Apple's iPhone 4: Is That a Smartphone in Your Pocket?

Apple has already sold an estimated 1-1.5 million units of the iPhone 4, but is it a smartphone? As far as commonly accepted definitions go, the device certainly qualifies: It runs a modern mobile operating system, supports installation of advanced applications and features a high-performance processor. But more often than not in conversation, I don’t hear folks refer to it as a smartphone, or even phone, but an iPhone.

This point was driven home when I attended a recent Career Day event at a local school to explain what I do: namely, report on the wireless industry and review mobile devices. To keep things simple, I started the conversation by asking: “How many of your parents use a smartphone?” Not a single student raised their hand, which caused me to break out into a sweat as I envisioned my entire presentation going down the tubes faster than you can say, “Wimbledon needs a tie-breaker process.” But then the light bulb went on and I asked: “How many of your parents have an iPhone?” Nearly two-thirds of the hands went up.

Such simple branding and product awareness goes a long way toward helping Apple sell products. Look at the iPad, 3 million units of which the company has sold in just 80 days. Instead of floundering around by trying to define the device as a keyboard-less smartbook or a tablet PC without native handwriting capabilities, Apple gave it a definitive name with specific, usable functions and in the process — as I noted when the name was first unveiled in January — cornered the nascent smartbook market before that market even got started.

While other platforms have similar recognition — “My dad has a BlackBerry,” one child proudly told me — Apple enjoys a branding advantage like no other. And it applies not just to the iPhone and iPad, but other Apple products as well. People have told me that they don’t use a desktop, for example, but instead use an iMac. “No, I don’t work on a laptop at home,” someone recently said to me. “I work on my MacBook.” I simply didn’t have the heart to explain what I thought was an obvious point: a MacBook by every definition is a laptop. And last month when we had some Wi-Fi issues at my house, I asked one of the kids to unplug our router. I got a blank look until I said, “The AirPort Extreme,” to which he replied, “Why didn’t you just say so?” Such brand recognition is akin to that of the Frisbee™– a registered trademark for Wham-O’s flying disc, but a name commonly associated to all such similar toys.

So for those of you with an iPhone 4 in your pocket, have you — or would you — ever call it anything else?

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