CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs

By Kevin Michaluk on 18 Dec 2009 03:47 pm EST

CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs

* Note: My Android review will be coming up later today (Saturday night..almost done!). Had to get this article done up so I can refer back to it in this year's Round Robin write-ups! *

Every year when the Smartphone Round Robin rolls into town I seem to unintentionally get off topic within one of my device reviews and spend a couple thousand words diving into smartphone philosophy. Since I've been a part of the mobile space, I've developed my fair share of theories (though these often happen while drinking and are forgotten the next day) that explain why things are the way they are and more importantly for an event like the Round Robin, help provide a clear framework that explains how I judge a new device when I pick it up.

There's a reason why we don't declare a winner in the Round Robin. It's because there is no one best smartphone. What there is though, is a best smartphone for a person based on their priorities and needs and how they intend to integrate the device into their life. I've been BlackBerry diehard since the moment I laid hands on 'ole blue (a BlackBerry 7290). That doesn't mean I don't get tempted from time to time by other platforms and devices that may offer better web browsers, more megapixels or more apps to choose from, but at the end of the day the things I personally value most in the smartphone experience tend to be what RIM excels in. In the 2007 Round Robin, I spent a lot of time talking about the BlackBerry advantage, which covered points like the BlackBerry's one-handed ease of use and the blinking red LED which keeps you coming back for more (the crack in CrackBerry). In the 2008 Round Robin I focused my attention on the differences between RIM's approach to the BlackBerry experience and Apple's approach to the iPhone, where RIM focuses on developing a device and software platform that is optimized for on-the-go use (use it 100x per day for a short period of time) while Apple wants you to stop what you're doing and really immerse yourself in using the device. This year, I'm going to take things up a notch with my latest theory, called Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs.

Props to Abraham Maslow and His Hierarchy of Needs

I'm sure most of you reading this are are at least somewhat familiar with Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a psychology theory introduced by Maslow in 1943 that helps explains people's personalities. If you're not familiar with it, click the link for the Wikipedia page. Presented on a pyramid, it puts the largest and lowest needs for a person at the bottom of the pyramid (physiological) and the need for self-actualization at the top. While ultimately all people should desire to reach the top of the pyramid, becoming self-actualized super humans, you can't really get there and stay there without first fulfilling your other needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Essentially, to be a complete and whole person you need to climb the pyramid - each need must be met. For example, it would have been difficult for Einstein to develop his theory of relativity if instead he was worrying about finding clean air to breathe, water to drink and stopping hungry bears from attacking him. It's a logical theory and the progression up the pyramid makes sense. Keep in mind it is a theory though, not a law, and that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs does have its critics. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Maslow's theory, it is his theory that prompted me to recognize that there is also a hierarchy of needs for mobile devices.

CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs

At the top of this article is my take on the Hierarchy of Smartphone needs. Let's take a quick walk through it starting from the bottom and working our way to the top.

1. connectivity, compatibility and security: Without this, your smartphone is no longer a phone nor a data-enhanced device. Having adequate coverage from your carrier, where you live, work, play, go to school, travel, etc. is critical to a smartphone user. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the middle of an important call and having it drop, or not being able to secure a data connection when you really need your GPS to be working so you can figure out where the heck you are. WiFi is part of connectivity these days too - to many people, a phone without WiFi is a phone they will not purchase. Likewise, compatibility is critical when selecting a smartphone. The device you purchase needs to work with the systems you use on a regular basis. You're a Mac user? Then you want a smartphone that plays nicely with Macs. Want to use your smartphone for your work life as well as your personal life? Then you may need to ensure your device features Microsoft Exchange support. Security is also critical. These days I think a lot of consumers simply assume security is present (enterprise is a different story - they need to see the proof) in the device they choose. It's one of those things that you don't see when it's there and things are running smooth, but are catastrophic the second it goes away and hell breaks loose. If you knew a device wasn't secure, you'd never entertain the thought of buying it.

2. daily usability and performance: When you choose to adopt the smartphone way of life, you very quickly become dependent on it. It's like electricity - once you have it, there's no living without it. That said, the smartphone you choose needs to be there for you when you need it (a smartphone with a dead battery is just a paperweight) and integrate with your daily life. Some items in this category fall under the more is better clause, such as speed and reliability. The faster the device the better. The more reliable it is, the better. The longer the battery life, the better. The more memory it has, the better. The more megapixels it has, it should be better (though be careful here - there are lots of examples out there of cameras with more megapixels taking not as good photos as those with less). But other aspects are left more to personal preference. Do you need a device that you can use one-handed on the go? Are you willing sacrifice the convenience and speed of use offered by a front-facing physical keyboard in order to make room for a larger and more app/media friendly display? Considering the amount of time individuals spend on smartphones, often totaling several hours per day, it's important that you be comfortable with the smartphone you choose. It should feel good in your hand and comfortable against your ear. For something that gets used as often as a smartphone does, you should enjoy using the device. These days a smartphone is as much of a statement as it is a gadget. For example, A person who uses a BlackBerry projects a certain image to those around about who they are. Does the smartphone you have possess the identity you want to project to those around you? Depending on where your priorities and values lay, a phone that falls flat on any of these particular factors that matter to you will be a phone you won't want to use each and every day.

3. communication and productivity: Prior to the era of the smartphone, you had regular cell phones (feature phones) and PDAs (personal digital assistants). The core feature of a cell phone is of course communication - you want people to be able to get a hold of you while you're on the go. The core function of the PDA was organizing your life. Our resident smartphone guru Dieter Bohn in the past has summed these up as the four pillars of PIM and COM, the four pillars of personal information management being: calendar, contacts, memos and todo, while the pillars of communication are: push email, SMS/MMS, web browsing and telephony. Communication gets pushed further these days with things like BlackBerry Messenger for the CrackBerry addicts out there and communicating via social networks (facebook, twitter, instant messaging services). But while the smartphone was born out of the cell phone and PDA, these days what it is doing more and more is becoming a computer. The smartphone is beginning to allow individuals to leave their laptops behind be productive from everywhere. But it comes to smartphone platforms, not all are created equal. Is the email push? Can I run multiple apps at once? Can I open and edit attachments? How's the voice quality? Does it have a good speakerphone? How good is the web browser? All of these sorts of questions fall into this category, and the answers to them for some individuals will help determine whether a particular phone is right or wrong for their needs. Some may be critical. Others may be less important.

4. features for everyday life: These are the features that make your smartphone an indespensible, never leave home without it device. Some of these features are hardware related, while others are software, but all of them help to elliminate your need to carry around "other stuff" because your smartphone does it all. Think about all of the things the smartphone has killed the need for... you no longer keep a map in the glovebox of your car because you have one on your phone. Your calculator is your smartphone. You no longer have an alarm clock because your smartphone sits in a charging pod beside your bed displaying the time. Your smartphone is your portable music player. Unless you're a photo junky who carries an SLR around everywhere, your smartphone is your camera and video recorder. Password keeper, voicenotes recorder... the list goes on. Every smartphone from every manufacturer is very feature-rich these days, though between the platforms and particular devices there are differences that jump out. Some are better at certain things than others. And ocassionally, you find gaps (it took three iterations for Apple to put video recording on the iPhone). I also reckon there are still more features for smartphone manufacturers to build into their devices (front facing cameras for video conferencing on smartphones in North America, mini-projectors for video, etc.).

5. an app for everything: Heard of the arms race? Well what were living in now is the apps race. Smartphone apps have been around for a while, but it was Apple and their app store that fired the starter's pistol and really brought the consumer attention towards mobile apps, putting them at the top of the hierarchy of smartphone needs. This position actually jives rather well with Maslow's self-actualization sitting at the top, as that's really what apps are all about. It's not about installing 100,000 apps onto your phone or everybody using the same apps. It's about each person finding those apps, be it five, ten, 20 or 50 of them, that are uniquely beneficial to the user. They enhance your life. They may be productivity focused or entertainment focused or they may be useless time killers, which is fine too. Every smartphone platform either has or is rolling out their app store, and it's an area that every stakeholder is paying close attention to. Apple set the standard for apps and jumped out to an early lead, and now it's up to the rest to play catch up and find ways to differentiate. 

So Why Does All This Matter? 

In an event like the Round Robin, it's very easy for all of us passionate smartphone enthusiasts to pit devices against each other and declare that one phone is better or worse than another based on a few observations of certain features or specs. As I said at the start of this article, there is no one best phone, but rather a best smartphone based on an individual's needs and priorities.

Having a model like CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs helps to assess a platform and device's strengths and weaknesses as they matter to me and YOU.

Reader comments

CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs


That's exactly the same as what I think about when getting a smartphone. People think smartphones should be based on having 100,000 apps or the ability to playback mpeg-4 files etc...

I've been using blackberrys for a while and battery life, reliability, calls, email, IM, durability matter far more than any of the new ancillary features thrown in.

Great piece.
I'm not a BB user yet, but have been visiting this excellent site for the last month in anticipation of purchasing my first.

It's all about making an educated choice. As long as you're happy with your device, that's all that matters!

I've been a BB enthusiast for a while now. This was a very good read. I'm always wondering what apps and phone are the best. This article put into focus that it isn't about the best but what's the best for me. Now I just need to upgrade my phone!

Great post. For me its Blackberry. I tried using a iPhone for a week, and at the end I was in bad need for my Bold!

This is one of those moments that makes us crackberries very proud to be here.

Right now I fit into the "features for everyday life", as I am happy with the features my 8520 has but am still looking for all the apps I need.

That was an awesome article bro. That article alone just makes me that much more proud to be a BlackBerry enthusiast because it's not just about big glass slab phone that has 120,000 apps at its disposal. I have an iPod touch and while I love that device as a backup "whatever" device, an iPhone could never serve as my daily driver. It just couldn't.

RIM just had a monstrous fiscal quarter, I just got my S2 (and already have on it) and 2010 is just around the corner. With that comes some serious upgrades. It couldn't be a more exciting time to be with RIM/BlackBerry.

Crackberry Nation FTW.


I have an ipod touch too and I can't imagine ever owning an iphone. I don't have a blackberry yet, but I can't wait to get mine.

This is why I come to! Well written article Kevin. Great job! The Smartphone Expert Execs must love the feeling of having money in the bank!

I'm a Pre owner myself and usually read PreCentral and I just wanted to say that this should really be cross-posted on all the Smartphone Experts sites. It's a really good read and is well thought out (not to mention that smartphones fit with this metaphor surprisingly well). Everyone would do well to read this.

As a BB addict, I couldn't tell if the article was only playing to the strengths of BlackBerrys. It's good to see that users of other smartphones can read this and have their choices reinforced as well.

Yes! Crosspost to all SPE blogs!

Nice model, I'm sure it could be tweaked but it gives a basis for discussion. It was the "Daily usability and performance" that made me take my Droid back. Just got tired of the "pull it out of the holster, turn it on, swipe to unlock" routine every time I wanted to do some little thing like use the phone or pause a media stream.

Excellent description Kevin! I've been looking to upgrade for a few months and I can't tell you the amount of times people have asked me why I don't get an iPhone. Now you have summed it up nicely for me:

1. "RIM focuses on developing a device and software platform that is optimized for on-the-go use (use it 100x per day for a short period of time) while Apple wants you to stop what you're doing and really immerse yourself in using the device."

2. The iPhone lacks basic "connectivity, compatibility and security," so all the flash and the apps don't do me any good.

PS: I went with the Bold 9700 and am extremely happy with it.

Its posts like this that have convinced me that my next phone will be a Blackberry. Thanks Kevin.

I've owned three BlackBerry devices over the course of my cellular phone career - Curve 8310, Bold 9000 & the Bold 9700, which I currently own.

I had the iPhone 3G for an entire year and I sold it last month to purchase the Bold 9700 (I also sold my Bold 9000 & consolidated two phone lines into my current Bold 9700) FYI, the Bold 9000 is a SOLID device, but I had to upgrade to the Bold 9700 for RAM speed & the optical trackpad.

From my experience & usage, I believe the BlackBerry is the finest engineered mobile device that exists today for the enterprise/business person. Hands down. I enjoyed my iPhone during the year I had it, but I was disappointed with the iPhone for the following reasons:

1. The iPhone 3G had very poor & unreliable push email. No matter how often I reset the iPhone, my push email would never be consistent. And this isn't only my experience, as I know other iPhone users and they confirm this problem - they tell me that their push email is unreliable & inconsistent. Apple FAILS in this feature.

2. The iPhone 3G battery is terrible (hell, even the iPhone 3GS battery is terrible compared to ANY BlackBerry device). With two hours of talk time, the iPhone battery would be 80% drained - coupled with internet or ipod usage and the battery would require 1 full re-charge PER DAY!! Just ridiculous! I couldn't tolerate it any more. Apple again FAILS in this feature.

3. Apple's app Store is about 90% full of non-sensical, worthless, & stupid apps that have no utility, worth or value. Who cares that Apple has over 100,000 apps where 90% of those apps are junk and useless!! BlackBerry's App world is centered on the enterprise/business user and even the student in college/graduate school! BlackBerry has more useful Apps now that Apple ever will!

--This being said, if your life is about multi-media usage - internet, watching movies & television programs, playing mobile video games & listening to music - stick with your iPhone - that's about the only advantage it has over the BlackBerry.

The BlackBerry has unparalleled security (thank you BES), reliability, business utility & productivity, and unmatched push email!! Apple has a lot of catching up to do. Ask any IT Administrator, and he will tell you that BlackBerry is a pleasure to work with & manage - it has the greatest security & manageability. iPhone does NOT have these features.

At the 2009 WWDC, BlackBerry acknowledged VERY LOUDLY that it would spend a lot of research & development on improving the mobile browser. I am confident that next year BlackBerry will unveil a mobile browser on par with Apple's Safari. Mark my words.

In closing, I believe BlackBerry will ALWAYS dominate the enterprise/business market, and Apple will likely continue to dominate the media market. They can both co-exist peacefully.

Long live RIM & the mighty BlackBerry!!!!! I love RIM!!

Excellent article. In our family we have 2 BB, 1 Samsung, and 1 iPhone. Everyone thinks there phone is the best and amazingly they are all correct. Each person values something different about their phone and as such, that particular phone is the best in the world to them. That is why the round robin is so important to me. While I love my phone, I want to understand what the other phones are capable of and to make the best recommendation based on the person's needs and desires. There is nothing more embarrassing than recommending a phone based on my likes and desires and then finding out that a different phone would have been a much better fit based on the that person's needs and desires. It isn't about the phone, it is about the user who uses the phone. Again, excellent article and keep up the great work!!!

seriously? the only thing good about blackberry is its push email. I don't care what anyone else says, the OS is outdated and lacking in innovation.

And for me, the top of the hierarchy should be the carrier/service aspect cause what good is a blackberry if it doesn't work in the first place? AKA AT&T (dropped calls, poor 3G coverage, etc)

I can't take your comment seriously because you down a smartphone due to the shortcomings of it's carrier. I bet you own an iPhone.

Troll elsewhere.

I have a bold running on AT&T's 3G network in NYC. I don't see stellar network performance on my phone due to network issues such as dropped calls and mediocre 3G coverage. And yes, I also own an iPhone 3GS. The shortcomings of my carrier which is AT&T is preventing me from taking my 3G Blackberry to its full potential. I don't see any trolling going on


I understand that AT&T has severely poor coverage problems in New York City. Howard Stern purchased his first BlackBerry Bold earlier this year on AT&T, but after experiencing constant dropped calls & connectivity problems, he sold his Bold and went to Verizon where he purchased the Tour. Howard said he would never go back to AT&T after his experience with AT&T's poor coverage in NYC. By the way, Howard said he chose BlackBerry after researching & testing every other smart phone, including the iPhone and the Palm Pre. Howard uses Lotus Notes, and BlackBerry is the only smart phone that supports Lotus Notes platform.

Poor coverage aside, why are you criticizing BlackBerry's OS? What specifically do you dislike about it? BlackBerry's OS 5.0 is incredibly user friendly & intuitive. It's excellent as it is. What kind of improvements do you suggest? Do you want more colors on the OS? Do you want the icons renamed? I've seen the other smart phones operating systems and they're not any better than BlackBerry's. Not even Apple iPhone's OS is up to par with BlackBerry's. I had the iPhone 3G and I prefer BlackBerry's OS over Apple's anyday. Further, BlackBerry's OS allows signficantly greater control and personalization than the iPhone's OS.

The blackberry operating system has experienced what has been known as 'more of the same' with just fancy colors and icons. Then there's OS stability issues, and I prefer not to run 'leaked software' or 'hybrids' even though I am guilty of doing both just to get a workable phone. With the iPhone 3GS, true there is the jailbreak 'hack' but right out of the box it is extremely user friendly. People who are not familiar with Blackberry in general will have a hard time figuring out the basics of the phone (how to utilize certain features, etc).

I am not an Apple fanboy nor am I a Blackberry fanboy as I see competition as something to drive entrepreneurship. True I use both on a daily basis for work and pleasure. I love hearing about the potentials of other OS's (Android, WebOS, etc).

I continue to visit sites like Crackberry and reading up on Kevin's amazing blogs. I just feel like the bottom of the pyramid would be the most important aspect.

If the carrier/service doesn't work, the rest of the stuff is irrelevant. That's why its at the base (foundation) of the pyramid.

Very well thought out. The progression of dependencies really helps illustrate the subconscious thought pattern of evaluating a mobile device. Brilliant piece of work !

blackberries are awesome because they have a great foundation set as actually visually represented by this pyramid

they take care of yellow (minus web browsing), orange, and red
better than the rest. it should be noted that the os needs some revamping, but one must always be careful when trying to fix things that are not broken. but i do believe in the future we will see some great *improved* os/platforms!

green and purple are being taken care of, and only getting better everyday thanks in large part to developers (you guys rock!)

good article kevin
love this site because of the informative material but also because of articles like this one. and of course, this site has one of the best online communities/user bases

Yes, I too got sucked into the Blackberry vortex with the 7290, in fact it's still my daily driver! I'm well ready for a new Smartphone, and have been looking into what's out there (THANKS! for your work on this site). The base of my Hierarcy of Needs IS Personal Information Managment (PIM). PIM seems to be roadkill on most modern smartphones as they forge ahead with all of the other cool stuff. I'm glad RIM has not lost sight of it, and still has a great PIM in thier native apps (even though some of it's stuffed in a corner). That, combined with all the functionality Blackberrys have will keep me in the vortex. My only question now is; Will this 7290 ever die?

I would have to agree with everybody here. I'll contribute by saying that smartphones not only provide you with what you need and want, but they define who you are. I have never had people ask me why I don't have an iPhone when they see me running eight apps at once and messaging four people at once...and easily keeping up with all of the conversations.

Like Kevin said, it shows your social status in a way. But to top it off, there's something magical about the BlackBerry platform which infected my friends (now they want one) and helped me gain a few more (it's always a great conversation starter when you identify a blackberry model right off the bat when you meet someone). You can talk about apps, themes, games, operating systems and models all day long and not get bored.

Thanks for this insightful post and for opening the eyes of so many people. I look forward to more from the greatest things in life (which include BlackBerry devices and this website!)

Great article Kevin! That really put it out there for the consumers to figure out which smartphone should be best for matter what brand it is. Excellent job!

Great article Kevin,

Appreciate your time, knowledge, resources, and so much more. Feels good to be part of the "Crackberry" world family. Keep up the good work my bro :) Just upgraded to the new blackberry bold 9700 yesterday, from the bold 9000. Love them both. Take care.


Storm 2 user here, long time BB fan and reader/poster on CB, as well as some of the other SPE sites. Just one comment:

I wonder, if we were to ask the average iPhone user to define his/her pyramid of needs, that they would rank everything in exact opposite order of Kevin's ordering:
- status symbol first
- apps next
- features after that
and so on in reverse order of the BB pyramid.

I think we'd all agree that's how most iPhone users would rank things.

My point is that each phone user's 'pyramid' is different, and we BB users stack our colors and rankings to meet our needs. I doubt that the things WE feel are important would be the same for [fill in the blank device]. And, obviously, that's why there are different devices out there, to meet the varying needs of the marketplace.

Quite frankly this is one of the best written articles on how to look at smart phones EVER!!!!! This should be in the 101 section of all the websites.

Awesome article Kevin.

This diagram explains precisely why I am still with Verizon and dealing with second rate BB's.

After reading this I had to share it with my co-workers! I am a manager for an AT&T Retail store and I sent this out to EVERYONE in our whole city including some of our RAE's and some big shot's from the west coast for AT&T. All of the feedback I have gotten so far has been positive. I feel this article is relevant and extremely useful for my entire sales staff to read and absorb! Thank you Kevin for providing this amazing literature!


What is it thanksgiving again? Where the hell is the droid review? I didnt know the internet got snowed in too.

This is a fantastic article!! I get asked "which is better? which phone should I get, iphone or blackberry" and I am so sick and tired of trying to answer that question. Now with this article, I'll just point them here and tell them - "get a iPod Touch and a BlackBerry" and have all your needs fulfilled! the iPod satisfies level 4 and 5, while the BlackBerry satisfies level 2 and 3. As for the first level, get a telco that doesn't suck... (now that's a tough one to crack!), but at least your BlackBerry and iPod will play nicely with your Mac, so that is covered!

Eat your heart out.. :D We have a Poet in the midst. Excellent post.

I ESPECIALLY like this paragraph:

"There's a reason why we don't declare a winner in the Round Robin. It's because there is no one best smartphone. What there is though, is a best smartphone for a person based on their priorities and needs and how they intend to integrate the device into their life. I've been BlackBerry diehard since the moment I laid hands on 'ole blue (a BlackBerry 7290). That doesn't mean I don't get tempted from time to time by other platforms and devices that may offer better web browsers, more megapixels or more apps to choose from, but at the end of the day the things I personally value most in the smartphone experience tend to be what RIM excels in."

Personal BUT still Sticking to the facts... (y)

Btw, I'll second that: Kevin = The SmartPhone President.

This article still holds up to the test of time.

Some things could be debated (e.g. some apps are a necessity). But the overall principles are sound.