Are Smartphones A Step Forwards Or Backwards?
By Mike Masnick, Tue Feb 08 00:45:00 GMT 2005

As mobile phones take on more and more features that make them "competitive" with laptops, some are wondering if handset makers are too in love with laptops and killing off what makes mobile phones special.

While there's something of a reasonable debate over whether smartphones are going to start competing with laptops for mobile computing functionality, it appears the whole idea is upsetting some people. They are afraid that smartphones take away the core advantages of a mobile phone: mobility and the "natural" use of voice as an input mechanism.

The argument on the first advantage is basically that smartphones are growing ever larger, taking away the easy mobility small mobile phones provide. On the second issue, phones were originally designed for voice communications, with minimal buttons and that simplicity has served them well. However, as Ramesh Jain points out, making them more complex with full keyboards holds the phones back -- especially in places where language isn't easily translated to a keyboard.

It's an interesting argument, but Jain shouldn't get too worried too quickly. Handset makers would certainly love to be able to keep phones as small as possible -- but it's always a struggle to be able to include certain features that people are clamoring for within the existing form factor while keeping the phones to a certain size. There is, though, plenty of work being done to shrink various mobile phone components to help solve these issues in the future. In the meantime, however, it's really a question of tradeoffs between functionality and size -- and many people seem to be voting with their dollars towards functionality.

On the voice interface front, there is a lot of work being done throughout the world on better speech recognition for mobile phones. This includes work on embedded voice recognition directly in the phone (increasingly seen in voice activated dialing solutions) and even distributed voice recognition where the heavy lifting of voice recognition processing is done on a central server and zipped back to the handset. In fact, in just the past few years, embedded voice recognition has reached a level that most offerings are now "voice independent," meaning that it doesn't first need to be "trained" by a user, but can recognize a spoken name if it's in the phone address book. While voice recognition technology never seems to advance as fast as everyone in the industry hopes it will, it has certainly been nudging itself gradually forward over the past decade, and that's likely to continue.

However, more to the point, it's not clear that either of these issues are really the show stoppers Jain seems to think they are. Phone size is only an issue up to a certain point, and for a few years now some people have even been complaining that handsets have become too small, as they're harder to use and easier to lose. As for the voice interface, over the past decade, again, the leaders in voice recognition software have moved away from focusing on dictation software, towards more targeted applications such as customer service offerings partly because experience has shown that voice isn't always the "natural" interface everyone thinks it is. That is, when people are working, they've become accustomed to being able to type, rather than speak -- in part because they don't want everyone around them to hear every bit of work that they're doing. It gets even more clear in mobile settings. People would probably rather type in a password than say it outloud in a crowded room. Or, in a lecture hall or conference room where people are taking notes, it certainly would make sense for them to be typing quietly rather than dictating their thoughts (though, a direct transcript might be a different story).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the markets seem to be showing a fair amount of demand for these smartphones with advanced features. It appears the tradeoffs are worth it, and many people are interested in smartphones not just for their size and natural interface, but for the ability it provides to connect them to people and information on the go -- and that's one feature that isn't going away any time soon.