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December 01, 2008

What do you call a device you can use on the run with one hand?

I installed Ocarina by Smule on my iPhone the other day. Nothing stunning about that I suppose... well, apart from the fact that it's the first time I've ever turned my mobile phone into a social musical instrument! 

But that's the weird thing about the iPhone - it isn't really a phone at all. It's a ... a ... - see, the trouble is, as Stefan Fountain noted at FOWA in London, we haven't got a word for what the iPhone is.

Via @ajcann I note that 100,000 applications have been added to the iPhone App Store in the last 142 days.  That's impressive isn't it? Mine is continually in use (if not by me then by my kids, who love all the games that can be installed) yet in the 3 months or so that I've owned it, I've only used about 6 hours call time - that's about 4 minutes a day (on average). Have I been getting my money's worth? Of course. The real value comes from all the other things I can do with it - not from the fact that it is notionally a 'phone'.

Apple haven't got everything right of course. The choice of O2 as the only UK network provider isn't great (IMHO). The fact that my kids seem to ignore the mute button, turning the volume right down instead, thus causing me to not hear the ring tone every so often (a usability issue?). The somewhat closed nature of the Apple iTunes App Store (meaning that 'jailbreaking' is required for some uses). But on balance, the iPhone gets a lot more right than it gets wrong and I, for one, could never go back.

So, what's the definition of a mobile phone? In the FOWA presentation above, the following definition is suggested:

a device you can use on the run with one hand

I think that definition is slightly broken, since it appears to include the iPod Touch, which doesn't fall into my mental model of a 'phone' (despite the fact that it presumably supports VoIP over wireless). But, to be honest, I can't think of a simple definition of 'mobile phone' that doesn't rule too much out or too much in so maybe the one above is good enough. And perhaps that's the point - convergence is about the blurring of things that used to be separate and as a result, the clear-cut names we used to use no longer apply cleanly.

Well... better get used to it I guess since the situation is almost bound to get worse rather than better - or do I mean better rather than worse!?


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If you add "and supports audio in/out" to the FOWA definition I think you get closer to what we might commonly refer to as a 'mobile'. I don't believe the itouch supports audio in, which effectively stops it acting as even a voip based mobile.

I'd suggest there is also something about coverage for connectivity. Afterall an iPhone without a connection is not very different to an itouch (except for audio in as noted). I don't often care if I'm connected via wifi or gsm, as long as I'm connected.

I'd like to second Owen's comment about connectivity. Being connected almost all the time is the killer app for me - even at GSM speeds which are good enough for Twitter, email, RSS...

I think we already have a term for it, it's just that as a device it makes all the previous "mobile personal computers" look like the boat anchors they in retrospect actually were. But I get what you are saying; it is hard to convince people that a few interface changes (multitouch, GPS, gyrometer), constant connectivity and form factor are the real game changers they are proving to be. But we've actually known this since Englebart's demo 40 years ago. We're just (finally) getting commercial alternatives.

Weren't these called 'palmtops' at one point?

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