It’s not a mobile phone. So what is it?

“Mobile phone” is a misnomer that is leading industries — especially media — astray as they try to develop services and business for the next wave of connectivity. So what would a better name be? I’ll have a nominee in a second. On this, the fifth anniversary of the iPhone, it is appropriate and long overdue that we rename this disruptive wonder. But first, let’s dispose of these old descriptors.

“Phone” doesn’t work anymore, of course, because we — especially the younger among us — are using these devices to call people less and less. Note these stats in the UK from O2 via Shane Richmond in the Telegraph:

“Mobile” doesn’t work because that makes us envision a user on the road or on the sidewalk when, in fact, most of the use of tablets — which often fall into the mobile-device category — is at home. I use my “mobile” phone all the time in my office and even at home and certainly in boring meetings, when I’m quite sedentary.

Mobile = local = around me now. Mobile is my personal bubble. It is enhanced convenience, putting the device and the world in my hand. But next imagine no device: Cue the war between Siri and Google Glass to eliminate the last mediator, the thing.

I see companies assuming that mobile requires maps and geography or apps and closed worlds. But I think what we now mistakenly call mobile will instead be about getting each of us to what we want with fewer barriers and less effort because the service has gathered so many signals about us: who we are, where we are, what we like, whom we know, what we know, what we want to know, what we buy…. The power of what we now call mobile, I believe, is in signal generation and the extreme targeting and convenience that enables.

What we call “mobile” is disruptive in ways we can’t yet figure out. We call it “mobile” but we should call it “what’s next.”

But what do we call it, really? I asked for a new name on Google+ and at last count got 164 responses. None satisfied me. I also asked on Twitter and there I got an answer I like:

In Germany, they call this wondrous device the “handy.” Actually, it’s “Händy,” but to paraphrase Mark Twain, “we’ll bring the vowels, let the Germans bring the umlauts.”

“Handy” is wonderful because the device fits in the hand. But even when it won’t — when Siri or Glass replace it — the word still works because it is, indeed, handy. It is the ultimate in handy: convenient, personal, nice to have.

iHändy. Sounds like iCandy. It works, ja?

  • Jonathan

    Thx for that little peace of stuff to think!
    I’m German and it’s definatly Handy, without umlaut. We just pronounce the Handy like the English word handy. So for a German ear it sounds ether like Händie or like an anglizicm.

  • http://blog.digidave.org/ digidave

    I don’t have a “brand” name for it – but the “mobile phone” is not a brand name. The iPhone is a brand name.

    I do agree re: calling it a “mobile phone” is outdated. This is something I thought about for a post I called “The Screenularity Is Near.”

    The Screenularity is the moment in time when average users don’t make a FUNCTIONAL distinction between their various screens. That I use the small pocket screen to make a phone call is happenstance. I could just as easily call on my 14 inch screen or the 30 inch screen in my living room.

    Same with TV – pick the screen I want.

    With that in mind – the word “mobile” does fit still (it is much more mobile than the other screens) – but “phone” makes no sense. It’s more like the mobile screen. Or the “small screen” – whereas the screen we currently call the “television” becomes the “living room screen” or “stationary screen” or something to that effect.

    Again: We can brand it all kinds of ways iHandy, iMobile, LiveScreen, etc. The point is – the functionality won’t define the screen (TV vs. Phone vs. Laptop) so much as its physical dimensions and positions in our life.

    Perhaps “Personal Screen” will be a better name for our “mobile phone” – since it is much more intimate with us than the “PC” (again the ‘C’ part of “PC” also is out of place now).

    • Aaron Baca

      Peculiar that they didn’t include spoken-word formats like podcasts and audiobooks. That’s my main use of my phone now. Odd, now that I think about it. It’s a telephone, for God’s sake.

  • Aaron Berlin

    Upon reading this, I recalled reading essentially the same thing from Gizmodo several years ago (
    http://gizmodo.com/5061705/smartphone-is-a-dumb-word-we-need-a-new-name (who says writing on the internet is ephemeral?)). I still agree with the sentiment (though I’m not sure I like your name any more than theirs – no offense). I think that “mobile” is probably a closer fit than you give it credit for being – untethered, free, wireless – are all defining features of these devices, whether we use them on the road or on the couch. It also has the benefit of being somewhat in use already, and a less jarring transition. I guess “PC” is a dirty word these days, but I wouldn’t complain if it was the modifier (“mobile PC”) rather than “mobile” by itself – It has the added benefit of actually describing the potential of the device in your pocket.

  • Erik Bates

    Would it be cliche, lame, or otherwise smart-ass of me to say that, in reality, the best way to describe these “mobile” devices is a term we’ve already used (which, would of course, create all kinds of confusion, so it would never work): personal computer.

    I mean, really, it doesn’t get much more personal than this. By and large, they’re even more personal than the traditional personal computer because, unlike the traditional “PC” which was (and is) often shared among several people, a mobile device is typically single-user. Truly “personal.”

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  • J Anthony

    Jack Kirby had it right. Mother Box.

  • David MacDonald

    When I got my first smartphone, I had a friend that would frequently ask me to look things up on Wikipedia or some news source. He referred to it as my “hand computer.”

  • Andrew

    We may well eventually refer to it as the ‘small screen’ for consumption and the mobile/call phone when it comes to calls.

  • Andre Sei

    I prefer “Handy” not least because i am from germany :) But we DON`t use hÄndy here cuz its an (for us) “americanized” word ;)

  • Jack

    I call it my ‘multipurpose multiband transceiver’

  • http://kikuyumoja.com jke

    How about “Communicator”?

  • Nils

    Und wer hat Handy erfunden? Natürlich die Schwaben: “Hän di koi Schnur dran?”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Isabaellchen Isabelle Sandow

    We could name it Tricorder…

  • http://twitter.com/Printmark Alex Brown

    I am waiting for the world to realize it’s the . . . mobli.

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  • http://twitter.com/Aka A.k.a

    I like “Handy”. But the German arent unique, in China, they call it “shouji” which literally means “hand machine” ;).

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  • The Shambolic Skeptic

    Most folks ’round these parts just call them ‘phones’ or ‘mobiles’. In the old days, ‘mobile’ was short for ‘mobile phone’, perhaps now it’s short for ‘mobile computer’. Which of course is what it is!

  • Frank

    Handy is indeed a great name and is best suited. Why should we explore more if it is liked by majority :). Great post. Keep posting. :)

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  • HansSuter

    Handy is just great. And this from the nation that has the most burocratic computer lingo.

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  • vallllche

    That is true, “Mobile phone” is not an actual name anymore, I love the word ‘Handy”. In fact, with the smartphone, now, people have always it in their hands even if to do nothing.
    However, most of time, people are typing on it, playing, surfing, looking on the social network or texting.
    I disagree with the fact that phone calls are not used anymore, it is used in different ways like with Skype, Viber or normal phone calls, this is still “voice communication”.
    These are the best invention ever, with the globalization, people are traveling and studying all over the world and they can continue to communicate easily.

  • Brooks m

    After reading this article and actually thinking about it, I’d have to agree that using ‘mobile phone’ to describe this thing really is quite troubling. The last call I made was three days ago, and let me tell you, I’ve used my ‘phone’ a lot more since then

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