Small, simple and smart

With the power of the cloud, the boundary between regular mobiles and smartphones is collapsing. That’s great for us all, says Ben Sillis

Nokia’s latest phone can do just about anything. It’s got a touchscreen. You can jump online. It’s got games – you could lose hours playing Final Fantasy on it.  You can send emails and chat with friends all over the world or play music on it. You can even use it to check your location with Nokia’s maps service and plot your route so you don’t get lost on a drive. Sounds smart, right? Here’s the thing though: this isn’t one of Nokia’s expensive new Lumia smartphones running Microsoft’s Windows Phone software. It’s the Nokia Asha 311, a small, simple mobile phone that costs less than US$110 before subsidies.

What makes a phone smart?
Once upon a time, there was a clear divide between smartphones and ‘Average Joe’ mobile phones. The former were big, expensive and ran apps and games, while the latter were cheaper, and did not.

It’s easy to overlook mobile phones – sometimes written off as ‘dumb phones’ – and get swept up in the glitz and glamour of Samsung’s next shiny Galaxy or new Apple iPhone. But while smartphone shipments are growing and growing, mobile phones still count for the majority of handsets shipped each year – 900 million in 2012, compared to 700 million smartphones.

But soon, we won’t be able to tell them apart. The boundaries are rapidly blurring, and you can now do the same things on a US$50 phone that you can on a US$500 smartphone, whether that’s playing Angry Birds (available for many simple Nokia phones) or running a start-up business. Maybe not as quickly, or with as much style – but you still can.

Cloud power
Much of this is down to the rise of the mobile Internet. So long as you’re connected, the sites and services you need or love can use their servers to do all the data crunching, and deliver only what you need to know to your tiny screen.

All the big social networks and digital giants have versions of their websites which run like a dream, even on the most basic phones (in fact, with some mobile networks, 0.Facebook.com is completely free to use – you don’t even pay for data).

Internet access also breaks down the barriers. Now, SMS is a powerful tool. In many developing countries, text messages can be used to transfer money, with a mobile phone. But so long as people still rely on minutes and messages from their network, the lowly mobile phone will remain just that – anything international will cost you a fortune. With an Internet connection, where that data goes doesn’t matter anymore.

Those walls are already starting to crumble. Apps like Skype, Whatsapp and Viber are bringing affordable international calls and messaging to smartphones all over the world. So long as you have Internet access, they’re free or nearly free, and work regardless of what country the friend you’re contacting is in. Whatsapp and Viber even runs on Nokia’s lowly S40 mobile phones.

Internet access is easy to put in every phone now, but more difficult for every phone owner to pay for yet. The hardware power is there: now all that matters is getting everyone connected. I can’t wait – then the only thing holding all of us back is our imaginations.