I’ll explain the ‘’-’’ in a moment. Today’s piece is about the power of words to shape thought, to distort, to mislead. More specifically, I contend “smartphone” is the wrong word for the new genre of mobile devices.

I’m not completely naïve, however. In the end, I’ll agree there is little chance we’ll settle on another word.

Once upon a time, philosophers held thought preceded words: you thought of something and then struggled to find the right words for that gem. Later, psychologists of the twentieth century persuasion, came to think, no, to say words preceded thought: one could only think of thoughts for which they already possessed words for. As much as I like our dear Lacanians, some of whom hover around the Valley, the word ineffable leaves them… speechless.

Devoid of a clean theory, we can wallow in examples.

The most visible one is the PC, the personal computer. Derivative thought first gave us “microcomputers”, because they were “like” minicomputers, themselves “like” the only serious computers, mainframes — only smaller. Next, because size matters, we’d get nano computers, pico computers, femto computers…

Fortunately, the gestalt, the user experience won: This is my computer, as opposed to the institution’s. The beginnings weren’t always easy: I recall a book called “You bought a personal what?”, published in the late seventies. I also remember our collective indignation at Apple when, in 1981, IBM boldly misappropriated the concept and introduced The Personal Computer and proceeded to win the market, that is until Microsoft gave it to the clones. The P word worked and won.

Decades ago, Motorola was the king of cell phones. Cell was a good word because it pointed to the amazingly powerful innovation of cellular telephony. Previously, mobile phones called a radio station and kept using the same frequency as the user moved around. This severely limited the number of users and forced mobile phones to have powerful radios to stay connected over long distances. With cellular telephony, frequencies  were reusable as users were magically handed over from one lower-powered radio station to another as they drove around, leaving the frequency behind, ready for another user.

The Motorola name came to be associated with radios of all kinds, from cars to the Moon. I recall Motorola execs calling their successfully miniaturized cell phones of the late eighties “little radios”. They were rightly proud of their technical prowess, I owned several StarTacs and MicroTacs. But when cell phones gained PDA features, Motorola’s clock got cleaned by the likes of RIM (Blackberry) and Palm (Treo). For a long while, Motorola’s culture remained backward-focused on the phone part of the customer experience. The new phone boss, Sanjay Jha, is now an Android convert: a couple of impressive Droid devices have put Motorola back in the race.

I recently spoke with carrier executives. One individual used the word “terminal” to designated their customers’ handsets. A revealing choice of words. Customers, on their side, think of themselves as being at the center of the world and of connecting their devices to an almost infinite number of sources of information, entertainment, social connections, email, navigation… With a mindset like this, no wonder Google wants to disintermediate carriers and turn them into bit pipes. True, cellular networks are technical wonders, complex, delicate and, because of the explosive growth in data usage, overtaxed. But imagine BMW executives calling their cars rolling computer networks. True, modern cars are stuffed with dozens of computers, some producing amazing feats of engine management. The Ultimate Driving Machine slogan or, more recently, the Joy campaign better relate to what their customers really look for.

One way to think of what besets Nokia is they still are the king of phones. The game changed under them. This isn’t about phones anymore, it’s about a new, different as opposed to “like”, generation of personal computing. How do we otherwise explain Apple’s success in spite of its “phone” problem, whether related to AT&T’s network or to antenna design, or to signal strength indication software? I know, it’s called iPhone. And, when the iPad came out, the joke went you couldn’t make calls with the iPad either… But Apple recently moved away from the iPhone OS designation to the better iOS moniker.

We’ve seen what happened to Windows Mobile, bad focus, the spastic clinging to the Windows franchise. Or to Mobile Linux, a.k.a Moblin, Maemo, Meego. Who cares about “Linux Inside”? Customers, apps developers or corpocrats?

That’s why I feel the -phone suffix can lead to focusing thoughts, feelings, desires onto the wrong target. Like gazing at the lace curtain’s beautiful patterns instead of ogling the good-looking humans animating the street.

This said, what are the chances we’ll abandon “smartphones” for something like RPC (Really Personal Computers) or MID (Mobile Internet Devices) covering what we call today smartphones and tablets?

None, zero. Usage wins. We got used to Apple or Google, because success pumped  meaning into the words.


[More fun with smartphones: Brian S. Hall blog, The Smartphone Wars. Not the most politically correct collection of posts, always opinionated, very often insightful.]