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April 27th 2012 12:05 pm

Has the term "Smart Phone" run its course?

No one would question that smart phones have become ubiquitous in the modern age. People who barely understand how Microsoft Word works have fairly high-tech devices in their pockets, and while not everyone who owns a smart phone uses it to its full potential, they still use it. But what do they use it for?

Take a look around a restaurant or a store, and you will see a significant percentage of the people there with their eyes glued to their phones. Are they dialing a number or checking their contact list? Are they changing their ringtone or their background? Chances are, they're not. Applications like Instagram and Pinterest seem to dominate most users' smart phone usage, while others are likely to be playing games like Draw Something or Words With Friends.

In fact, the phone part of most smart phones seems to have taken a back seat to other apps centered around entertainment and social networking. And this is not a bad thing. Still, etymologically speaking, an interesting question has been formed: Is the term "smart phone" still an accurate description of these devices? Certainly the term worked when they first debuted, because they were simply phones with some added features. But as the technology progressed, these products became more "smart" and much less "phone." Other products with similar functionality (tablets,etc.) do not have such categorizing names, and therefore avoid this troublesome linguistic question.

So, what do you all think? Is the term "smart phone" outdated? And, if so, what should these devices be called? Are they nothing more than remakes of the old personal digital assistants (PDA's), or have they gone even beyond that? Perhaps a new product category is needed...

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5 replies

You have some good points on the "phone" portion being more and more redundant but a smart phone is still primarily a communications device. Whether it's Instagram, Facebook, or a multiplayer game, smart phones are still used to communicate ideas to other people. The main change is going from voice based communication to hipsterized pictures or wall posts.

Instead of taking "phone" out of smart phone, I think it'll be more accurate to redefine "phone" to include any device that's primary task is to communicate. After all, even dumb phones and feature phones are being used less and less as phones in the traditional sense. Most people I know, apart from HR folks, almost text exclusively.
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I don't think we can abandon it yet. I think us smartphone users forget that we're only half of the US market and much less of the global market. Feature phones (a much more awkward term) are still extremely common, and until then they won't go away.

As for your question of whether we should still call them phones since we don't really use them for phones: again, that doesn't apply to everyone. Younger generations have gone to texting, but there's still plenty of people who actually use phones, especially people doing business, for example. Texting is weird and informal in business situations.

Besides, why the rush? Just call them smartphones. It's only two syllables. Besides, what would YOU call them? If you call them tablets, you still have the same number of syllables (though fewer letters), but now you have added confusion because you're lumping two vastly different products (due to use cases) into the same category.
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I agree that we need to move past "smartphone". The problem is, there's no other word or phrase that's catchy enough to replace it.

Because that's the thing of it. "Smartphone" is unique, easy to say and buzzy. As a word, it sticks in peoples minds because it is a new and unique construction. It will need to be replaced by something equally new, unique and "buzzy". An acronym from an engineering office isn't going to catch the imagination to supplant it.

The concept behind the smartphone has shifted a lot since the word first came up and it will continue to shift as technology changes and our interpretation and use of the technology shifts. The word 'smartphone' doesn't call to mind the same things now than it did 5 years ago. The devices and uses are very different, but because a better word hasn't arisen, the old word has moved with the concept.
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The only reason smart phones are called smart phones is to differentiate them from every other phone that isn't so "smart" such as feature phones. I don't know anyone who calls there phone a smart phone either. You don't hear people say "Hey, can you pass me my smart phone." or "My smart phone just messed up again." unless you're an uber-correct-terminology tech geek. I think the term will pass just like the trendy apps that people currently download on their phones.
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At the core of a smartphone is a phone. It uses a SIM to receive internet access and cellular connectivity. Fundamentally, if you take the SIM out, the cell towers that stand before you won't do anything but look ugly.

Phones became smart when it can suddenly do more than just be mobile and be able to receive/make calls.

As some of you may know, the Samsung Galaxy Note (and II) has introduced to us a new (and perhaps a grotesque) term: the Phablet.

Does anyone really want to call their smartphone a 'phablet'..?
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