Why do we still call them phones?

Yes, you still use those glowing rectangles in your pocket to make and receive phone calls. But is that what you do most on the device? Seriously, do a rough back-of-the-envelope (envelope? who still uses envelopes?) calculation of the percentage of use that phone calls take up. In my case, it doesn’t even reach 3%.

What do you use your phone for?

image via Death to the Stock Photo

image via Death to the Stock Photo

A study cited in a 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review showed that 68% of smartphone use is at home. The most common activity was not chatting or shopping, but “me time”, such as watching videos, reading articles or playing games. Interacting with other people, either via phone calls or chats, only accounted for 19% of smartphone use. Less than a fifth. And of that, phone calls were probably not even 5%.

Let’s go deeper. According to Pew Internet Research, in the US:

  • 68% of smartphone owners use their phone to follow news events
  • 67% use their phone to share pictures, videos, or commentary
  • 62% of smartphone owners have used their phone in the past year to look up health information
  • 57% have used their phone to make payments or manage their bank account
  • 56% use their phone to learn about community events or activities
  • 44% to look up information about a place to live
  • 43% to look up information about a job
  • 40% to look up government services or information
  • 30% to take a class or get educational content.

The smartphone has moved way beyond phone calls. In fact, less and less of my social interaction is done by phone and more by asynchronous chatting via Whatsapp, SMS or even email. This lets me control my time more efficiently. I have my time for concentration with the “Do Not Disturb” activated. And I have my time for sending and answering messages. And occasionally a phone call will come in at a time that I can receive it, and I talk to a human voice. I spend much less time on the phone than either of my parents did. But I connect and interact with many more people during the day.

So, the smartphone may not be so much a phone, more a device that connects us. But to what? To each other? To the cloud? To things? The answer is yes to all. We use our devices to connect with each other, by voice, text or whatever. We also connect to the cloud to receive and to store information. We download, we upload, we share. And the connectivity will only increase with the roll out of the Internet of Things. Connected gadgets – be they doors or kettles or humidifiers – will communicate with us via our small screens. Sensors will allow us to communicate with traffic lights, bus stops, shop merchandising. Our phones connect us to our environment.

They also connect us to ourselves, to our digital personas. When we are posting to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc., we’re sending messages out there, yes. We’re connecting with the cloud. But they’re messages that craft our digital identity. They say a lot about us, and nothing about the receiver. In “communicating” with the ether, or with the masses, however you want to call it, in “communicating” with the crowd, we are defining our digital selves. And recovering that persona, admiring it, tweaking it, polishing it, is available 24/7 thanks to the smartphone.

Your smartphone doesn’t just connect. It also manages your life: it tells you when to drink water, when to leave for a meeting across town, what to cook for dinner, how much exercise you should do… It organizes your transport, plays you music, feeds you news, sends your emails and takes your photographs. It can find you a job, remind you of birthdays, manage your banking, do your shopping and log your symptoms.

And smartphones are everywhere. 80% of all online adults use one.  A Nielsen report from a year ago states that 85% of millennials (18 to 35-year-olds) in the US use one. The percentage is probably higher now, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be giving them up any time soon.  Ericsson just published their Mobility Report, which estimates that by 2020, 70% of the world’s population, including the young, the elderly and those in emerging markets, will have a smartphone subscription.

With smartphone use spreading so fast, and with the majority of the world letting the device become an integral part of daily life, isn’t it about time we came up with a better name?

With “smartwatches”, the situation is a bit different. Most of what we will do with those gadgets is check the time, like we used to do with our watches before our hand-held devices made them unnecessary. We’ll do a lot of other things with them, too, but I bet that in the end just letting us know the time will end up being the top function. So, the name “smartwatch” sort of makes sense. But “smartphone”? Not so much.

The Chinese seem to have a better handle on the bigger picture. Their word for mobile phone is shouji, which literally translates to “hand machine” (or so I’m told, I’m not exactly fluent). That describes much more accurately what the device is: a machine that we hold in our hands. However, “machine” implies mechanics which implies physical production or movement of some type. “Hand computer” sounds more accurately descriptive. It’s a mouthful, though, so surely we can come up with something better.

I asked my son, the creative one in the family, what the smartphone should be called if we couldn’t call it that. “Ocean”, was his response. Hmm. A vast resource, infinite yet always changing, that takes us places, brings things to us, provides and instructs. A resource that is different things to different people at different times of the day or year. Perhaps “ocean” is too generic. “Pocket ocean”, maybe?

Gotta go, my pocket ocean is ringing.

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