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

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Apple (s aapl) 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 (s rimm),” 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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58 Responses to “Apple's iPhone 4: Is That a Smartphone in Your Pocket?”

  1. Bocephus

    To most people the iPhone is not a regular phone it is THE phone by which all others want to be.

    In other words the use of terms like “smartphone” or “superphone” are meant to raise the level of that phone to that of the iPhone.

    To put it another way a smartphone or superphone is just a phone that is trying very hard to emulate an iPhone. It’s that simple.

  2. Apple’s good at brand name recognition, but this is also just a general problem for any successful brand.

    You could have asked, when you sneeze do you use a handkerchief or disposable tissue? And I bet many kids across decades would say they don’t, they use Kleenexâ„¢.

    Apple enjoys a special place within this phenomenon, not just for their excellent marketing, but also for the history of some of these terms by other brands.

    IBM made IBM PCs — for personal computer. This was technically a generic term, but by being popularized by a specific brand name product, when it became more generic, it became simply PC. That’s really when the Mac vs. PC wars began — and when people started to think of every single computer for consumers as being either a generic PC or a Mac from Apple.

  3. This is a lot like the “Google is a browser” thing (

    I think there’s also a potential for problems for Mac users (and users of other Apple products) if people who think Macs aren’t “computers” claim something can’t be done on a Mac (like connect to a WiFi network or use VPN or run Office). The status of a Mac in their mind as “!computer” means everything about the machine is therefore unrelated to the Windows world, and if you don’t really understand how the Windows world (i.e., basic file-based networkable computing) works, a Mac just does not compute.

    I bring this up because while “smartphone” is certainly marketing gobbily gook (as useful as “smart classroom” but without the space), I don’t think it’s a simple thing for Apple to have its branded items like “iPhone” thought of as the essence of the thing itself. It’s not some marketing genius on the part of Apple, it’s more like dumb luck that could morph into bad luck in certain ways.

  4. Great post. Thanks. I agreed with everything you said right up to the Frisbeeâ„¢ point. I have never heard anyone refer to a product from another manufacturer by a Apple brand name like you do with a Frisbee or Kleenex. I think instead Apple has been able to create such a strong connection with the name of their products that they become a category all by themselves even though they clearly, like you point out, are in an existing category. I even find myself doing this.

    • Perhaps “great example” isn’t the best phrase.

      The digital divide is growing. People like Mr. Tofel are becoming increasingly irrelevant to today’s technology landscape. If you’re writing about consumer technologies and you can’t connect with Joe Consumer, what are you doing?

  5. “I have an iPhone”, but “let me use my phone to call so and so”. The iPhone is of course a smartphone though and I have referred to it as such (“this is the best smartphone I have ever owned”).

  6. Andre Richards

    I have an iPhone and my wife has a Droid Eris. My 7-year-old son consistently refers to her phone as “Mom’s iPhone.” I suspect that’s a common thing and I’m sure there are some marketing folks at Motorola who must be driven up a wall by it.

  7. Nevan Scott

    It’s interesting to think about this with regards to the iPod Touch. I use one, and sometimes I’ll call it an iPod, but more often than not the only way to describe it is by calling it by its full name: iPod Touch. (I don’t really like the diminutive “iTouch”.) What more generic name could I use? The closest I can think of is “PDA” – but I don’t think most people would even know what that means, and those that do probably imagine an old PalmPilot…

  8. Dan Woods

    Here in Australia, they are generally known as Mobiles.
    Smartphone is rarely used, even in the tech industry because of one reason: The iMate SmartPhone2.

    This giant, ugly brick ran Microsoft Smartphone OS 2003 and was pushed hard by Telstra as a business device before Blackberry came onto the scene. WiMo made these things so unusable that they were called “Dumb Phones” by people who used them casually, but they were popular enough by the people who spent the time with them to receive decent mindshare.
    Subsequent WiMo phones pushed by Telstra were equally unusable, like the Samsung Blackjack, iMate JasJam and HTC Touch Dual.

    When Blackberry’s caught on, They weren’t marketed as SmartPhones due to the stigma of the WiMo devices and Nokia’s N-Series and E-Series phones were just marketed as Phones. You see ads for E-series phones next to ads for feature phones, and at similar prices.

    When the iPhone 3G was released, and superseded all SmartPhone-class devices but the budget-priced Nokias and entrenched Blackberrys, the Moniker started being adopted by Android Devices. That may be a key reason why Android is no-where near as popular here as in the US.

  9. I’ve read a lot of articles that says there are a problem on iPhone 4. Smart but poor signal -> nothing. So, means not as “smarter” as they say. Just my personal opinion :)

  10. Space Gorilla

    Heh, I wonder how many iPhones, iPads, etc Apple will have to sell before the anti-Apple crowd stops using the ‘people just buy it as a status symbol’ excuse? The reality is that Apple products work really well and they deliver great value for the money, that’s why they sell so well.

  11. Edgar lo Siento

    I have to say, I don’t use the term “smartphone” either. I am only aware of it as a marketing category signifying phones that do computing tasks badly. E.g. read only excel files, slow web browsing, etc. Versus iPhones and Blackberries, of course.

  12. The frisbee analogy strikes me as a little odd. Apple’s game seems to seek very much to differentiate themselves from those ubiquitous terms. They neither want to ascribe to them, nor have other products ascribed to theirs (though I have heard a few people call any music player an iPod). To me this is quite different from seeing every flying round thing as a Frisbee, or everything you blow your nose with as a Kleenex. I can’t really think of any other companies that have been so successful while remaining (at least in image) niche at the same time.

  13. At my school, we recently bought a couple dozen iMacs to go alongside the existing HP computers in our library. I observed that both teachers and students refer to the iMacs as “Macs” and the HPs as just “computers.” While the typical consumer might not know the terminology for all of the different OS X running machines, they do recognize the difference between Macs and PCs and refer to them as such. Chalk it all up to the Mac vs. PC ads, I guess.

  14. Although if people start calling all smartphones; iPhones, they could start losing the name (i.e. Xerox). Since it is becoming an all around term, you start to lose your trademark.

  15. I must admit, I always call my iPhone, ‘iPhone’. I’ve never referred to it simply as a ‘phone’, or even ‘mobile’ (cell). My Mac is ‘Mac’ and my MacBook Pro is, well, you get the drift.

    You’re totally right: Apple has managed to effectively brand its products to the point that people differentiate them from everything else, to the point of making people completely and utterly blinkered.

    People may not know what Apple’s less common products are called, but they are certainly aware of them, even if they can’t recall their names or exactly how they look. When people see an Apple product, they may not know what it is, but they are immediately aware that it has been created by Apple.

    I am a complete Apple convert and will never, ever use a PC ever again, nor will I ever swap my iPhone for a standard mobile. There is most definitely an element of elitism to this and I am acutely aware that I have been pulled into the ‘cult’, hook, line and sinker. I don’t have any problem with it either, which if it were anything else then I would not allow myself to be drawn in. I see that people look up to Steve Jobs like he’s solved third world poverty and I find myself doing it too. Bizarre.

    The spell will take a lot of breaking.

    • It’s called appropriation in the social constructivist sense. Your identity has become intertwined with the tools you use.

      The ‘never use a PC again’ bit is purely cognitive dissonance though.

      The problem with this viewpoint is that you never challenge the brand you identify with when they do something wrong like, for example, shipping products that haven’t been adequately quality assured. It gets even worse when those who are the most entrenched actually defend this behaviour or simple pretend it doesn’t exist. That, to me at least, is scary.

      Keep an open mind and try different products from time to time. It’s a healthier state of mind.

      • Burgundy

        I’m curious if anyone is in my category. I’m actually a pretty dedicated Mac user. I love the iPod line, etc. However, I am not a fan of the iPhone at all. I find way too many limits on for my use. I opted for a Droid Incredible instead. I just prefer the Google integration and full web experience that it offers me. People act like I am some sort of freak of nature because I don’t have an iPhone. AT&T is a little spotty where my house is so that’s another strike. I’m not hateful to the iPhone. I just don’t prefer it which seems completely unheard of among people who own Macs.

    • You could but then people would probably think you’re one of those sad people whose self esteem is determined by the objects they own.

      Which would be a bit sad really.

      • In YOUR opinion. If people believe that the things they own make their day go along better, then let them.

        I mean, enough people believe that a two thousand year old man’s dad created a world in seven days and if people can believe that that is enough to get them through a day, then thinking that tangible belongings is a good thing is just a tiny drop in the Ocean of Unbelievability in comparison.

  16. Kevin, had you asked your audience the question “How many of your parents have a cellphone” then I guarantee you nearly every hand would have gone up because that’s the most commonly used term.

    Smartphone is an artificial word that means nothing outside tech journals and market analysts. An iPhone is a descriptive term that is merely a subset of a bigger group.

    As for the iPad, that may redefine the common reference in the way the iPod did – it was the Walkman before that – but it remains to be seen if it becomes popular enough to do that.

    • This Guy

      I think there’s a pretty commonly accepted difference between a flip-phone and a smartphone. Devices like the Droid and the iPhone have so far superseded what used to be considered a smartphone, that it’s true that term has lost some of its weight. But I think there is a tangible difference between bog-standard cellphones and -other- multimedia devices (whatever you want to call them) that asking “how many of your parents have cellphones” wouldn’t have gotten the point across.

  17. The competition is such that the manufacturer has to make the prospect customers believe that it is coming out with something new and innovative; not just another perspective of the same product.

    In case of gadgets this becomes more important as its not easy for all to understand the functionalities in just one go while watching the launch of the product. So definitely to be perceived as an entirely new product doing something new that no product has done so far, the manufacturer has to come out with a distinctive name that will create its image from the first day.

    Otherwise its gonna looked at another alternative satisfying the same need.

  18. A “Smartphone” to me is something like a BlackBerry; it’s mainly used, in my opinion, for business applications like creating and viewing Word docs, Exel spreadsheets, etc.

    Newer devices like Android phones, the Palm Pre and the iPhone do so much more than just “mobile business apps. Perhaps a new designation is required like Omniphones or MMDs (Mobile Multimedia Devices). :)

  19. Apple certainly knows how to brand its products, how to market its product and how to delivery a first class prodcut and user experience. They do things right the first time and deliverying innovative products.
    Another obesrvation, my 6 year old nephew saw my phone last week and said “is that your iphone, can I play games on it”
    So there you go, the power of Apple

  20. Sidearm? Lightsaber? Wand? =)

    I find that if not by name, I just use “phone,” because the smartphone has become for me the default expectation when somebody mentions their phone – not a dumbphone, certainly not a landline or payphone.

  21. Mike Cerm

    Other than the i-products (iPod, iPhone, etc), I wouldn’t say that Apple’s brands are well known at all (aside from the people who actually own Macs and Apple peripherals).

    Ask the average person what an Apple TV is, and they’ll probably tell you that they didn’t know that Apple made TVs. Ask them what a Magic Mouse is, and I assure you they won’t know. If you ask the average person what Mac laptops are called, most probably won’t know they’re called MacBooks. If you ask someone if they have ever tried a Mac Mini, they’ll probably assume your talking about a dollar-menu sandwich at McDonald’s.

    People know the i-prefix, and they know it has something to do with iPods, but Apple’s brand recognition really doesn’t go deeper than that. There’s a reason that Apple went with the name “iPad” and not something classier like “Apple Slate”, or “Apple Tablet”.

    • Jonathan Campbell

      I think you’re right, that people don’t know AppleTV, Mac Pro, Magic Mouse, etc. But people know the most IMPORTANT thing – that Apple makes very cool things. If they know that, then if and when they hear of an Apple Magic Mouse, they’re likely assume that whatever it is, it MUST be as cool as the “i” devices they already know… because it’s Apple. How many other brands can say that?

    • I’d disagree with you on the Mac side. In my nearly-Mac-free high school, I’m one of about five students who bring a MacBook or a MacBook Pro. Trust me, when my laptop is mentioned in conversation or discussed, they will invariably call it “your MacBook”, never “your laptop”. They know it’s a Mac, and almost go out of their way to specify it.

      I think Apple has fantastic brand recognition on the Mac front, especially with the Mac notebooks. At least with high school kids.

    • Hi,

      Sony had a similar thing both for the Walkman and the Original Playstation, where every other console was being called a, or “like a”, Playstation, but then what happened?

      You can only use your brand and UI advantages for so long, before others catch-up and improve, and your IP becomes commoditised, just look at the way Gemstar tried going with the TV Guide Grid, or Tivo, eventually, market dynamics mean those wonderful advantages you thought you had, stop mattering unless there’s real proprietary value to them.

      The most pertinent example though, and Steve Jobs knows about this, is failing to strike home the advantage Apple has built up by bringing so much change and creating such a lead, creating a tipping-point (- as with ebay/Facebook who didn’t stop once they reached a certain threshold of users/openness/revenue/innovation – ) rather than smugly thinking what you have is so good and ceding the market to all those almost-as-good but cheaper competitors, just as happened with Apple’s innovative products in the 1980’s.

      What Apple should do if they were smart is create their own CPU, write iOs (conditional on iTunes and individual account) just to that and sell a combined bundle to any OEM (subject to other terms/licences), whereby the iOS handset would always be at the top-end of any manufacturers range……

      Yours kindly,

      Shakir Razak

    • Remy C

      This is a bit inaccurate, though, as it suggests that the Apple versions’ awareness is somehow less than anyone else’s, when it’s really that you’re discussing niche products that most people couldn’t name any of.

      I’d venture that anyone aware of any set-top boxes would know the AppleTV as well as Roku or Boxee. Same with mice; are there many people who have heard of the Razer Diamondback but not the Magic Mouse? Nobody unaware of MacBooks probably has a clue about what any Dells or Acers are named.

      It’s not that Apple’s other brands aren’t known, it’s that nothing in those areas really is. Personal electronics really only distinguish themselves at a certain level, and computers (and peripherals) have never really been there.

    • But that’s really why you do it, isn’t it?

      Let’s be honest. If you didn’t regard it as a status symbol then you would use the far lest cumbersome word ‘phone’.

      • DemiGuru

        I have no problem admitting that I, at times, do tend to be a snob.
        What I originally meant to say was that when referring to the phone, I would say that I have the ‘iPhone 4’ rather than an ‘iPhone’. I don’t think that it’s because of the status symbol that might be associated with such a thing, as much as the geeky part of me that is excited for having one.

    • When they start selling them at Walmart and Radio Shack and 2/3 of the classroom raises its hand that their parents own an iphone, I think it has officially lost its place as a status symbol.