From the earliest of times, mankind has been the most aggressive developer of means to make their stay on earth as comfortable as possible. On the way, some geek coined the term 'advancement of technology' which we now use to define the phenomenon. For the past 150 years, so much of this technological advancements have occurred that now it has become routine for geeks to invent something useful (or not that useful) somewhere in the world on a daily basis. A vast portion of this development has taken place in telecommunications arena, changing the way we communicate with each other and explore our world.
The advancements in technology during the past 2 decades have freed us from wireline telephones- substituting them with mobile handsets, made physical mails redundant to large extent by hooking us to Emails, made mobile Internet possible, and gave many more convenience to the society. But, the never satisfied human mind, always carved for more..That was when smartphones – the handsets that let you do practically everything you want to, in general - came around in early 90s.
IBM Simon was the first smartphone to be launched commercially in 1992. Many types of smartphones became available in the market later on. Nokia, BlackBerry, Palm, and Microsoft's venture in smartphone are some pioneers of the market, which set the balls rolling and gave us the present generation of smartphones. But one basic question remains. What it is that makes a handset smartphone? The hardware specifications of the device or the operating system that runs it? My answer would be the operating system. Though hardware specifications are important too, it is the intelligent design of an OS that turns your mobile device into a multi-purpose platform that can make your world easier to connect to and simpler to work on.
Talking of OSes, we have seen quite of few of them since past 12-15 years now. From the basic JAVA powered handsets to the first Windows phone or the Palm, which became immensely popular within the enterprise handset market due to their specialised communication suites. However, the credit for developing the first general purpose smart OS for mass use goes to Nokia for its Symbian S60 series. The OS featured multitasking, full email and document editing support, smooth navigation and support for other specialised apps. It was Symbian which made Nokia dominant in the premium handset market in 2000s. Its handsets like N70, N71, N72, N73, etc sold like hotcakes around the word.
Apple's entry into the market brought along some fundamental changes in our approach towards smartphones. For starters, the iPhone was a nice-looking touchscreen handset and secondly it matched its looks with and equally capable OS, the iOS – as it is now known. Coming of iPhone marked the general shift towards touchscreen handsets, making the industry even more high-tech and lucrative. Google also jumped into the bandwagon with purchase of Android OS and launched in onboard Google Nexus in 2010. Windows also renewed its efforts to regain lost ground by launching Windows Mobile 7 in early 2011.
Out of these, Android commands special attention in present scenario. With every major handset maker having propetiary mobile OSes, need was felt to have an open standard, which would decrease development costs for device, making smartphone cheaper and driving smartphone adoption. Initially developed by Android Inc and later taken over by Google in 2005 in preparation for its push into lucrative mobile handset market, the OS is now handled by Open Handset Alliance (OHA) since 2007. The OHA is business partnership of some 84 companies all over the world to produce an open standard mobile operating system for smartphones.
Since Android’s first commercial launch on 22 October 2008 aboard T-Mobile G1, the platform has raced ahead to capture dominant position in global smartphone market by cornering 36% of marketshare, ahead of iOS from Apple and Symbian^3 from Nokia and this figure is expected to reach around 49% by 2012. The OS has also captured fascination of developers who have added some 250,000 apps since October 2008 - according to official accounts which have seen around 4.5 billion downloads till July 2011. The pace of platform development itself is astounding which has seen 9 major version releases since past 3 years (17 updates in all). While the number of apps may be lesser than available on Apple's iTunes store, they are much cheaper than those in any of the handset app stores. A study by Distimo revealed that around 57% of Android Market apps are free, which is the largest proportion of free apps provided among all app markets. The usual ratio fluctuates between 25% free and 75% paid apps. This is a clear indication towards the drive to make the Android devices cheaper and making Android powered devices a mass market phenomenon, just like Nokia did it in early 2000s with Symbian operating system. Already, there are Android devices available in the market with price tag of less than Rs. 7,000. These low cost devices from Samsung, LG, Spice, Micromax, HTC, Sony Ericsson etc are making the transition to smartphones an affordable alternative for many.
What lies beyond?
The smartphones of today already are multiple times faster and capable than the computers we had in the 90s and early 2000s. The current crop now boasts of having dual core processors, dedicated GPUs, intutive high definition touchcreens to navigate. They let make video/voice calls, browse the Internet, chat with friends and follow your friends through social networking apps, increase your productivity by providing fully functional email clients, let you play music and videos, watch TV, serve as E-wallet etc. Owing to such a power now being concentrated in a handset device, it is but natural that millions out of around 7 billion people in the world are having their first tryst with Internet on a mobile device. Lessons could be taken from Japanese market where around 60% of people use mobile devices as their primary computing device rather than going for a personal computer. Providing a cheaper but highly capable mobile computing platform is vital for the development of communities, which have remained cut off from the telecommunication revolution.