About definitions, and the perceptions they generate

This post is merely a verbose version of the often made observation about how perceptions of things are affected by the definitions given to them. A smartphone is used as an example.

NOTE: While correct, the inner workings of technology are oversimplified, and the historical chronology used is casual, and not pedantic. They are used only as a means to an end, and, thus, not to be considered authentic.

The most recent, also the most pervasive and the most awe, and probably envy, generating, electronic gadget is the smartphone. A smartphone is defined as a mobile telephone that can do more than a regular phone; it is almost like a computer. The last bit of the definition is what causes awe among people. I claim this to be nothing more than a marketing gimmick, and pure sophistry, on the part of the smartphone manufacturers. A smartphone is a blend of two machines: a computer and a telephone. Let us see how it came to be.

A computer is a complex electronic (or electrical) machine that works on voltage levels to store, process and transmit information. What started out as a purely engineering assistance tool has evolved into something completely removed from the original area of application. Most users use this machine for purely leisurely tasks, be it social networking or gaming, or anything on those lines. That doesn’t preclude its use from the original area of motivation, which is still extremely valid, and growing. A computer was originally only hardware, in that a machine was purpose built to solve a problem, and only that problem. Software was a much later invention, but it proved to be a better technology simply because one hardware could be used to solve different problems with it. The software was an ingenious invention indeed. Now, the computer could do anything and solve any problem, as long as it had the right software installed. Nothing was impossible, to the extent that given the right electromechanical appendages, like a mechanical arm, software could do “real world” functions as well. Thus, our idea of a computer -an all powerful electronic machine running software -came to be.

The telephone on the other hand was a very simple and straight forward electrical device. It transmitted electricity, generated by a sound at one end, over long distances using copper wire, which at the other end was transformed into a sound. An electrical machine dealing with sound couldn’t get any simpler. The improvements that followed dealt mostly with better modulation and demodulation to give clearer sound, until radio waves were used. Radio waves were used to carry information, and thus voice. Telephones could now be used without wires. When the general populaton had access to this kind of telephone, it must have been seen as a very powerful machine compared to its land line cousins, for it gave people a sense of freedom -not being tied to a corner of a room, or not waiting in long lines, or not knowing whereabouts of their near and dear etc.

Then came the big idea: smartphone. A smartphone, which is a mobile telephone, is often held in contrast to the “dumb mobile telephones” and shown to be superior due to its versatility. There is an operating system running, like a computer has, which can run different applications, again like on a computer. These applications are often a version written for the phones, and much similar to their computer cousins. Thus it is shown that a smartphone is very powerful mobile phone.

Actually, long before smartphones, the dumbphones that were there were no different. They had an operating system too that was running applications. All functionalities offered by dumbphones were in reality applications running on the operating system. The only difference was users could not install and uinstall their applications. In effect, this was a purpose built computer.

Going back to versatility of a computer, historically, connection to internet was through telephone lines, via dial up modems. Modems themselves are purpose built computers: they translate electronic signals between the telephone lines and a computer. With a modem connected, and the right software installed, a computer can make telephone calls. Imagine this: You are working at your desk on your computer pre mobile phone era and you want to order a take out. Instead of leaving your desk and going all the way to the phone, or possibly to your neighbors, you could just switch on the modem, run the software, and make the call. How magical is that? Not much, because all you did was run a software; besides this is an all powerful computer in the first place.

Now imagine this: You are talking to your friend on your smartphone, commuting, debating on how wise it is investing in the stock market at the moment and you can’t recall the information you read in the papers earlier. Instead of trying to borrow papers from already grumpy co commuters, you connect to internet, on your smartphone, open your favorite web browser, on your smart-phone, search and voila! you get what you want. Information is right in your pocket. How magical is that? Extremely.

At this point we can’t help but ask these questions.

  1. Why was making telephone calls on computer not nearly as awesome as using internet on mobile phone?
  2. Why is the latter case not of a computer being used as a telephone, rather a case of a telephone being used as a computer?

The first question is about as much sophism as the idea of a smartphone. The answer depends on who is asked. A person born in the 60s or earlier would have found it incredible awesome but to a person born in the 90s or later this was commonplace and nothing remarkable. If we can stretch our imagination, the first telephones might indeed have been called “telegraph that talks”!

The second question is important, and the central point of this writing.

Although computers started out as bulky machines, needing rooms full of space, and were maintenance chores, what has remained in people’s imagination as a computer is the desktop, or PC. The mainframes are usually just a thing people have heard of and not seen. Between the desktop and the smart-phone have come a number of mobile, computer-eque devices: PDAs, laptops, netbooks and tablets.

Early business laptops used to have build in modems, and of course, speakers and microphones. If one made telephone calls from one such laptop, why would it not be a smartphone? If a telephone call is made using netbooks, which are lighter laptops„ would they be considered smartphones? How about making telephone calls with a tablet?

Turing the questions on their collective heads, if the SIM card (or other telephony related hardware depending on the device) is removed from a smart-phone, will it be a “smartphone without connectivity” or a “palm fitting computer”?

Some things that come out of the observations so far are

  • versatility implies power
  • complexity implies power

These can be extended and generalized as

  • power implies importance
  • possessing important things gives importance
  • people crave importance

Thus, when all the devices are nothing but computers, purpose built or not, the definitions given to them have profound effect on how they are perceived, be about their importance or their power.