My Life in an iPhone: One Year Later

It seems hard to believe I've only had my iPhone for one year; it's had such an impact on my home and work life that it feels like it's been around for a lot longer. In that year there has also been a significant cultural shift in the way we use mobile, so much so that it's easy to forget only about a third of cell phone users have smartphones.

It is useful, given the predictions of explosive smartphone adoption in the coming year, to look at some of the ways smartphones have changed the game, and try to understand how they can assist a marketing campaign.

First, a word of clarification. From a functionality standpoint, most of the current generation of smartphones are essentially interchangeable. I talk about iPhones a lot because that's what I have - and they are, for now, the most iconic of the latest generation smartphones - but almost everything I say about them applies equally well to Blackberry, Android, Palm, and the rest.

My iPhone isn't actually the first smartphone I've owned. I was one of the first people in Southwestern Michigan to use a Palm Pilot, and as soon as I had the opportunity I upgraded to a Trio. That lasted until I had to change providers, and went to a Windows Mobile device. I stuck with that through a couple incarnations before coming to the iPhone. In some ways, my history as a smartphone user makes it even more remarkable that the iPhone made such an impact; it didn't add any capabilities I didn't already have, so what makes it so much better?

What differentiates the modern generation of smartphones from their predecessors, in my mind, is they were designed with internet connectivity at the core. By contrast, my earlier smartphones felt more like portable business machines with internet capabilities added on as an extra feature, much like early PCs. The difference is that surfing the net, checking email, and downloading new programs is simple and enjoyable, rather than simply possible. I spent more time online in the first month I had an iPhone than in the years I had my older devices.

Several of the smartphone's defining features stem from this internet centrality:

  • Extensibility: It is very easy for smartphones to pick up new abilities, or modify existing ones, on the fly. I experienced this at a conference this summer; I wanted to take a picture of the speaker, and needed a better zoom. After a few minutes in the App Store I had zoom, color correction, and photo cropping capability, plus one-button uploads to Facebook. What does this mean for manufacturers? If you make a useful tool, and make it easy for people to find when they need it, people will use it. 
  • Cross-Media Communication: All of my communication media streams funnel through my smartphone, which means I can easily move a message from voice mail to email to SMS to Twitter. Most people don't do voice communication through PCs, yet, so in this way the smartphone is more versatile than my desktop computer. 
  • Constant Communication: In the same vein, smartphones allow essentially around-the-clock (if you choose to let it) connection to all your key communication media. Everything else only allows communication when you're at your desk, or in the office, or have a table, power outlet, and WiFi for your laptop. Savvy marketers appreciate this because it means instantaneous responses to customer inquiries or complaints.
  • Not Just A Mini Computer: This recent evolution has truly separated the smartphone from the "Pocket PC" mentality; that is to say, the idea your smartphone is the same as your computer with smaller, less powerful bits. Instead of looking like a shrunken Windows desktop, the iPhone interface looks like, well, an iPhone. This paradigm change means the message of the smartphone is starting to emerge. Marketers that continue to design "mobile friendly" content as "like normal digital content, but smaller" are making the same mistake as those that think their website is a digital version of their catalog. 
  • Media Center: Again, this is, ostensibly, something my old smartphones could do, but the iPhone made it an easier, better experience. I can fit my company's complete A/V and photo library on my phone with room to spare - and that's not because we have a small library - and take it with me on sales calls. Professional photographers have told me the color is not right, printed photos are still better, but it's good enough for a sales call or an elevator pitch. 
  • Instant Information: I realized one day that teenagers will never again have to ask, "What are the lyrics to that song?" If the answer exists online, it is accessible on your phone. Which means your answers had better be online, in a mobile-friendly format, or prospects will use your competitor's answers instead.
The really cool advances are coming when people find ways to combine these features to create a unique capability or experience. When, for example, a customer can take a picture, use your app to analyze it and get answers, and get a follow-up phone call from a sales rep while they are still in the situation where they need the information. 

Bottom line, the opportunity smartphones provide marketers is to be closer to their customers. You can be a pocket-sized "virtual consultant" for your clients when they go into sales meetings or design sessions. That increases your value to them, which produces more sales.