Once considered the preserve of enterprise users and of those with deep pockets, smartphones are now more accessible to the mainstream mobile user. And seem set to stay that way.
A few years ago, if you had uttered the word 'smartphone', most people would have thought you were referring to a high-end device normally used by senior executives on the move - a BlackBerry, a Palm or a Nokia Communicator. Smartphones were considered to be niche devices - phones that attempted to mimic the functionalities of a computer by allowing the user to access features such as Internet browsers, e-mail, office suites and PDF readers, on their handset screens. They had their own special operating systems (just like computers) and cost a pretty penny (anywhere upwards of Rs 15,000). In many ways, the cellphone scenario was very much like what the PC market was about half a decade ago - just as there were multimedia computers and enterprise computers, there were multimedia phones and enterprise devices (also called smartphones, by some). The former were built for entertainment, were colourful, sleek and easy to use. The latter, by contrast, were a tad bulkier, more complex and designed more for work. Enterprise computers often did not have speakers or graphics cards; enterprise phones generally did not come with cameras. They were like two streams of the market, destined never to meet.
Smart = mainstream
Or so people thought. Just as the differences between enterprise computers and multimedia computers have begun to disappear, so too have those between their cellphone counterparts. In fact, if anything, the wall has come down even faster in the cellphone category, where a number of manufacturers have decided to yank their smartphones out of the enterprise segment and make them mainstream, with a vengeance. In fact, many of them do not even tell the user that the phone they are selling them is a smartphone. For instance, how many users of the Nokia N Series know that their phones actually run on the Symbian Series 60 operating system, which also drives many of the phones in Nokia's E series (designed for enterprises)? Similarly, those who have seen the high-profile ad campaign for the HTC Touch Diamond might not realise that beneath the touch wizardry of the device is Windows Mobile 6.1, one of the most powerful enterprise operating systems around!
The rationale for this move is simple: manufacturers have discovered that users want more feature-rich devices, and these can often be provided only by using what were previously considered to be enterprise platforms. Also, a number of applications that were once considered niche are now very mainstream. E-mail on a cellphone is no longer just the requirement of professionals on the move - college students find it just as necessary as it saves them the need to boot up a PC! Similarly, GPS, which was once considered very much an enterprise application, is now a mainstream one because just about everyone wants to know where they are and which route to follow to their destination. And most GPS phones in the country are actually smartphones.
In a reversal of sorts, enterprise phones too are now getting mainstream features. RIM has finally allowed cameras and media players on its BlackBerry devices, and even the Nokia Communicator comes armed with a formidable 3.2 mega-pixel camera and delivers more than decent sound quality.
...and affordable too
With manufacturers falling over each other to provide users with more options, smartphone prices have plummeted. Take the recently launched Asus P320, for instance. It is a totally touchscreen device, running on Windows Mobile 6.1, with a 2.0-mega-pixel camera, Wi-Fi and GPS. And it costs around Rs 12,000 - a price that was unimaginable for such features a couple of years ago. Incidentally, Asus is not marketing it as a smartphone or enterprise device but as a stylish (even fashionable) phone. Now, that is surely a sign of the times.
Mainstream phones have just got smarter and more affordable. And the consumer is not complaining.