Last week, I began an exploration of the technologies and trends that are influencing the future of reading with a discussion of the GMS mobile telephony standard which numerous devices use to enable “ubiquitous” mobile internet access. Today, we’ll take the next step and being to talk about smartphones.

Smartphones (Part I)

[The Apple Iphone 3GS gets a Phone. by flickr user Ninja M.]While there is no universal definition of a smartphone, the general agreement is that in addition to telephony, smartphones integrate a number of features that traditionally were only found on Personal Computers. Smartphone examples include the Apple iPhone, the Blackberry Storm, the Google Nexus One (Android), the HTC HD (Windows Phone), and the Motorola (an)Droid.

Early smartphones, running RIM’s Blackberry and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, established the “base” feature set for these devices: telephony + the schedule and contact management features of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) + (enterprise) email management +ability to develop/run 3rd party software. At this point, at least in the US, these smartphones were marketed as business level devices. While Blackberry (or ‘Crackberry’) developed a certain cultural cache, it was with the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007 that smartphones transitioned into the mainstream.

(note: While the “hows” and “whys” of that move are important to understanding the future of eReading, we’ll have to put them aside for the moment. I promise that I’ll get back to them in a future post. For the moment, let’s just accept that the iPhone was/is a game changer, and one that helps us to understand the current direction of smartphones.)

The success of the iPhone moved the baseline expectations about how smartphones and their related services should work:

  1. Smartphone = Cool
    As mentioned above, the iPhone firmly established smartphones as a consumer product, and more importantly, a status symbol. The iPhone and other smartphones began to make the rounds in popular culture and discussions began to take place about the importance of having a smartphone to “fully engage” with the world around you. And rather than being pushed to the back of their catalogs, cell phone providers began to focus their marketing campaigns around these devices.
    [Iphone on TV]
  2. 100% more screen
    Previous devices relied on tactile hardware (keys) as interface devices. The iPhone was among the first smartphones to sacrifice physical buttons in order to maximize screen space; fast forward just a few years and it’s difficult to find anything but virtual controls on the vast majority of smartphones.

    The effect of the larger screen went beyond simply how it changed the UI – Apple could have made the entire phone smaller and still maximized the screen size. Drawing upon the visual media strengths of the iPod platform, Apple cemented the notion that smartphones were also portable media playback devices. This meant (and this is important for the future of reading) that people would accept carrying larger than average “phone” if it served other purposes. As with monitors, “widescreen” had come to phones and manufactures began to increase the size of their devices. Today cellphone screens carry resolutions like WVGA (854×480) and WUGA (~400×240).

  3. Touch me, touch me, touch me
    [Multi Touch Illustration from zatznotfunny . com]The Apple iPhone OS was arguably the first smart phone to be developed from the ground up with “touch” (or rather the finger) as the primary interface device. Prior to that, the expectation was that a physical keypad/board was typically the basis of interaction. “Touch control” was added, not through fingers, but through the use of a stylus (a future post will tackle touchscreen technology, so again, let’s leave the “hows” and “why’s” of touch alone for the moment). So not only was touch arguably an afterthought, but the assumption was that you’d only use a single touch point at a time. The iPhone brought the concept of multitouch to the mainstream (ie. Adding “pinch” and “stretch” to the interface).

    The effect of touch control is also felt outside of the smartphone market. Fair or not, thanks to the iPhone (and the iPod touch), touchscreen is now imagined as the standard interface for hi-tech portable devices that are primarily screen. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen someone pick up a Kindle and attempt to manipulate the contents of a book by touching the screen only to be disappointed to find out that you need to use the hardware buttons.

  4. The App Store Model
    3rd party smartphone Apps existed long before the iPhone, but there few centralized repositories of applications, and none allowed for “one-touch” installation of applications. In fact, you were often required to tether your smartphone to a computer in order to add new software. Apple’s iTunes App Store changed all of that, enabling users to easily browse and manage applications via their phones. Perhaps more importantly, Apple built a business model around its App Store, taking a piece of every software purchase. Not surprisingly, the creators of the competing OS’s have followed Apple’s example and created their own App Stores.

    The result of the proliferations of App Store’s is two-fold. First, it has firmly established for customers and developers alike that smartphones are software platforms and are to be judged on how they can be extended through software. This leads us to a second point, the success or failure of a particular OS is now intimately tied to not only the experience of the OS, but also the recruitment of application developers.I suspect that, like touchscreens, this expectation of expandability will spread to all other smartphone-like devices – including eReaders. More importantly, it is through these App Stores (and apps) that reading came to smartphones.  Despite Steve Job’s claim that “people don’t read anymore,” reading apps like Lexical’s Stanza, the New York Times eReader, and Amazon’s Kindle software have been a great success on the iPhone. People familiar with the history of technology will see this as another example of how the use of technologies are shaped by multiple parties beyond the manufacturer, in this case users and third party developers.

Now, where does the larger screen, touch control and the apps take us in regards to eReading? I’ll tackle that tomorrow.

Crossposted at the OPL.