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In 2010, what counts as a smartphone?

John D. Sutter
Smartphones are becoming more popular -- but what exactly are they, anyway?
Smartphones are becoming more popular -- but what exactly are they, anyway?
  • Experts disagree on what exactly constitutes a smartphone
  • Some want the mobile phone industry to move on to a new term
  • App phones, superphones and "phones"are among the contenders
  • Others say "smartphone" just refers to the newest phones on the market

(CNN) -- The term "smartphone" may sound cool and hip, but it's actually been around since at least the mid-1990s.

Back then -- in those post-Nirvana, pre-'N Sync days -- companies like IBM and Nokia first tried to merge the mobile phone with personal data assistants such as Palm Pilots, which were popular at the time.

The '90s version of the smartphone was nothing like the gadgets many of us tote around in our pockets today. It was the size of a brick, it didn't have a color screen and, according to a phone market analyst, users could see only one line of e-mail at a time, meaning they had to scroll down a dozen times just to get to the start of a message.

Yet, when we talk about our present-day, touch-screen mobile computers -- with their app stores, GPS services and other invented-since-the-'90s whizbangs -- many of us still call them smartphones.

So is it time for a new term? Or has "smartphone" become a catch-all that means "one of those new phones on the market?"

Analysts and tech writers argue for both. But there's one thing everyone seems to agree on: "Smartphone" is a marketing term, and it means something new all the time, depending on who you're talking to and what year it is.

"All these terms are very, very arbitrary," said Ian Fogg, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Some people define current smartphones by their tech features.

Which smartphone is right for you?

For these folks, the current definition for smartphones generally includes at least some of the following characteristics and tech specs:

• It must be mobile and portable

• It must be able to place calls on a cellular network

• It must run a "high-level" mobile operating system, like iOS from Apple, Android from Google or the upcoming Windows Phone 7 from Microsoft

• It must have apps (although there is disagreement about what constitutes an app these days)

• It must have a QWERTY keyboard, or at least a touch-screen version of that

• It has to include a mobile browser for surfing the Web.

Different companies and research firms accept and reject varying pieces of that definition. Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst at the firm IDC, for example, says smartphones just have to make calls and have a mobile operating system that makes them computer-like. He listed eight mobile operating systems that he said would make a phone qualify as "smart."

Others offer up a more relativistic smartphone definition, as if technology is changing so fast that a list of specs cannot encompass a category of gadgets.

Some would define a smartphone as anything that's the latest on the market. Fogg, from Forrester, said he partially subscribes to this line of thought, but he thinks the more technology advances, the less "smart" the term smartphone will seem.

"When all phones become smart, the word 'smartphone' loses all of its meaning. And the world we're moving into is all phones are becoming smarter and net-capable," he said. The ability to access e-mail or the internet was one of the defining characteristics of early-era smartphones, he added.

Others define smartphones against other categories of phones, like "feature phones," for example, which generally can access the internet and social networks but do not have computer-like operating systems and either have no apps or a simpler versions of apps than smartphones.

And for others still, it's size that matters. A smartphone must fit in a person's pocket, Fogg said. That sounds simple. But as the spectrum between smartphone and laptop continues to be populated with new devices, the lines are blurring.

Dell, for example, has released the Streak, a kind-of-smartphone with a screen that is 5 inches wide when measured diagonally. Tech insiders are making all kinds of jokes about how it's too big for pockets.

The iPad from Apple and other tablet computers can connect to 3G wireless networks, so adding a size distinction is somewhat important, Fogg said.

"Arguably, the iPod Touch is just a very small tablet. You could easily call that the iPad Nano," he said.

Finally, there are plenty of people who are fed up with this linguistic mess and want to bail on the word "smartphone" for once and for all.

Plenty of other terms for modern phones are out there.

Earlier this year, Google tried to rebrand its Nexus One smartphone (which was produced by HTC and now has been pulled from the market) as the "superphone." Apple's iPhone has long been called the "Jesus phone."

New York Times technology columnist David Pogue wrote an article in 2009 advocating that newer phones like the Motorola Droid be called "app phones," because the mobile programs, or apps, that run on them define this current set of computer-phones more than anything else.

In researching this story, CNN Tech asked its Twitter followers what they think the newest phones on the market should be called.

One thread emerged in the early comments we received:

"How about just ... 'phones'?"

But shortly after that, this comment came along, bringing things back to their confusing start: "I think 'phone' shouldn't even be in the name. That is really a secondary function now," @EagleLooking78 wrote.

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