A combination of the computer, digital camera, GPS, MP3 player, and the cell phone, the smartphone is well on its way to finding a home in every American’s pocket. According to the latest numbers from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (current as of May 2013) 56 percent of American adults now own a smartphone (Brenner). Even more notable, is the smartphone’s rate of adoption over time. In May 2011, when Pew began conducting the study, only 35% of Americans owned a smartphone. By February 2012, that number had jumped to 46%. In many ways, the smartphone has fundamentally altered the way that we interact with the world around us, giving us access to media as diverse as maps, social networks, email, and games away from our computers. In this process, telephones have transitioned from their traditional paradigm of one-to-one mass media communication to many other modes, from one-to-many communications like websites to many-to-many communications by way of Wikis or forums.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the smartphone as “Originally: any of various telephones enhanced with computer technology. Later chiefly: spec. a mobile phone capable of running general-purpose computer applications, now typically with a touch-screen interface and Internet access” (“Smartphone, N.”). While the word smartphone may initially appear to be a mere combination of the words “smart” and “phone”, in fact, the word “smart” functions more as a modifier of “phone,” indicating the device’s evolution over time. While the process to make a phone call on a smartphone is very different than on its antecedents, particularly on a device like the rotary telephone, the ultimate method of mediation has not changed very much. To this end, the OED’s definition of phone simply reads “A telephone apparatus; a telephone receiver or handset”, a definition that could still define the smartphone today (“Phone, N.2”). As such, the smartphone is still a phone, although the low level of importance that manufacturers usually place upon the smartphone’s ability to call other phones suggests that the changes in mediation that define the smartphone lie in its “smart” features.

The OED has a number of definitions for the word smart, but perhaps most appropriate is “Of a device or machine: appearing to have a degree of intelligence; able to react or respond to differing requirements, varying situations, or past events; programmed so as to be capable of some independent action; (in later use) spec. containing a microprocessor (opposed to dumb adj. 7c). Of a material, medicine, etc.: designed to act or respond to conditions in a more sophisticated way than is typical” (“Smart, Adj. 10b). Historically, the term smartphone has been used primarily as a point of differentiation from other phones on the market. Consequently, the precise meaning of the term has developed over time. As the technology in mobile phones becomes more sophisticated, what might have been considered a smartphone a few years ago would no longer be best described as such.

In fact, it was not until Steve Jobs’ famous unveiling of the iPhone that we began to use “smartphone” to describe a phone with Internet access and a touchscreen.  The Penelope and the Blackberry primarily used the term for marketing purposes, so that they could differentiate themselves from other more basic phones on the market. Soon after the iPhone was introduced, the term smartphone came to refer to a phone “typically with a touch-screen interface and Internet access” (“Smartphone, N.”). While the iPhone and phones like the Penelope used the word “smartphone” to refer to something extremely different design-wise, it still worked as a point of differentiation between other mobile phones on the market in both cases.

Despite obvious differences in industrial design and methods of input, it was the ability to run third-party applications that served to create a functional difference from the feature phone. This is reflected by the OED definition of the contemporary feature phone, which refers to “a mobile phone incorporating features such as Internet access and music playback, but lacking advanced functionality such as the ability to run general-purpose computer applications”(“Feature Phone, N.”). In fact, these so-called “general purpose applications” were not available for the iPhone until a little more than a year after the device was initially released. When the App Store finally opened, there was a fundamental shift in the way that smartphone users interacted with their phones, as well as media more generally.

More than simply a point of differentiation from the feature phone, third-party applications also worked to fundamentally redefine the way smartphone users interact with the world around them. When the App Store opened in July of 2008, there was the first fundamental shift in the work/play balance, mostly stationary for the first decade or so of the smartphone’s existence. The BlackBerry’s primary focus on email meant that it was almost entirely a machine for work. In the beginning, the iPhone shipped with a limited number of applications, all developed internally at Apple. These applications were almost entirely work utilities. When the App Store opened, though, there was a flood of games and other applications that took advantage of the iPhone’s ability to switch between mode of work and modes of play almost instantaneously.

This trait of multitasking is integral to every major smartphone operating system today, from Android and iOS to the newest operating system for the BlackBerry, BlackBerry 10. Multitasking not only allows the user to shift between modes of work and play, but also between broader paradigms of communication. A user might easily switch from the one-to-one medium of the text message back to watching a film (which broadcasts its message along the lines of one-to-many) over to editing a Wiki page about that film, contributing to a many-to-many work of collaboration. The smartphone is the first device to enable such seamless shifts in reception and broadcast across the space of a user’s life. Because these transitions are almost unnoticeable, smartphone users engage with media much differently than they might have in the past, expecting instantaneous delivery of vastly different kinds of content regardless of temporal or spatial divisions.

In her article “I Phone, I Learn”, Anne Balsamo argues that the smartphone’s ability to respond to the user’s unique desires has engendered a deep-rooted connection between the user and the smartphone. She states, “Apple launched a product that is implicated with in a matrix of cultural changes that concern not simply how we communicate but also how we live, play affiliate, work, and learn in a digital age” (Balsamo, 252). As such, the smartphone has become a particularly interesting device to apply Marshall McLuhan’s theories of media to. In Understanding Media, McLuhan describes how electricity has created a world in which “our central nervous system is technologically extended to the whole of mankind” (6). In some sense, the smartphone is an extreme extension of these ideas. As the smartphone is able to appeal to users through their senses of touch, hearing, and sight, often all at the same time, our central nervous system is able to be connected to the world outside of us even more completely than through a medium like television, which connects viewers to mankind through just two sensory portals.

Balsamo argues for a connection between the user and the smartphone that is even more fundamental than McLuhan’s extension of the senses. In contrast to McLuhan’s definition of media, she states that she pulls the smartphone into her very essence, stating “I incorporate it as a prosthetic extension of my corporeal being. Not merely an extension of my ear, as McLuhan would have argued, it is me. My body/myself—my iPhone/myself. I become the cyborg I always wanted to be” (Balsamo, 251-252). The connections that Balsamo describes can be at least partially attributed to the direct manipulation involved in the use of the iPhone’s touchscreen. Namely, because the user directly controls the onscreen media objects, there is a stronger connection between what is happening on the device and what the user is doing. The smartphone is relatively unique within the media landscape for the way that it utilizes touch. For Balsamo, the smartphone is so customizable and adaptive that it can always be perfectly matched with its user, regardless of where she is.

While the word smartphone originated as a marketing term used to differentiate phones with any sort of computer technology under the hood, it has quickly evolved to encapsulate an entire industry of products. At the heart of this industry is a fundamental concern with connectivity and personalization, some of those same concerns that McLuhan addresses in Understanding Media. While McLuhan may not have agreed with the nature of the connections that Balsamo posits, it is undeniable that the smartphones that most Americans carry in their pockets are influencing the means of everyday connection, particularly in the way that they work across spatial barriers. These connections are extremely individualized, ultimately speaking to the ability of new mediums to capture us in increasingly powerful ways.

— Zane Burton

Works Cited

Balsamo, Anne. Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media. Ed. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. 251-64. Print.

Brenner, Joanna. “Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.” Pew Internet: Mobile. N.p., 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.

“Feature Phone, N.” Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media; The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.

“Penelope Box.” Photograph. Stockholm Smartphone. N.p., N.d. Web.  02 Feb 2014.

“Phone, N.2.” Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.

“Smart, Adj.10b.” Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.

“Smartphone, N.” Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.