* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.