Thursday, June 28, 2012

iFive - What makes a smartphone 'smart'?

The iPhone turns 5 today, but then, you probably already know that if you own a 'smart' phone.

On my previous sabbatical, I did more flying than this time and in a much shorter time span, i.e., 6 or 8 weeks compared to 6 months. I flew from Auckland to Sao Paulo via LA, then Brazil to Fairbanks, AK via Washington DC, then across the US with stops in Seattle, Champaign-Urbana, Ithaca, NYC and on to Berlin and Perth on my way around the globe. Incidentally, it was in Perth, Australia in 2005 that I came up with the term 'requisite connectivity.'

I travelled alone that trip and recall packing my trusty BlackBerry (the classic one), a Nokia 'candy bar' style mobile phone for voice calls and SMS messaging (data plans in New Zealand punish you for making voice calls), an iPod, and an analogue camera.  I loved and needed all this stuff and happily carried it along with me -- all that connectivity required a lot of devices.

Of course, that was before the iPhone appeared in 2007, changing the way we think about and use mobile connective technologies.  Though technically BlackBerrys and Palm Pilots were 'smartphones,' the revolution in mobile technology really took off with the introduction of Apple's iPhone.

This is not a technology blog, so I won't go on about the techno-features of the iPhone.  Rather, I am thinking about what makes a smartphone 'smart?'  For me, it is not that the phone is so smart, but rather that it makes me--the user--feel smart, or at least not dumb!

All too often, electronic consumer goods (still) confront us with unintelligible jargon and complicated menus.  By contrast, the arrival of the iOS (Apple's mobile operating system) put our primate opposable thumbs to work, not just typing, but pinching screens, along with poking and swiping things in and out of view.

'Apps' actually behave like agents for us, dashing off into the Internet like a Golden Lab eager to please and happily fetching just what we wanted to know... a weather forecast, an exchange rate, a cafe nearby, a local map, etc.  How clever we feel when our dog grabs the information frisbee in mid-air.  It is the smartphone's ability to please us while making us feel like we did it ourselves that make it so indispensable and so endearing to us, like a dog at our feet, always ready to please.

The problem with smartphones is that they make other technologies look 'dumb' by comparison.  Maybe it's just me, but I look at TVs now and no longer feel it is me who is at fault for their inability to deliver.  I am embarrassed for their thickheadedness, not mine.  Apps have made their namesake, 'applications,' look Baroque.  Where our impatience with the old and fascination/liberation with the new will lead us is hard to say.

Below are a few visions of the future of 'smart,' seamless computing.  Of course, these visions have been around for a while and we all know that infrastructure (e.g., bandwidth) is the big disconnect that still looms large over our technological future.  The other question that comes to mind is how will we disconnect from technologies that increasingly wrap themselves around us?  As discussed in previous posts, sometimes 'smart' must be replaced with 'wise.'

Google glasses (highly-integrated, personal, unobtrusive connectivity in action)

Microsoft's vision (highly-integrated intersection of personal-professional-family)

Corning's vision (very 'sociomaterial,' but which came first, Microsoft's or Corning's vision of basically the same thing)

i2050 (spoof of iPhone phenomenon)


PS. Thanks to Christoph for the Google glasses clip.

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