Posted by: Craig Mathias
apps, platform phone, smartphone
The term “smatphone” has been around for a long time, and the word has become so diverse and amorphous that today it may have little meaning. Originally, cell phones were truly dumb – no dialing directory, let alone anything else apart from the send and end keys. But they worked just like landline phones – provided one was in an area of coverage, a dicey proposition back in the ’80s. As is usually the case with high tech, it wasn’t long before the microprocessor and software started us down the road to where we are today – handsets with a huge range of internal features, and power and services akin to the desktop or laptop computer – albeit in a small form factor, that factor introducing a whole range of compromises that we’ll likely be living with forever. Regardless, the smartphone has become indispensible for business users, and there’s a good chance you already own one. A simple feature phone won’t cut it, although I must admit I do own one small flip phone which actually fits into a pocket without risk of damage – a topic for another day, to be sure.
But we really need to separate today’s smartphones into two broad categories. The first, which I would still call a smartphone, has the familiar PDA form factor, a physical micro-keyboard of virtual display-based keyboard being the key differentiators among products, along with whatever software features the vendor and carrier choose to include. These devices aren’t programmable, and are often more media-oriented to appeal to the buyer who just can’t stand to be separated from their tunes for more than a few seconds.
The second category, though, is much more interesting to business users today, and I think this one deserves its own name. The key differentiator here is programmability, which stems from the inclusion of a “real” operating system designed to run third-party applications. Apple is clearly in the lead here – the iPhone runs a scaled-down version of the Mac’s OS X, itself a derivative of UNIX, and there are now too many apps in the App Store to count. Most of these are front-ends for Web services, but all run some native code right on the handset itself. And all of Apple’s competitors here – BlackBerry, Palm’s WebOS, Windows Mobile, and all derivatives of Linux, also support the ability to run third-party programs.
That’s why I think we should call this class of handset “platform phones”, to provide some distinction from the long line of far-less-capable smartphones that are more consumer-grade than business-class. Now, the question: could you run your SMB with a contemporary smartphone, or do you need a platform phone? I suspect many would have little problem with the smartphone, especially if it sports a capable browser. But, just to be on the safe side, a platform phone is my suggestion as to the way to go. You never know when the flexibility inherent in programmability will become important. And, if you’ve not noticed, prices of platform phones are falling rapidly. You can get into the iPhone for as little as $99, and I’ve been seeing two-for-one deals for as little as $150 – but that may not be such a good deal once you see the associated monthly charges. More on that later.