Smartphones are dead Part I: This is the age of the mini-tablet

I am a huge science-fiction fan. As such I have "seen" worlds where technology and humanity collide in such intricate ways that attempts to discern where one ends, and the other begins is often an exercise in futility. It is the realm of human imagination that brought us the worlds of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, Dan Simmons Hyperion, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, Isaac Asimov's Foundations series or the infinite worlds of an exhaustive list of other visionaries. This realm of boundless imagination is the same place of human consciousness that has plucked elements from those worlds and planted them firmly in the concrete reality in which we live.

Indeed, science fiction has often been the "prophetic" musings of individuals who, before their time, envisioned significant technological advances. They then took pen to paper and articulated how these advances would integrate within, alter and even direct social norms, culture, society, health care, politics, communication and even war. As such much of the technology we use today appeared years earlier in the annals of science fiction.

Take cell phones for instance. The flip phones that we began discarding in 2007 for more advanced smartphones are a realization of the remarkably similar communicators from the 1960's Star Trek series. Moreover, those slate styled tablets that began filling the consumer space after the introduction of the iPad in 2010 were foreshadowed in the second installment, The Next Generation, of that same series in 1987.

We are not quite at the cybernetic, forearm-implanted smart devices of Robert Sawyers Neanderthal Parallax that are persistently connected, know us, monitor our health and act proactively in our favor. But the "smartphones", as we call them, that do perform those functions (and more) are simply highly personal smaller versions of the "tablets" that were foreshadowed in Star Trek the Next Generation thirty years ago.

We have grown quite comfortable in calling these particular slate computers that act as a portal and helm to our digital lives – "phones." Given their origin and the fact that telephony is among the primary functions of these devices, this is understandable. But the truth of the matter is that the devices that we carry with us daily on which we perform a broad range of complex computing and which act as an extension of our physical selves into the digital world are no more phones than the Star Ship Enterprise is a yacht.

Smarter than your average phone

The textbook definition of a smartphone is "a mobile phone with an advanced mobile operating system which combines features of a personal computer operating system with other features useful for mobile or handheld use." I get it.

As we've transitioned from what has traditionally been called a "phone" to these newer more sophisticated devices this definition has been a fitting accommodation. Particularly in the earlier days of the cell phones evolution from a mere point-to-point communication device when the phone was first becoming, well, smart.

However, as we've trekked at a dizzying pace from those early evolutionary steps and that initial designation, the transition from phone to what these devices are today has been so complete, revisiting any affiliation of these devices with the word "phone" may be in order. In truth the word "phone" may carry with it a legacy that is becoming increasingly archaic.

This linguistic burden may indeed be out of sync with the direction that the industry is moving. As such, this language may add a cognitive weight to the perceptions of many hindering their ability to fully grasp the position of these devices as personal computers; and the moves company's such as Microsoft and its PC partners Hewlett Packard and Acer are making to position them as such in their ecosystems.

Hindering their ability to fully grasp the positon of these devices as personal computers.

For those who live on the cutting edge of tech such as enthusiasts, tech writers, industry analysts and science fiction writers an embrace of this transition is likely a bit easier. That is, for those who can perceive this shift through the haze of the dominant smartphone paradigm ruled by the iPhone and Android devices. The view of these individuals, whom history may ultimately ascribe the designation visionaries, is likely coalescing around the emerging reality of context-sensitive devices that conform physically and in relation to software to varying scenarios.

It's a slow shift wrought with the inertia of an established paradigm. Invested parties such as Apple and Google and those with an established perception such as analysts and bloggers may be resistant to acknowledging this shift touting the current "establishment" and its entrenched position as a perpetual order.

Evidence of a shifting reality toward an all-in-one personal computing device is dismissed by some.

Evidence of a shifting reality away from a "smartphone-centric" paradigm toward a device that embraces the more complex role of an all-in-one personal computing device is dismissed by some as a dream for which the industry is neither technologically ready nor consumers prepared. I concede that the transition won't be complete tomorrow, but I contend that the foundation is being laid today.

In a world that has embraced 2-in-1 PCs led by Microsoft's category defining Surface, it is not hard to imagine a Continuum enabled smart device that fits in the pocket but is capable of serving as an all-in-one PC. Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella is striving to make that vision a reality:

If anything, one big mistake we made in our past was to think of the PC as the hub for everything for all time to…the high volume device is the six-inch phone...But to think that that's what the future is for all time to come would be to make the same mistake we made in the past…Therefore, we have to be on the hunt for what's the next bend in the curve…We're doing that with our innovation in Windows…features like Continuum.Even the phone, I just don't want to build another phone, a copycat phone operating system, even…when I think about our Windows Phone, I want it to stand for something like Continuum. When I say, wow, that's an interesting approach where you can have a phone and that same phone, because of our universal platform with Continuum, and can, in fact, be a desktop. That is not something any other phone operating system or device can do. And that's what I want our devices and device innovation to stand for.

In considering how far personal computing has come in just the last thirty years and how profound the evolution of the smartphone has been in the last nine, it is not hard envisioning this vision soon becoming a reality.

Back in the day

I grew up in an age before cellphones were in every pocket. I remember the world before a World Wide Web entangled our lives in a complex digital and physical duality. Though I am by no means old, I can recall a time when a computer capable of fitting in a pocket, served humans via digital assistants, connected with a seemingly infinite repository of information and allowed a user to speak with a friend via live video was a thing of science fiction.

To be frank, not only do I remember a world before ubiquitous pocketable computers, but I'm quite acquainted with a time before PCs were commonplace in virtually every home. Thus, I have what is becoming an increasingly less common perspective, where the thought of a phone and a computer occupying the same technological space was the privilege of a visionary and not the common man.

The thought of a phone and computer occupying the same technological space was the privilege of a visionary.

For perspective consider this: My childhood was a time when the word "phone" elicited imagery of a device comprised of a handset connected, via a stretchy coiled wire, to a weighted base with a rotary dial or number pad. This base was tethered to the wall by a wire of finite length. When the phone "rang" it was a literal ring produced by a bell of sorts on the interior of the device. The scope of this devices range of functionality was to allow two or more individuals in distinct locations to speak to one another. Nothing more.

The word "computer" elicited an entirely different image.

A computer was a powerful computational device which I saw on television and read about in stories or the comics books I enjoyed. Or it was the simple television connected Aquarius computer my dad bought me when I was about 10 or 11 years old. Additionally, through a child's eyes, I perceived, via the media, the profound power of these devices. I witnessed a range of functions from data and information management to gaming to the power of computers to help Nasa launch rockets into space.

I also saw the fantastic and imagined applications of computers that were portable, connected wirelessly to vast databases of information and allowed video communication like the character Penny's book-shaped computer from the 1980's cartoon Inspector Gadget.

That said, in no instance during my childhood over 30 years ago did the word "phone" conjure an image of a rectangular slate device dominated by a glass touch-screen display which possessed the range of functionality (and more) of Penny's computer book. A phone was not a computer.

A phone was not a computer.

It's amazing to me that Penny's fictional book-shaped computer, which I as a child, perceived as an incredibly advanced device, is for all intents and purposes our "smartphone" of today. It's even more remarkable that these powerful pocket-sized PCs that are a magnitude more powerful than computers that filled entire rooms mere decades ago are so commonplace and such an integrated part of our lives that we nonchalantly hand them over to babies and toddlers to distract them. It's funny how quickly we become acclimated to things that literally "wowed" us not long ago.

Outgrowing the name

When I was about ten years old, I felt that I had outgrown the nickname my mother had given me years earlier. After I asked her to refrain from calling me that nickname, my mom reluctantly complied. The "smartphones" we carry in our pockets today may have made a similar transition.

Consider this: These pocket-sized "personal computers" which have the processing power of "super-computers" of decades past contain, as a norm, onboard storage capacities ranging from 8GB to 128GB. The 32GB midrange capacity is a full 30 times greater than the 1 GB that was available to me on my first laptop which I bought in 1997 for more than $2000. Moreover, RAM ranging from 2GB – 4GB, on these devices, is commonplace. High definition displays and high-quality sound systems are also standard parts of the package. Imaging technology has reached such heights that these "personal computers" have made basic point-and-shoot cameras nearly obsolete.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategoryLumia 950iPhone 6s
OSWindows 10 MobileiOS 9
Screen Size5.2 inches4.7 inches
Screen Resolution1440x2560 (564ppi)750x1334 (326ppi)
Processor1.8GHz Snapdragon 808 64-bit hexa-coreApple A9 64-bit dual-core
Internal Storage32GB16GB/64GB/128GB
External StoragemicroSD
SecurityWindows Hello iris scannerTouch ID fingerprint scanner
Rear Camera20MP ƒ/1.9 PureView camera, triple-LED flash12MP ƒ/2.2 iSight camera, dual-LED flash
Front Camera5MP, wide-angle lens5MP, screen flash
Battery3000mAh removable1715mAh non-removable
ChargingQi wireless, USB Type-C port, Quick ChargeLightning port

Furthermore, they are consistently connected to the internet and place any information on virtually any topic literally at our fingertips. Or with the support of personal digital assistants, information is actually a "Hey Cortana", "Hey Siri" or "OK Google Now" voice-command away.

Additionally, these "PCs" run programs – applications – or apps as we like to call them that enable us to do a variety of things with a single piece of highly portable hardware. For example, we have regular access to feature-rich word processing, intense gaming that makes the arcade games I grew up playing look archaic, a host of communication and social apps that keep us connected and more. If we want to get something done with these "PCs", there is quite literally an app for that.

Given the power of these devices and how their use has evolved in and evolved our lives, culture and the world; and the trend of these pocketable slates toward larger dimensions to more comfortably accommodate a wider range of personal computing activities, it is a wonder that we still refer to them as phones at all.

Phone calls rank sixth in activity conducted on these devices.

I do realize that we still make calls on these "phones." However, a 2014 study revealed that phone calls actually rank sixth in activity on these devices after activity such as text messaging, emailing and checking Facebook. There has indeed been a cultural and industry shift in how we view these devices. We no longer look at them primarily as a point-to-point voice communication device. The fact that specs such as storage capacities, processor speeds, display and camera quality and accessibility to the most popular apps are at the top of a "phone" consumers buying decision, is telling evidence of this reality.

There is clear shift in how we have culturally evolved in the use of these devices. Moreover, OEMs are moving in a direction where they are equipping these devices with a more complex array of high-end hardware akin to what we've traditionally associated with PCs. Given these facts, I think it's time that our language catches up to the reality that that these pocketable personal tablet computers are clearly not "phones" anymore.

Where we go from here

For those who may advocate the position that the identifying of smartphones as "phones" or "tablet personal computers" is merely an exercise in semantics, consider the following:

Words carry with them the power to convey a thought or an idea. This thought or idea when associated with something serves to identify that object. Thus, how something is identified is often followed by how it is then perceived or classified by the masses. The classification of that product determines how it is subsequently positioned in the market. Consequently, a products market position, particularly in the tech industry, affects its ability to take advantage of the direction and trends of the industry and ultimately affects the products impact in that market space. In a nutshell: words matter.

Nadella is on record with conveying that Microsoft is on the hunt for the mobile personal computing paradigm that is beyond the bend in the curve: beyond the smartphone. His language about a "phone…[that]…can, in fact, be a desktop" with the Universal Windows Platform and Continuum is telling of what he believes that paradigm shift will be. We can already see the early stages of how Microsoft will position these highly portable personal computers – "these devices formerly known as smartphones" - in the company's ecosystem and the market at large.

I contend Microsoft's imminent device that fully exemplifies this concept via hardware design and software implementation will be more closely identified with a personal computer than a phone. This "device formerly known as a smartphone" will be positioned to accommodate the increasing demands of mobile personal computing in a way competing devices without a universal platform or context sensitive OS cannot.

Finally, though Surface "Phone" is the broadly used moniker for the anticipated Microsoft hero device, I posit that its potential market position as an ultra-mobile personal computer (with telephony) will result in an exclusion of "phone" entirely from its ultimate name and industry positioning.

This is just the beginning

You say puh-tey-toh (potato), I say puh -tuh-toh (potato). You say phone; I say tablet computer. Microsoft says, the foundation for the personal computing "device formerly known as a smartphone."

Whatever Microsoft will call the devices powered by Windows 10 Mobile after the launch of its next flagship early next year they will be positioned as the next step in personal computing. And rest assured they will not be phones.

Stay tuned for "Smartphones are dead Part II: Microsoft and the device formerly known as a smartphone."

In the meantime sound off in comments and meet me on Twitter @JLTechWord to continue the discussion!

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!