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BW Businessworld

The Smartphone Is Dead?

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Ah no, not my end-of-year drunkenness, but a pronouncement of Forester Research as of a whole year ago that smartphones are dead — because all phones are smart. Or getting there. And yet, we continue to refer to top-end phones as smartphones, a class apart from the rest. That's how firms sell them, and that's how we accept them. Some of us.

With a colossal mobile user base of over 600 million subscribers (some say 700 million), there aren't an awful lot of Indians who can flash the snazzy handsets we know as smartphones. And we all know why. They cost the earth. The best of the best still don't come for less than Rs 25,000. The iPhone 4 doesn't come at all — thank you very much, Apple. Its whispered price in the grey market is chilling. The other phone of the year, Samsung Galaxy S, costs about Rs 28,000.

So it isn't surprising that most mobile-hungry Indians can't afford smartphones. But luckily, all phones are getting smart. Remember how email and browsing used to be a big differentiator, making one phone smart and another the wannabe? That's all changed. Not only are phone-makers such as Nokia (which has to be credited with bringing affordable phones to the masses in any case), Micromax, Karbonn, LG, Motorola and others releasing extremely inexpensive phones with features we once used to see on expensive handsets, Android-based phones with the Google DNA threaded right through are flooding the market and changing the game. So, smartness, as we once defined it, is certainly no longer the domain of the cream of the crop.

I bought a phone for Rs 28,000 and dad bought one for Rs 2,800, and we both think our respective phones are smart. And they are. One wouldn't have thought of an inexpensive phone being able to sync with e-mail client Outlook. Or sport a camera or music player. Yet, it has become difficult to even find a phone without these features. What is different, of course, is the "experience" as phone-makers will waste no time telling you. The speed, smoothness and the special effects, if I might call it that, make all the difference. The hardware enables that experience. AMOLED display screens, capacitive touch, 3D gaming, HD video, feature-rich advanced camera… that's the sort of thing that sets apart one smartphone from another.

For instance, both my dad and I can take notes on our phones. But with my phone, my notes can be pinned to any of seven home screens, can open with a tap, include audio and pictures, and can look wonderful in many colours. Well-designed hardware, powerful processors for small devices and creative apps are making smartphones replace so many of the objects we take for granted on our lives. We all know about the watch, alarm clock, notepad, camera (for those who don't want anything high-end) and music player, but how about phones doubling up as document scanners, heart rate monitors, Bibles, bar code reader and newspaper? I made a list of some 40 such items the other day.

All of this year, Android phones and other affordable phones have spread through the country, including, increasingly to rural areas. According to Pyramid Research, the global handset market will grow by 8 per cent in 2011, which sounds low, but results in 1.4 billion devices. A good chunk of that should be in India, both as 3G opens up and phone prices come down.

Meanwhile, amazingly, there are people who want nothing of phones that are too smart for their own good. A lady sitting next to me at a conference recently impressed me tremendously with the sheer deftness with which she input text on her smartphone, fingers and thumb flying at the blurring speed of light. Every now and then, she would look up at the speaker on the dais and say "Very true, very true" before dropping her face back into her phone. I imagined her to be one of the progressive set of conference-goers who can tweet everything as it happens. I asked if she was very active on social media and she laughed and said oh no, that sort of stuff was not for her. Going a little red with embarrassment at my presumption, I realised she was only texting at a hundred miles per hour. She just needed a phone-phone, not a smartphone.

And then there's a friend of a friend of mine who dripped contempt all over my new smartphone: "Why do you need all this rubbish? A phone is a phone is a phone. It's for making phone calls." I didn't argue. The fact is, maybe I don't need it. But once I've bought it, I have it. And once I have it, I need it. The truth of technology is it creates new needs we weren't necessarily born with. Only when those needs are met do we look back and wonder how we did without it all this time.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 03-01-2011)