Can Great Hardware Alone Sell a Smartphone?

The definition of a smartphone varies, depending on who you ask. Some think if you can install apps on the device, it’s a smartphone, while others claim it must have an advanced operating system. One company has steadfastly clung to its own definition of a smartphone, however.

According to Nokia (s nok), these are “converged mobile devices” and this definition is well explained today by Steve Litchfield at the All About Symbian blog. Litchfield makes a great case for Nokia’s definition, and I recommend the read, but convergence alone doesn’t sell devices. Consumers are looking for the best package comprised of hardware, software and a supporting ecosystem.

Take, for example, the many stand-alone devices that today’s smartphones can replace. Litchfield lists a watch, music player, camera, radio and navigation system. I completely agree with him, and in some cases, there’s absolutely no loss of functionality when using a smartphone for a particular feature. A watch tells time, perhaps the day and date and could even offer some advanced features like a stopwatch or alarm. And every smartphone I can think of replicates those functions perfectly well either natively or with a third-party application.

But the camera example offers a fuzzier view when it comes to convergence. As noted in our review, the Nokia N8 provides perhaps the best possible smartphone camera experience available today both for stills and for high-definition playback. In fact, this feature may be the crown jewel of the device because it can potentially replace any current point-and-shoot digital cameras on the market today. And for some N8 owners, I’m sure it will. Unfortunately, the camera alone — or any other single hardware feature, for that matter — won’t sell a smartphone because the primary use cases for the device are voice calls, the ability to access the mobile web and apps.

Those use cases are met by software features in tandem with hardware: consumers are using apps and hitting up the mobile web at an increasing rate while other activities are secondary. So while Litchfield says the photographs produced by Android (s goog) devices are “complete and utter rubbish” he may have a point when compared with the N8. But smartphone buyers have many different needs. With smartphone usage patterns focused on non-camera activities, the camera becomes a value-add for most, so does it make sense to sacrifice a potentially better user experience or more effective software to gain a superb camera that’s used occasionally?

Towards the end of his piece, Litchfield sees the point I’m trying to make, saying: “The solution, of course, is to have the best of all worlds. A ‘smartphone’ with all the electronic wizardry of the N8 but with the browser and ‘Sense’-integration of the HTC Desire HD. And add in the ease of use of the iPhone for good measure.”

At the end of day, a hardware feature that’s head and shoulders above what competitors offer will still only sell a device to those who most value such a feature. A better chance of success for today’s smartphone makers is to converge the hardware, software and ecosystem to create a mobile device that appeals to the broadest needs possible while allowing for acceptable sacrifices in functionality. Early adopters and tech purists may not agree, but when it comes to mass market adoption, the top-selling devices will make little sacrifices in various areas but still be solid all around smartphones.

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