First Click: Isn't it time to drop the 'smart' from smartphone?

August 31st, 2016

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We no longer call “refrigerators” “ice boxes,” and nobody feels the need to preface “radio” with “transistor” any more. So why do we still call the phones we use everyday “smartphones?” Isn’t it time to just call them phones?

Think of the word “phone” for a second. What do you picture in your head? Hold that thought.

For many, the telephone is the thing that is, or was, plugged into the wall at home or the office. It’s the landline. But in the US, almost half of all households don’t have landline phones anymore, according to the latest Wireless Substitution data collected by the CDC. Now 48.3 percent of households are now cellphone-only, up from 47.4 percent in the six months prior. And the number jumps dramatically if we ignore anyone over the age of 45, which you would be wise to do anyway.

According to the NHIS estimates for the second half of 2015, over two-thirds of adults aged between 25 and 34 live in households without landlines. Eighteen to 24-year-olds rank a bit lower (61.1 percent) because some live with a parent still clutching to the security of Ma Bell. Thirty-five to 44-year-olds live in households that are 58.2 percent landline-free. But above that, the percentage of adult households willing to ditch landlines decreases steadily as ages goes up.

So, what did you imagine when you thought of the word "phone" earlier? If it was the archetypal landline telephone with its rotary dial and coiled handset then it’s time to reprogram. That’s a device from a bygone era. Let’s replace it with something more modern, like, say, a slab of metal and glass with a big rectangular touchscreen on the front. A smartphone, in other words.

2007 ushered in the modern smartphone era with the launch of the iPhone. At the time cellphones could be divvied up into three categories: dumb phones, dominated by large physical number pads and tiny monochrome displays that were limited to making calls and T9 texting; smartphones, that let you browse the "real internet" and use apps on big colorful screens; and featurephones, that were more intelligent than dumb phones but not as sophisticated as smartphone flagships. The line separating feature phones and smartphones was often contentious among mobile fanatics. Some in the Symbian and Windows Mobile communities argued that the iPhone wasn’t a smartphone at all when it launched because it lacked side-loadable apps, 3G data, copy / paste, and multitasking. The public didn’t care though, and bought iPhones by the millions.

By 2012, more than half of the US was using smartphones. By 2015, more than two-thirds of Americans were using smartphones powered by either iOS or Android. Today, dumb phones are so cheap that they’ve created a market of disposable "burners" for all kinds of practical and nefarious uses. Featurephones, once pushed as low-cost alternatives to smartphones, especially in emerging markets, have essentially disappeared thanks to the global proliferation of Android. And for many, especially people in poorer countries lacking any residential landline infrastructure whatsoever, their smartphones will be their very first phones of any kind.

So, with the landline phones relegated to a thing of the past and smartphones making up the vast majority of phones sold today, isn’t it time we untethered the words "smart" and "phone" once and for all? We need a new lexicon because our phones are now, by default, smart. Almost every television is now too, but nobody says "Hey hon, let’s just stay at home and watch smart TV tonight." Calling a phone smart in the latter half of 2016 is just as silly.

P.S., And while we’re at it, can we stop "dialing" people too? Steve Jobs’ rotary iPhone was just a joke. Besides, who uses a phone to call anyone these days?

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