How clever are smartphones really?

Last issue of New Scientist published a paean to IPhone named Appland: How smartphones are transforming our lives. It follows a traditional NS pattern of being ahead of the curve for science and behind it with technology. The author was elated, and there is a crucial distinction between things that make you happy and things that don't. …

Originally posted by Michael Brooks:

Just walking out of the shop with my iPhone sent my happiness quotient through the roof – a tiny part of me wanted to cry. After all the waiting, it was like being given magic powers.

Suddenly I could identify any song playing on the radio with an app called Shazam. With Google on tap, I was the fount of all knowledge. I could go to the beach yet not miss emails offering me wildly lucrative work (still waiting on those). My children could borrow it to embarrass my mother-in-law with Atomic Fart. I can even pop bubble wrap with an eponymous app. So why would I need an app that promised to make me happier, called Live Happy?

I tried it anyway. It asked me to type in some life goals and when I planned to achieve them. I complied. I wrote my brother's name in as someone whom I should call more often. I even put a favourite picture in the "savouring album". I couldn't quite bring myself to keep a Gratitude Journal (especially when I thought about the thing I was most grateful for – it just seemed wrong to write "my iPhone" in that space).

My gratitude towards my iPhone is at its highest when I am lost. As a navigationally challenged individual, just having the combination of Google maps and GPS in my hand makes a smartphone worthwhile. I stride confidently forward, and all I need to do is glance at the screen a minute later to know that I need to turn around and go back the other way. Bliss.

Or it was. Now there's a new iPhone, and it has a compass built in. I need a compass. Why haven't I got a compass? In a cruel twist, Apple's relentless pursuit of even more happiness has made me unhappy with my iPhone. Curse its glossy black casing. I've updated my life goals to include upgrading my iPhone.

I have a phone with similar magical powers, an HTC Touch Diamond. It is the worst phone I have bought in my life, why that is might warrant a separate post. Yes, a major reason is the phone OS. The iPhone one is the best, and I don't think it is possible to design a phone OS worse than Windows Mobile if you tried. But I think the problem runs deeper than that and my love affair with "smart phones" has ended just as the article authors are so deliciously falling in love.

The article's claim, that gadgets/widgets/apps are what makes life worth living, is central to the software strategy of Opera Software and the other browser vendors. Unfortunately these pieces of encapsulated single-purpose software leave me cold. I try them a few times with forced entusiasm and never feel the use to use them ever again. The only place I have seen them add value is with Opera Unite, and that primarily because it makes packaging, vetting, and managing server components much easier than the alternative.

That of course is the argument for the App Store,

But forget the touch screen and sleek design, the truly revolutionary thing that Apple CEO Steve Jobs managed to do with the iPhone was to persuade cellphone network operators to loosen their grip on what phones could do. One of the consequences of this coup was the birth of the App Store, which Apple alone controlled and had designed to be as easy to browse as the iTunes store.

something I assume Riverturn would concur with. This apparent revolution is replete with futurist visions.

In 10 to 15 years, app-enabled phones will be the number one channel through which we receive information, according to B. J. Fogg of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who studies the "persuasive" power of technologies. "We're building our lives around apps," he says. The devices know where we are and perhaps even what we are doing because of the phone's various sensors. Therefore, Fogg argues, they can provide highly personalised information that trumps the internet, TV, radio or traditional media.

So which vision will prevail? The trinity of annoyance, desire, and economy has led us to very different places. The PC is a product of happenstance, and I have long ago predicted its demise. Three years ago I realised I was more happy with a dumb phone than a smartphone, even though the latter would have been twice as expensive, had I paid for it. That just a couple years after I had felt the same pervasive smartphone freedom as the NS authors have, and now I am left with the disenchantment. The more the smartphones live up to their potential, the hardware becomes powerful enough, the software becomes sleek enough, the clearer it becomes that the smartphone potential simply isn't enough.

That is not to say that there isn't a future for a personalised device more clever than you, but it isn't enough, and throwing dozens of apps at the problem may keep us amused for a while but cannot hide the emptiness within over time. The browser increasingly merges the roles of device user interface and user agent, but cannot do that satisfactory without better device integration, which indeed should be exposed to the hollowly amusing app writes. When I still worked for Opera I had a tinge of envy for the iPhone platform because to make a full phone browser you need a higher degree of integration that is available to a third-party program on most platforms, not to speak of the sandboxed and sandbagged Opera Mini.

Our gFuture

Apple's products are closely vertically integrated with the company's profit margin. Opera, for its integrational handicaps, has a fighting chance. But it is Google that is by far best positioned. Not just for the touted openness of its platforms, but for the better integration with the web. While Android has competition, the cleverly named Chrome OS shows they have realised that integration applies to other devices than smartphones, and that the operating system is not the business model.

There are only two requirements of an operating system: It shall run and it shall hide. Apple and Microsoft both have vested interest in the OS market, they use the OS as a wedge to sell their other products and they have turned a nice profit on the OS-es themselves. Linux entusiasts need something to accentuate their variant of Linux from the next one. Google has no such millstone, a Google OS would be a means rather than an end. This should allow them to make a system well enough where nobody has to pay attention to the men behind the curtain.

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