphones can have a touch screen or a full Qwerty keyboard, but neither one of those is a requirement.
Both IDC and Gartner analysts agreed that the LG Rumor2 is not a smartphone.
Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst, said the Rumor2 is “probably not” a smartphone because it doesn't have a “market recognized” operating system or published APIs.
And Llamas said that while the LG Rumor's operating system is “a well-developed proprietary OS,” it still isn't a “high-level” OS in IDC's parlance.
Ryan Reith, also an IDC analyst, said the Rumor2 isn't a smartphone because it doesn't support third-party applications. “There's no real opportunity to get to the core of that Rumor OS and allow consumers to use third-party applications of their choice,” Reith said.
Reith noted that another defining characteristic of smartphones is that they are beginning to include an applications processor, a piece of hardware that allows the smartphone to run multiple applications at one time.
Even the device maker, LG Electronics, and the carrier, Sprint Nextel, aren't calling the Rumor2 a smartphone, but their reasons don't follow the same lines as the analysts.
A Sprint spokeswoman said the Rumor2 might seem to qualify as a smartphone but that Sprint has avoided using the term “just because there's not a good definition of smartphone” that is widely agreed upon.
An LG spokeswoman came up with a fairly specific reason why the Rumor2 is not a smartphone. In an e-mail, she wrote, “This particular device [the Rumor2] is not considered a smartphone. There is not a true definition of a smartphone, but it is generally accepted that a 'smartphone' is one that can sync more than one email account (Webmail, Gmail, etc.) onto your phone. This phone, while it does have Internet access, does not sync email onto the desktop.”
Reith said LG's reasoning supports IDC's finding that the Rumor2 doesn't have a high-level OS in the sense that its OS does not allow applications to run entirely on the phone separate from the network. Sprint notes in its specifications sheet for the Rumor2 that access to Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes comes through Sprint's Mobile Email Work.
With the addition of software, Sprint could have changed that capability but chose not to, Reith noted.
In summary, just about everyone agrees that there is no precise, standard definition of the smartphone. Llamas said IDC's take has been criticized and praised alike from many parties.
Even though there are disparities in some definitions, analysts tend to report roughly the same numbers for shipments of smartphones, Reith said. Part of the reason is that analysts pay attention to one another's numbers and to what the vendors call a smartphone, Reith and Llamas said.
Reith said he couldn't think of a single device categorized by IDC as a smartphone to which Gartner or other major analyst firms wouldn't agree.
Still, the analysts acknowledged that the question of what a smartphone is can be confusing and even mysterious for the public. One analyst said that the CTIA's definition “probably needs to be updated,” but Llamas said picking a proper definition can be a delicate matter.
“I'll respect others' definitions, and I'll stick with mine,” Llamas said, laughing. “I'm being diplomatic.”