On the Smartphone

The smartphone is mis-named; pocket computer would be better, but also incomplete.

The notion of a telephone, a device that permits two-way voice communication, is hopelessly outdated. So is the more recent development of SMS text messaging.

The modern smartphone includes something like eyes, ears, fingers, and a brain capable of processing their sensory input. It also produces visual, audio, and tactile output, including, of course, audio-visual (video) output. Whatever the thing can “see” with its camera, it can process usefully. Whatever it can “hear” with its microphone, it can process usefully. And whatever it can “feel,” it can process usefully. ( would not be interested in all this “processing.”) Similarly, on the output side, it can produce useful stuff for all three senses; so far no progress on taste and smell. 🙂 All of this goes way beyond simple voice communication, or its close relative: text-based information.

In 2013, the brain of the smartphone is relatively limited; it cannot be compared to a human brain. But it can be compared, quite favorably, to the PC of five years ago. Moore’s Law suggests that the raw computing power, the “brain” of the phone will continue to increase rapidly. A related aspect is cloud computing; when my device can communicate instantly with, and take advantage of, Google’s and Amazon’s powerful server networks, I don’t really care how much processing takes place on a server farm in Washington State rather than in my hand. So, whatever I say here about a smartphone’s ability to “process usefully” all kinds of input, we are just starting to see and use that ability. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

The visual aspect of the smartphone is widely appreciated. We can view photo gallery slideshows and watch movies on our “phones.” Their lenses have replaced ordinary digital cameras; photo editing is now built-in. Sharing to social networks goes without saying. But we’re moving beyond such simplistic, “non-informational” uses of the phone’s visual abilities. Using an ordinary banking app, we can deposit a check photographically. The bank’s systems can process the information in that photograph to reveal account numbers, routing numbers, etc. The fact that this processing takes place on the bank’s “cloud” computers, rather than on my device, is irrelevant. The smartphone can capture and process the information in an image, not just its colors and textures. Take a picture of a landmark, and your smartphone will soon be able to tell you what it is, where you are, the context of the landmark, etc. How about if you find and photograph a lost dog?

The audio power is also well developed. On the input side, an inexpensive 2013 smartphone (my LG Spectrum 2) can recognize audio commands for Google searches, quite accurately too, with no need for customized learning of my particular voice, or any of the other bugaboos that have impeded voice recognition for many years. My phone also has a song recognition app; if it hears a song it can tell you the title, artist, etc. Through ear buds or headphones, I can listen to fairly high-quality music.

Let me digress briefly to distinguish professional-quality from ordinary consumer quality. All audio and visual input and output on a smartphone will reflect the economics (What can be made at an affordable price?) and needs (What quality do consumers want?). I suspect there will always be a market for equipment and facilities for professional musicians to record music, for professional photographers to take pictures. On the output side, there will always be live performances, art galleries, and home entertainment systems. I don’t mean that consumer quality improvements will slow down or level off. But just that the smartphone will never replace the recording studio and the concert hall.

That brings us to tactile, the sense of touch. The touch-screen is a great innovation; I suspect its capabilities are just beginning to be exploited. On the output side, so far, phones don’t do too much more than vibrate as an alert.

Another feature of the smartphone, without a human sensory analog, is the GPS and navigational capability. In short, the device knows where you are, how fast you’re going, what direction you’re traveling, etc. And, as anyone who has used a navigation app, whether or not you are heading where you want to go.

Previous computing and communication devices depended heavily, almost exclusively, on text-based input and output. (The simple voice telephone? In the modern context, that capability is trivial, but perversely the name “phone” is used for our vastly more powerful devices.) But typing characters into a touch-sensitive screen is a transitional step at best. the device can recognize all sorts of audio, visual, and tactile input (“pinch to zoom”). Why depend on the limits of text-based, English-language input? The phone is rapidly moving into a post-text, post-English world, where “what I want it to do” is communicated in far simpler, more direct ways than through the double limitations of text input and the English language.

Thirty years ago, Steve Ballmer’s mother asked, “Why would anyone want a computer in their home?” I guess the answer is obvious. If there are any smartphone holdouts who might ask, “Why would anyone want a computer in their pocket?” I’d say the answer is obvious, or imminently so.