Putting the "Smart" Back in "Smart Phone"

According to Go-Gulf (see the info graphic below), there are 1.08 billion smart phones in the world. This means there's a smart phone for about every 7 people on Earth. People are starting to take these smart phones for granted. In the past, only business people had smart phones, and they slowly expanded to the masses. The explosion of the iPhone and Android smart phones meant that everyone and his mother, and his grandmother, and his 10 year old kids got a smart phone.

We still call voice-calls-and-sms-only phones "dumb phones," to emphasize how little functionality they have when compared to smart phones. The irony of this is that a huge number of people only use their smart phones for very dumb activities, like the fact that Angry Birds alone has wasted 200,000 years of time. This is besides the countless hours of time spent on imgur, Facebook, Twitter, Candy Crush, Snap Chat, Pintrest, Tumblr, and all the other games and social time sinks.

I want to put the "Smart" back in "Smart Phone," and I think there's already huge progress being made on this. I think there are two big ways to do this: utilization and features. By utilization, I mean the ways in which users interact with and use their phones. By features, I mean the features of the phone and operating system that enable users to have a more natural, seamless connection with the device.


The way to build smart utilization is through better, more advanced software (read: Apps). There are smartphone apps doing amazing things. Duolingo is teaching people language skills, with the effectiveness of a college course (aside: I know this is debatable, and as a husband of a Spanish teacher, I'm obligated to state that software cannot completely replace teachers). Other apps help visually impaired people navigate, virtually ride with devices on another planet, teach math to kids, teach people about astronomy, and help keep your food choices sustainable. The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, it seems like there are 10 games for every educational app.

People say it all the time, but really: life without Google is completely different. People are able to absorb facts and knowledge at incredible rates, due to the fact that the largest, most powerful search engine in the world is accessible from everyone's pocket. People now have the ability to self-diagnose illnesses, get virtually instant weather and disease information, and fix their own problems (like oil changes, small appliance maintenance, and computer problems).

People are using smartphones to control their home thermostats, take high quality photos, model 3D objects, and more. It's an incredible age to live in, and the people imagining, building, and using these apps for smart phones give me hope.


iOS and Android are both improving to bring big "smart" and efficiency improvements to users. iOS 7 includes background app refresh, which allows apps to refresh data and compute information without user interaction. This allows apps like MapMyFitness can now give more accurate location and tracking information. Android and iOS both have features like location-aware-notifications using GPS and geofencing. The iPhone 5S has a new co-motion processor that lets your phone track motion data without waking the CPU, slowing the phone and using more power.

What we need is to use these capabilities, combined with better and smarter software and newer features, to build a smarter, more seamless experience for the user. Some of these features are already in play, and I love them. The Today feature of iOS 7's notification center uses the time of day combined with your location data and contact information to tell you how long it will take you to get to work or home, depending. Android allows users to set location-aware settings, like ringtones or BlueTooth, to allow these to change when you're at home versus work. Auto-correction in smart phone keyboards is incredible. Even with all of the auto-correct mishaps, it really does make typing smoother, because the phone is smart enough to correct mistakes automatically.

Some of these features still need improvement. The maps app uses time of day to change the theme to night mode. Can we make this better? Why doesn't it use local weather data to get the time of sunset, and change the theme to night mode when it gets dark, instead of at a hard-coded 8pm? Why does my geofenced "remind me when I get home" notification trigger when I'm still driving? Even though GPS isn't accurate enough to give me "in-the-apartment-door" accuracy, why can't my phone use a combination of inside-the-geofence and just-connected-to-my-home-wifi to really pinpoint when I get home? If I'm listening to a streaming service like Pandora or iTunes Radio, and a song is next in the queue, the app should check for a copy of that song stored locally in my library, and play that, in lieu of streaming the song.

Building better software, combined with advancements in hardware can help these devices be Smart, and not just Capable. Sure, they have a lot of features, have longer battery and bigger screens, but if they aren't getting Smarter, aren't we wasting a lot of potential? Let's not just keep cramming ram, pixels, and gigabytes into our phones. Let's start imagining, improving, and advancing.

Infographic by Go-Gulf.