If you’re reading this, you’ve probably got a smartphone, or it won’t be too long before you do. This indispensable personal item has become the fastest growing technology in history, with over a billion—that’s one-seventh of the world’s population—shipping in 2013 alone, more than all computers, televisions, cameras and GPS units combined. But perhaps because adoption has been so fast, it’s likely that the majority of smartphone owners don’t fully know or appreciate the inner workings of these devices, and may not be getting the most out of them. Never fear, we are here, with a layman’s view of what you need to know, in the form of the five C’s:
- content (creation and consumption)
- cloud; and
Phones have always been about communication, which requires connectivity to a network and to other devices. But how far this idea has come! Most smartphones today still retain the connection to a voice network for phone calls, but in some studies, smartphone users spend less than 10 percent of their time on these devices on such calls. Here are some other types of connectivity, either active or ready to be switched on, in the typical smartphone:
- Mobile data: smartphones are more often used to communicate data—such as web pages, e-mails, multimedia messages, streaming entertainment and social media—than voice calls today, requiring a different network than for calling; wireless carriers have built out extensive networks to accommodate this demand.
- Wi-Fi: an alternative to wireless carriers’ mobile data is Wi-Fi, or fixed wireless broadband; Wi-Fi is often free, which makes it a compelling alternative to mobile data, and is available in public spaces such as libraries and coffee shops, or sometimes even at home; smartphones have settings to allow you to automatically switch to known Wi-Fi networks when you’re in range.
- Global Positioning System: smartphones connect to the GPS satellite network to pinpoint your location and tailor the information you receive accordingly; emergency services will be able to locate you automatically when you call, and various apps on your phone will use your location data to send you customized weather alerts or entertainment recommendations.
- Bluetooth: this is a short-range technology which enables you to connect your smartphone to accessories—such as a headset or speakers—or computers nearby, cutting yet another cord.
- Near Field Communication: another short-range technology, NFC has primarily been used to connect smartphones to compatible payment terminals at various retailers, so users can wave their phones and make payments with credentials stored on the devices; don’t worry, this procedure requires some kind of active verification by the user, so you won’t be seeing charges every time you walk past a terminal!
Okay, this is what really started the era of smartphones. In addition to the array of communication and connectivity options, smartphones house powerful computing platforms, approaching the sophistication of their desktop counterparts. In 2012, the observation was made that smartphones had more processing power than NASA had when it landed a man on the moon. Here are a few of the things that give these devices their computing chops:
- Operating system: the software framework that operates the various elements of the device. Today there are two major OSs which share over 90% of the smartphone market: iOS, available only on phones and tablets made by Apple; and Android, developed by Google but used by various manufacturers including but not limited to HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung. OSs operate the device, but just as importantly, provide the common language for …
- Apps, or independent programs developed and provided by third parties, which leverage the unique combination of computing and mobility to deliver highly interactive and customized services. Apps are available for productivity (Google Docs or Microsoft Office), entertainment (Netflix, Pandora), social networking (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter) and a variety of other categories. There are over one million unique apps on the iOS App Store alone.
- Processor: the brain of any computer. Every year the processing power of smartphones increases significantly, supporting—or perhaps just keeping pace with—the cornucopia of new capabilities, features and services that form the evolving mobile experience.
- Storage: new technology such as flash memory can accommodate as much as 128 gigabytes (GB) of storage, which comes in handy as apps and the high-quality multimedia content they traffic in require more and more space.
Content (Consumption and Creation)
With sophisticated computing and connectivity in a very portable form, smartphones have become popular hubs for the production and consumption of all kinds of media. This area is perhaps where smartphones have made the biggest strides in terms of consumer technology. Take a look at what’s available on the surface of most devices today:
- Cameras: not one, but two. A rear-facing camera takes photographs and high-definition video rivaling that of standalone cameras in quality; from 13 MP stills to 4K video, the imagery can be stunning. A front-facing camera is popular for selfies and video chat.
- High-definition display: most large, flat-screen televisions offer 1080P quality or 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels tall; well, the latest smartphones supersede that standard with 2560 by 1440, screen sizes pushing toward 6 inches diagonally, and pixel density high enough that pixel separation is imperceptible to the human eye.
- Touchscreen: the iPhone led the charge away from keypads and keyboards, replacing them with touchscreens and software-defined input mechanisms, and freeing up device real estate for larger screens when input wasn’t necessary; almost all smartphones use this format today.
- Voice input: most smartphones released after 2012 offer some kind of voice input, whether it is Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Now, or Microsoft’s Cortana; these systems get high marks for accuracy of voice recognition, diversity of functions enabled by voice, and even personality.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the cloud is just another word for the Internet. Only instead of just being accessible through a browser, it is continuously interacting with aspects of your smartphone, living and breathing behind all of the apps and software, receiving uploads and offering data. As mobile devices become more ubiquitous and constantly connected, it is possible, and perhaps even necessary, to offload data-heavy functions and content to servers “in the cloud.” Think about your contacts: on your first mobile phone, you stored your contacts directly on the device, and had to manually transfer them to your next phone. At some point, you might have synced your contacts between your desktop computer and your phone. Now, smartphones can store contacts in your secured account in the cloud, so that you can retrieve them on any device you own, and transfer them with a few clicks.
This same concept applies to e-mails, messages, photos and videos, and data stored in any app. The advantages of cloud storage are the assurance that you will not lose your data if you lose your smartphone, and the data can be analyzed to provide you a more customized experience. Of course, there are well-documented risks to cloud storage as well, chiefly that cloud servers can get hacked and the data stolen. Given how much of our personal information is stored outside of our control—think credit card data being collected every time you swipe it at a cash register—we need to think twice about being too conservative about connecting our smartphones to the cloud. Rather we should act in an informed and vigilant manner, and take some precautionary protective measures. For example, your smartphone may store your photographs in the cloud by default, but you may be able to switch off that function.
Owning a smartphone entails numerous tangible and intangible costs, and it is critical to understand and act on the inevitable tradeoffs.
- Device: although the dynamics of device cost vary by geography, let’s focus on the U.S., where smartphones got their global start. For years, wireless carriers subsidized the upfront cost of a device—paying manufacturers up to $400 per unit more than they charged consumers—and locking them into long-term service contracts in return. This artificially low pricing may be responsible for the rapid proliferation of smartphones. In 2013, U.S. carriers began to replace service contracts with device installment payment plans. Regardless of payment plan, consumers should be prepared that they will somehow be responsible for the complete cost of the device—on average $700—in the long term.
- Service plan: wireless carriers charge for connectivity to their networks, seeking returns on their significant investment in exclusive rights to radio spectrum and network infrastructure. When carriers subsidize consumer devices, the service plan cost increases accordingly. Before smartphones were ubiquitous and their aggregate impact on networks was understood, carriers offered unlimited data plans; however, today mainly finite data plans are available, meaning that smartphone users need to be careful about how much data they use on a daily basis.
- Battery life: the various and sophisticated connectivity, computing and content features of smartphones require significant battery power, and the frequent immobilization of these mobile devices due to the need for charging has emerged as one of the chief complaints consumers have. Unfortunately, while smartphone functionality is increasing exponentially year after year, battery technology is only advancing at the rate of 1% per year. This means smartphone users need to be vigilant about minimizing unnecessary drain on the battery, for example by switching off connectivity when not required, or decreasing screen brightness.
- Data plan: most wireless carriers’ data plans are limited to specific amounts of data—for example, 1 GB or 10 GB per month—and exceeding the limit can result in significant surcharges. Accordingly, smartphone users are faced with tradeoffs in monitoring their data usage, switching to Wi-Fi whenever possible, or paying additional fees.
- Storage: as smartphones and networks get more powerful, the content generated can eat up the finite storage space on the device. Those sophisticated apps, 8 MP photographs or 1080p videos require significant space. Users need to regularly free up space by transferring files onto desktop computers or external drives, or consider streaming content rather than downloading it.
- Privacy: with data increasingly being stored in the cloud, documents and media being easily transmitted with a click, and devices signaling their locations, the risks of your personal information falling into the wrong hands has risen with the advent of smartphones. To be fair, such risks are not confined to mobile devices or even technology, but smartphone users must either be vigilant in protecting their privacy or be prepared for it to be compromised from unexpected quarters.