Christian Computing Magazine article on Smartphones

I’ve started writing a monthly column for Christian Computing Magazine called The Mobility Revolution. My goal for the column is to help folks at churches and other ministries to shift from deeply understanding how to leverage PC and Internet technologies to advance their missions to beginning to understand how to leverage Mobile technologies to the same end. My assumption is that most of the readers are not yet deep in understanding the mobile industry.

Since my employer doesn’t publicly support any religion, I have permission to write these columns as an “industry executive”, so – as with all the content published here on my personal blog – the views reflected here don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer.

The article I wrote for this month’s column I thought might be worth sharing here. The August issue hasn’t yet hit the streets, so I’ve copied and pasted the text here (with the permission of the publisher).

THE MOBILITY REVOLUTION: Who Cares About Smartphones?

If there is one mobility topic that has captured the imagination of wireless buyers over the past couple of years, that topic would be the smartphone. From the Apple iPhone to the RIM Blackberry to the Palm Pre to Google’s Android phones, these expensive and powerful devices have been the object of appropriate desires for productivity and inappropriate covetousness.

So what is a smartphone, anyway?

Believe it or not, there is no standard definition for smartphone. My definition is that a smartphone is a mobile telephone that runs a general purpose computing operating system that can run applications. But the reality is that smartphones fit within a spectrum of devices with lots of shades of grey. The various classes of devices include:

  • Basic mobile telephones – cellphones that can only be used to talk – there are hardly any of these being produced and sold today.
  • Featurephones – cellphones that can access data services (including text messaging, e-mail, picturemail, and perhaps the Internet) and that have a proprietary operating system that may support applications written in Java or Brew.
  • Smartphones – cellphones with data networking capabilities and that have a general purpose operating system supporting a broad array of applications developed by a robust ecosystem of third party developers.
  • Smartbooks – an extension of smartphones with a larger display and an operating environment similar to a laptop or netbook.
  • Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) – small wirelessly connected Internet-centric devices providing entertainment and information – a MID typically cannot place telephone calls.
  • Netbooks – smaller versions of laptop computers, often with smaller disk drives and no optical drives – heavily
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    reliant on wireless connectivity to create value through network-based content and applications.

  • Laptops – highly mobile general purpose computers.

With so many choices, why is it the smartphone category that has claimed all the attention? The answer, in two words, is “mobility” and “applications”.

Smartphones are small enough to carry in your pocket. Smartbooks and beyond don’t share that characteristic. As someone described it to me today, the cellphone is maybe the only thing you’ll unconditionally return home for if you forget it. Most people can make it through the day without their wallet, but we are increasingly dependent on the full-time connectivity that our cellphones provide. To realize the benefits of mobility, a device has to be small enough to carry in your pocket, have battery life to make it at least through the day, and be usable for basic communications tasks – most notably making and receiving telephone calls.

Featurephones share all of the mobility characteristics with smartphones, and featurephones are programmable, what sets the smartphone category apart is the attractive business model for developers. Featurephones generally support some level of programmability, often using a version of Java called Java 2, Micro Edition (or J2ME for short). Unfortunately, J2ME is not tightly defined – from a programmer’s perspective, the programming requirements change from phone to phone, requiring a developer to create literally hundreds or thousands of versions of a program to run on different phones from different manufacturers on different carriers. With this level of fragmentation, no single phone represents a large enough target market of users to enable focused investment. This makes it very difficult for application developers to make money with mobile applications for featurephones (although a few have managed).

Smartphones were born out of the marriage of personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cellphones. The first commercial smartphone was probably the Nokia 9000, released in 1996 as the outcome of joint development between Hewlett Packard and Nokia. However, the first smartphone commercially successful in the U.S. was the Handspring Treo 300, released by Sprint in 2003. (Handspring was founded by the original founders of Palm and was later bought back into Palm.) The Treo ran the Palm operating system, which already supported thousands of developers. Applications developed for any Palm OS device would run on any other Palm OS device, creating a viable business model for developers.

But if smartphones have been around for 5-10 years, why the sudden excitement? Another two words – “the Internet” and “AppStores.”

The original Treo 300 device used Sprint’s 1xRTT network for data connectivity and ran a browser developed for the limited computing capabilities of the device. 1xRTT can technically

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support peak data speeds of 144kbps, but you can generally think back to your experiences accessing the Internet using a 56k modem to appreciate how poor the Internet experience was on these early devices. Smartphone web browsers certainly didn’t improve the situation – poorly rendering web pages and not supporting basic capabilities such as Javascript and CSS.

By late 2006, Sprint was upgrading to EV-DO Rev A technology, and Verizon would follow suit in early 2007. This new technology steps up performance to DSL-like speeds – typically in the 1Mbps downlink range and 300-400kbps on the uplink. AT&T would later follow with HSPA technology providing similar performance.

But the real breakthrough was the introduction of the Apple iPhone. Although the original iPhone only ran on AT&T’s EDGE network (similar to 1xRTT), it enjoyed the “insanely great” product design of Apple, and most importantly, a real web browser – virtually the same Webkit-based tool as Safari running on a Macintosh. Finally, the full power of the Internet was available on the go. Google’s Android and Palm’s new WebOS-based Pre have since also come to market with great design, highly usable interfaces, and full Webkit-based browsers.

The second major breakthrough, again introduced by the iPhone, was the iPhone AppStore. Launched in July 2008 to coincide with the release of the iPhone 3G, the AppStore made it easy for iPhone owners to find (and application developers to market) compelling new software for their devices. A year (and 1.5 billion application downloads) later, the AppStore is an unqualified hit that has made hundreds of entrepreneurial businesses quickly successful. Of course, AppStores are also now available for the Palm Pre, Android, RIM Blackberries, and Windows Mobile devices.

So, what impact does any of this have on your ministry?

I think there are two critical lenses through which you should think about smartphones. First, is there a role for smartphones in my church or ministry – can it help us be more productive and successful in serving God? Second, are the people we’re ministering to using these popular new devices, and if so, can we serve them better by leveraging the technology they have in their pockets?

Continue to ponder those questions – it looks like I know what next month’s topic should address.

One Response to “Christian Computing Magazine article on Smartphones”

  1. PaulH says:

    Hey Russ,

    That’s a good start. I hope you can follow the tease with the follow-ups.

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