Why are smartphones so dumb?

If you think about hard- and software in terms of wasted potential, instead of just bad design, you can start seeing a lot of potential everywhere.

I had that moment today when thinking about my so called smartphone and what it does in terms of phonecalls. Its really not that much. There’s a list of contacts, each with some optional data like email address and phone numbers. I can mark a number of each contact as a favorite to get a smaller list on a separate page, that I can reorder. If I call someone or get a call, a new entry is added to the list of Recents. If I have a number without a contact, I can use the keypad to call the number directly.

So far, so good. Its very barely beyond what my old Siemens mobile phone did nine years ago. Let’s see what innovation could’ve happened in this space.

  • The list of contacts isn’t in sync with my Google Contacts, that is, my GMail address book. Eventually I have to put in the effort to merge these two, as the one has more phone numbers, the other more email addresses. But why is that such a hassle? There’s so much room for improvement on contacts management alone.
  • Instead of having to manually manage favorites, why doesn’t the software keep track of some statistics? Easy to track data like most often called, most often calling, longest phone calls, shortest phone calls. Or time of day when calling. And then automatically built a list of favorites, based on the current time, or even location. Ask me once if its okay to enable GPS every now and then to record the location, only for helping you choose the contact to call a bit faster.
  • Skype replaced the phone for a lot of calls for me. Why? I can see if a contact is online, and if so, if he is available or actually busy. If he’s busy, I can send a text message directly in the same application, and I can get a reply back in the same application. On the phone, I know nothing about the current status of the person I want to call. I could send text messages, but I wouldn’t know if the other person will read them in the next minutes or even today. Even if the phone is set to meeting and the phone has the current meeting on its calendar and would be able to let me know that the person in the meeting could call me back in 30 minutes, I still have no idea whats going on.
  • Voicemail sucks. Why do I have to interact with a computer voice and the keypad, when this should be an application running on my phone, with a list of missed calls, a text transcript of the message they left, if any, and a button to play back the message, and another to call them back. Or when I set my phone to “I’m busy”, why does it have to ring for a few time before letting the caller now that I’m busy? Why not just have a very short recording of myself, so that they know they called the right number, which basically says “I can’t answer right now, but I’ll call you back! If you want, leave a message, *beep*”. That would set the right expectation – their call wasn’t in vein, nope, I’ll call you back!
    Google Voice may actually address several of these issues and features – but of course its “not available in your country”, so not helping.
  • There’s barely any integration between phone calls, Skype, text and instant messaging, Twitter or any other social network.  There’s so much potential for grouping my phone’s contact based on the actual social network they are in, like actual friends, colleagues, family, clients and so on. Obviously this could be integrated with Twitter and other so-called social networks. If you think about that, Twitter actually does a horrible job as a social network, as it doesn’t help you at all with grouping contacts. Manually managed lists are a joke compared to the potential that some automatic and exposed data mining would have on your network. Kristian Köhntopp has more on that, if you’re interested. He’s got both German and English versions of his article, and the English one lacks one of the key phrases of the German one: “Können wir stattdessen mal Kommunikation designen?” – roughly translated as “Could we instead start designing communication?”

There’s probably more than that – I’ll update the post when more ideas shows up. If you’ve got one, let me know.


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  1. Don’t you have a smartphone because you want to use Skype and all the other goodness? 😉

    I think Windows Phone goes in the direction you want, but it’s not really polished and a lot of stuff doesn’t work the way it should, but I think they’re definitely heading that direction.

  2. Der erste Punkt wird mit einem Android-Phone obsolet. 😉

  3. David

    I’ve been going through your list, and most of the ideas are already there on my Android smartphone. Like Favorite contacts, Twitter integration, Skype integration, seeing in your dialer if the person is busy, and so on.

    So what kind of a “dumb”-smartphone do you use?

  4. You’re right about pointing out missing features, but paragraphs 3 and 4 have nothing to do with smartphones. I’m pretty sure the telephony technology itself is to blame for this and that smartphones won’t change anything. They’re just terminals after all…
    Paragraph 2 : the “most recent” thing has been featured for SMS on Nokia phones for years, I’m surprised it doesn’t exist for calls. The rest I think is not useful but that’s just my opinion.
    About paragraph 1 : I entirely agree, but, as for what you point out in paragraph 5, I’d say mobile phone operators are to blame for this.