Convergence and the rise of the smartphone

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In which Steve Litchfield enthuses on ultimate integration, in which he finally gets the point of Series 60 and in which the world finally becomes a happier and safer place.

Convergence and the rise of the smartphone

In which Steve Litchfield enthuses on ultimate integration, in which he finally gets the point of Series 60 and in which the world finally becomes a happier and safer place.

(OK, maybe I lied about that last bit)

A visit to a friend brought the message home to me yet again - the all-in-one smartphone is the future, whatever standalone PDA fanatics might say. You see, my friend has been a rabid iPod fan for the last couple of years. He also had a Treo 270, one of the first really useable smartphones, on my suggestion in 2003. But the 270's backlight died and he wanted to treat himself (and had to stay with Palm OS because his wife was also a Palm OS user and they 'shared' categories in DateBk5, so I had to resist waxing lyrical about Symbian... again), so he got himself a Treo 600.

Now, despite the Treo 600 not coming with a stereo headset, the processor power and audio electronics are there under the hood, so my friend bought a third party headset, a suitably large SD card and then loaded up half a dozen albums of favourite music. No matter that the song capacity of the ensemble was a fraction that of the iPod. No matter that the sound quality wasn't (quite) as good. What blew his mind was that that he was listening to CD quality music on his 'phone'.

Of course, power users of PDAs and top-end smartphones have known this for a while, but it seems that the world in general is just starting to wake up to the possibilities. Other analysts have called 2005 'the year of the music phone'. Even Nokia, who have tried to avoid stereo output from their smartphones for years, are finally cottoning on, with stereo in their latest handsets. Visionaries like Sony Ericsson and Sendo have had full stereo audio for a couple of years and full credit to them.

Whether it's integrating a camera, an MP3 player, a video player, GPS or digital TV, the future will bring smartphones which are more and more 'converged'. For many people, there hasn't really been much of a reason to carry around more than one device since about 2003. It doesn't matter that your smartphone isn't (yet) a perfect camera, that it's not (yet) the best MP3 player, and so on. What matters is that it's a single, compact device that does everything, and that it can only get more and more powerful as time goes on. By 2006, most smartphones will have serious Megapixel cameras, a Gigabyte of internal flash memory, expansion to 4GB by popping in a SD card and, of course, stereo music output (and will come with the necessary headphones). Next on the integration list will be digital radio and TV receivers.

All of which brings me to Series 60 and what the man in the street actually needs. I'm guilty here of judging Series 60 rather too harshly in the past and I intend to put things right, right here, right now. From my perspective, as a hardened Psion/PDA/smartphone enthusiast, the PIM applications in Nokia/Symbian's Series 60 interface are very limited. No notes on any entries? Only one to-do list? Having to input all text using a phone keypad? And what's with that tiny 176 pixel wide display? Who on earth is going to buy such a system?

The answer, it seems, is just about everybody else. The sales figures for Series 60 smartphones have gone through the roof in the last 18 months (five million smartphones per quarter? - now that's impressive). What I'd failed to realise was that Series 60 isn't aimed at PDA veterans or road warriors. It's aimed at putting something that has relatively huge functionality into the hands of Joe Average in the High Street.

For him, 'advanced' Symbian OS functions such as proper media support, easy addition of third party applications, an MMS-enabled camera and access to the Internet through the wonders of GPRS, are all reason enough to buy. The keypad-only text entry, seen as a limitation by me, is in fact a major attraction for casual users who 'already know how to use it'. The narrow display, set deliberately at 176 pixels to accommodate quarter-width video frames, means that devices can be tiny and generally acceptable to a public for whom the relative bulk of the 9500 would be abhorrent. Most of all, the fact that a Series 60 smartphone is designed to be used one-handed is tremendously appealing, enabling shopping or a briefcase or a child's hand to be held in the other, and the lack of a touch-screen means that the display can be covered by bullet-proof plexiglass that should stand up to the rigours of every day life without constant worry of damage.

It's still early days both for smartphones in general and for Series 60, but they're on the right track, I believe. And with palmOne lost in an operating and filing system maze of its own devising, and with Microsoft seemingly unable to close the gap, Symbian is still my best bet to power our mobile future.