Get Over Your Gigahertz: Don't Turn Smartphones Into PCs


Motorola (s Mot) has plans for a 2GHz smartphone with all the bells and whistles it can cram into a pocket-sized device, according to its co-CEO Sanjay Jha. While the geeky chip side of me is terribly excited about a phone that’s more powerful than the laptop I owned as recently as 2005, I also feel like shaking those in the tech world that think this is the way to sell a fun, personal device like a smartphone. Get over your gigahertz, people; the consumer doesn’t care.

One of the best things about smartphones is that most people don’t think of them as computers, so let’s not turn them into PCs with all this performance-based chest-thumping, please. For example, the whole emphasis on the clock speed races between Intel (s intc) and AMD (s amd) for desktops and notebooks was a marketing effort aimed at PCWorld readers and benchmark aficionados. The result with such approaches, however, is that decidedly non-tech-savvy consumers end up feeling like they need to do heavy research before going out to make a purchase.

It’s happening with smartphones, and that’s no good for the industry or the consumer. According to FCC research, 54 percent of consumers are subject to some kind of termination fee because they bought their cell phone under a contract, which means the phone is already a commitment. But the incredible amount of press given to rather minor updates, which come fast and furious, has people stressed out. When my sister-in-law asks me in a worried voice if she needs to care about multitasking on her phone and friends send me emails telling me they’re not going with an iPhone 4 (s aapl) because the Retina Display isn’t as good as Steve Jobs said it was, the industry is not headed down a good path.

Smartphones aren’t toys, but high-end devices that now take work to research, set up and use — and for many, all that work is prohibitive. My dad got a Sprint EVO 4G (s s) last weekend and texted me asking why Pandora, which he was excited about downloading, needed access to his contact information (when you download an Android app you get a nice little list of things the application has access to on the phone). I told him I didn’t know, and he subsequently decided he didn’t want to download it.

I know that phones are becoming more complex, but instead of trumpeting superphones that have better, faster components, their manufacturers need to start emphasizing the simplicity of the user experience, as HTC does. They also need to show people how to use these phones, so they’re not solely viewed as trendy email devices. AMD might have the right idea with its Vision marketing, which focuses more on uses and less on specs. Finally, device makers need to work on the user interface and use cases so that people can explore their phones without getting intimidated by music streaming apps asking for access to their contact info. Frankly, we need to keep the computing nearly invisible — an area where Apple is actually doing a great job.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d): For Phones, the Future is Multiple Cores



It used to be said about Apple, that the difference between the Apple side and the NeXT side was that everybody from NeXT needed an ethernet connect and worked on servers. Now we are moving to subsystem based mobile OSes with cloud connections. But, “it’s about the user experience,” as we had writ large on our chalk board wall in the office.

Two issues here are that the hardware is catching up to nearly non-existant models of mobile interactions and applications. We are at the point in computing where we were comparing Apple IIs, Lisas, and IBM PCs with each other rather than in 2000 comparing clock speed in established markets. Companies can’t quite figure out what to communicate, or do, or make.

Actually, we need mobile interactions to inform desktop design and cloud “Widget” design across platforms. We need power, sensors, and input to get us past the orchard of easy pickings we currently inhabit. The iPad is about the only demonstrable system to provide some desktop functionality in a mobile platform, and we need more of that! As Apple recognizes and most of these other companies besides Google fear, we are moving past the device as a marketable object to the experience.


What’s wrong with having one (relatively powerful) device that will be able of 1080p video output, 1 GB of RAM, 1.5 – 2 GHz dual or quad core ARM processor? Imagine having only one computer that has all it’s data backed up in the cloud and docking it anywhere you go (home, hotel, office). Having UI that can adapt to screen size and usage would be best thing, on smarphone it has one UI, plug it on TV or PC monitor via HDMI it has different UI plug a keyboard and mouse and it has a classic desktop OS UI. Consumers need tech race.. it makes things cheaper. :)


I agree that phone manufacturers should concentrate more on the user experience than on just the GHz race. However, phones in the future are going to be used for lot more than they are being used right now. The day is not far off when you will slip the phone into a dock that is connected to a monitor and keyboard, or to a portable ‘laptop’ shell, and do all your personal computing right on the phone. So, the GHz race is not such a bad thing.

Regarding the examples you gave of your sister and dad – their questions are excellent, and it’s awesome that casual users ask these questions. Both questions are extremely valid and the answers crucial for making the decisions that they made. So, I don’t agree that people shouldn’t have to ask those questions.


Building higher performance more capable phone platforms will allow for more sophisticated applications to be developed in the future. If you are looking for a simple to use highly reliable phone there are certianly plenty to choose from. Those that would like to hedge their bets on phones that will be able to run future applications will purchase the more sophisticated phones and help subsidize the development of these through their purchases. Leave the instructing of what people need to the folks over at apple. They have demonstrated a unique ability to market fashion accessories.


For smartphones to extend the enormous benefit that PC’s have brought to the world, they need to be more powerful to handle the some yet undiscovered use for them. They need to be powerful enough to be invisible when needed and transform to some other form when some other needs arise.

Pushing the envelope has its unforeseen benefits. We have netbooks in the hands of 30 million people and growing, more and more in the developing world, and we also have those crazy overclocked gaming monsters.

Real multitasking, for example, is the smartphone playing a song while using GPS for the map, being a hotspot for the passengers, live-streaming the scenery, and downloading a movie to be watched later on. iPhone 4’s limited multitasking is pathetic. It’s good that your friends are sending you emails telling you they’re not going with iPhone 4- they’re seeing though Steve Jobs’ overhype, his recent Retina claim got called out as “marketing puffery.” Apple’s overhype and wish of dumbing down the technology industry is not the good path to head down to.

Simplicity? maybe get a Nokia C1, just makes calls, battery lasts six weeks.

Jack C

Of course the consumer cares! The dream of “one device to rule them all” needs to live up to that promise. As a gaming platform alone, faster processors will be important.

As a pitch, raw specs have worked for the broader tech/media industries fine.

The main problem with pitching the user experience is that, Apple aside, most companies are terrible at it. That in itself isn’t so surprising, given that the experience, especially with regards to “smartphones,” is so young that it is still being defined. Broadly speaking, the hardware is similarly young.

One might argue the opposite position, that in an era where the user experience is still emerging, coupled with the rate of technological advancements, that specs are probably a better method of pitching/defining smartphones.

Jack C

I’d add that everyone uses virtually identical user experience pitches, so much so, that it utterly fails to differentiate one product from another.



I think you make solid arguments for most of your points, particularly about consumer confusion due to tech speak. I often have similiar thoughts (respectfully) when I read articles here on GigaOm and writers refer to smartphones as “superphones”.

Isn’t “superphone” a different stripe of the same tiger?

My $.02,



This is a first. I actually agree with your point of view here, Stacey.



i would say that outside of a small class of people who have already had blackberries or winmo phones for most of the last decade that smartphones are absolutely toys to the vast majority of users. it is to be part of this cutting edge group of high fashion phone owners that is what is getting people to drop big bucks for the latest and greatest.

turn smartphones into practical communications devices and most people will go back to the simpler, less expensive and easier to carry feature phones.

for so many of these buyers if it were not about buying a phone faster, greater and newer than there neighbors latest phone they would not even be upgrading. these are first and foremost status symbols.


I really can’t agree with the statement quoted below. People should be encouraged to make informed decisions. Whether or not that amounts to pressure and stress is up to the individual. The information needs to be out there so those that care can make informed choices on what they buy. Advertising is one avenue of getting information out there; although while 960×640 is useful, “retina display” is not.

“The result with such approaches, however, is that decidedly non-tech-savvy consumers end up feeling like they need to do heavy research before going out to make a purchase.”

Markus Göbel

I am quite happy about the Gigahertz race.

I could easily drop the phone part of my smartphone, but I’d never give up the small computer it is. That’s a dream I had for more than 20 years come true: a small computer to always carry around.

I still remember how in 2007 a high ranking Motorola manager tried to convince me that the Q9 was all I needed. More power was just not necessary, alledgedly. I only told him that I wouldn’t be satisfied until my smartphon was as fast as paper. Means: lightning fast data speed and snappy graphic power to show websites as fast as a print magazine presents its pages to me.

I am still waiting for that.

Mike Cerm

I think this is a really wrong-headed argument. The specs-race that happened in the PC world, which began right around the time Microsoft started licensing DOS, made real the dream of “a chicken in every pot”. Except, instead of a chicken, we all got 2GHz dual-core PCs that could hold our entire music library, edit video, and surf the web for under $500.

Think the dizzying array of PC configurations are too confusing for people? Well, for 95% of people, the slowest PC you can buy today is more than they’ll need during the life of that system. Meanwhile, Blackberry is leading in smartphone sales, yet you can’t even browse the web on one!

Hopefully the smartphone industry follows the PC industry exactly. They need to standardize on a few operating-systems, and then let the hardware makers battle it out on specs, driving down costs to the point where normal people can afford to buy a smartphone.

If only we had good carrier competition to drive down the cost USING a smartphone, what we’re seeing today in the Android world would be a best-case scenario.


i mostly agree but the thing is that the big cost element is not in the hardware but the expensive data contracts.

what i want see the most is for the carriers top battle it out in an all out price.

Stacey Higginbotham

I agree with the data costs. And I’m not saying we give up on better hardware, merely that we don’t sell phones on specs, but rather on what you can do with them.


Just in case anybody was wondering, the pandora app most likely needs access to your contact list for its share feature. There is an option to share a song or a station with anybody in your contact list. So in order to do that, pandora needs to make its own view for the user to select their contact from a list.


Whether you like it or not its all about comparison.
37 inch vs 60 Inch

80286 vs 80386
Pentium III Vs Pentium 4
Pentium 4 2.4 GHz Vs Pentium 4 3.0 G Hz

5 Gig Vs 20 Gig
40 Gig vs 160 Gig

8 Gig vs 16 Gig Vs 32 Gig

3 MP Vs 12 MP

You might be upset about this gigahertz war but that is the way of the business. When you conveniently said that Apple is focusing on Battery Power, you missed the point of 1 GHz A4 processor used in iPhone 4 which is lot more powerful than iPhone 3GS you also missed the point about 5 MP iPhone camera which is bigger/better than iPhone 3Gs camera.

So Apple is doing it too why target Motorola ?


I disagree. A 60″ TV is likely not better than a 40″ (+/- 5″ for most people that aren’t putting it into a huge room. A Canon SLR with 8MP to 10MP and an L Series lens will take better pictures than any 12MP compact you’d care to buy. And while the A4 chip is faster than it’s iPhone predecessor – the real story is power consumption. Picking one quantitative measure and marketing around that has lost meaning.

Brian S Hall

Totally agree. These are personal devices we use for play and work and networking, gaming, texting, emailing. What’s it like to use!

(Note: i rank smartphones on my site and am up to about 50 and have never used a spec to score one over another.)

Of course, I never had a geeky chip side;-)


You would prefer that people not be informed about what resources an Android app will use? HTC is doing things right, but the EVO is too confusing? You want to somehow prohibit tech publications from reporting on minor updates?

This article is pointless.

Stacey Higginbotham

I think the list of what aspects of the phone an Android app uses is a awesome, but it’s also very confusing. Maybe a link explaining how each app uses different data would be good? An easy (and standard) way to navigate between the layers of information that the user wants or needs to know would help.

And the goal here is to remind the tech community (including myself) not to get so focused on certain trees that we forget the forest, or as I tried to say, don’t focus on gigahertz at the expense of the end user experience and use case.


Absolutely right, Stacey. What matters is what we can do with those gigahertz.

Something else I’d like to point out is that a 2Ghz ARM Processor will not outperform your 2005 laptop. It’s really freakin hard to compare two processors of the same architecture based on clock speed, let alone two entirely different architectures. I’ve yet to see a comparison that isn’t meaningless. But I’m pretty sure 2 ghz from an ARM v7 processor is not going to match even an older mobile x86-based processor. Please, correct me if I’m wrong, but like you said, these clock comparisons confuse and mislead people.


@cacarr – No, but one reasonable approach would be to side-step the whole Facebook/Foursquare everything is public option, and be able to use install Pandora without sharing it all with my friends. It’s not clear if that is possible or not – clearly it can be done on a PC.

Have to agree with Stacey – what feature would a 2Ghz chip enable on a smartphone that a 1Ghz chip would not? Multi-core, ARM vs Intel, and power-consumption concerns (which may or may not be a big problem for EVO depending on who you listen to) have forever altered the “faster is better” equation.


“…what feature would a 2Ghz chip enable on a smartphone that a 1Ghz chip would not?”

Wait a minute, you’re not actually saying that processors in mobile computing devices should just stop right where they are right now and never get any better, are you? Perhaps a 2Ghz mobile cpu isn’t really needed in the immediacy, but surely it will be at some point in the near future. There will be multi-core processors as well — we’ll be docking these devices and throwing the UI up onto other screens, or onto HUD glasses, multi-touchable laser pico projectors, etc., so we’ll need the computing power.

If “regular people” don’t care about hardware specs, I suppose they’ll ignore them. Would you prefer that it’s more difficult for people like me to find out what chip a handset is using?


Reminds me of the race to ever more Megapixels in cameras. Who, besides professionals, needs 10 or 12 MP? Marketing gone wild. I was going to say gone rogue, but that reminds me too much of some ex-Gov.


“geeky chip side” of you? Have you designed chips in the past?

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