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Tech Report – What makes a Smartphone smart?

By Michael Connolly

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between an ordinary cell phone and a smartphone?

Just a couple of years ago, that might have been easy to answer. Evolving from personal dgital assistants (PDAs) and led by BlackBerry and Palm, a class of super cell phones emerged, allowing power users and business people to stay constantly connected via phone, e-mail and the web.

Nowadays, it's not so easy to make that distinction. As smartphones have become smarter, so have regular cell phones. Dozens of devices now allow users to send and receive rudimentary e-mails without gaining the prized classification of a smartphone.

So what are the major differences? And what are the features that make today's smartphones so smart?

Operating system
Smartphones generally run an operating system that allows users to choose from and switch between various applications, much like a computer. While some operating systems are designed to work exclusively with a single brand, like the iPhone OS, or the Blackberry OS, other operating systems, like Windows Mobile or Google's Android, work with a number of different manufacturers and carriers.

High-speed web access
Although many regular cell phones can now access the web, the speed at which smartphones can connect is increasingly becoming a distinguishing feature. All the major carriers have now deployed what they call 3G networks – third generation broadband networks offering high-speed connectivity and data transfer. However, not all the networks are created equal.  However good the hardware might be, the smartphone user is at the mercy of the carrier's network when it comes to speed and quality of web access. Although the iPhone is widely regarded as one of the premier smartphones on the market, its performance is sometimes vulnerable because of its exclusive deal with AT&T and limitations in the carrier's network coverage.

Because of the huge success of Apple's App Store, the number and variety of applications that are available have suddenly become important measures of a phone's "smartness". Can you play games? Can you watch video? Can you use it as a GPS device? A music player? The ability to provide built-in and third-party applications will increasingly dictate which manufacturers and developers have the staying power for the ultra competitive smartphone race.

If a phone is going to pretend to be a computer, it better act like one and that means a regular phone keypad is no longer going to cut it. Smartphones feature keyboards, touch screens and anything else that will help users navigate the multitude of software options. No one standard for smartphones has yet emerged, with BlackBerry users swearing by their QWERTY keyboards and iPhone devotees happy to thumb away at a touch screen.

If smartphones are to successfully imitate mobile computing, then they need to synchronize seamlessly with a user's laptop, desktop and other electronic devices. The ability to sync with other communication, entertainment and productivity platforms is perhaps the ultimate distinguishing feature of a smartphone – and what makes it so desirable for the always on-the-go customer.      

Comment by Jill Steinberg, posted 12/28/2009, 1:46 PM:

Great summation of a topic that has never really been defined clearly. I love my Smart Phone (iPhone). I am also very curious to learn more about the differences between the iphone and the new Google Droid, Blackberry and Palm devices that are being so heavily advertised this holiday season. Thanks!
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