Poll: What Makes a Computer a Computer?

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Recently, I decided to upgrade my cell phone. I’ve been torn between a Blackberry — which would allow me to stay on Verizon, a carrier that has better coverage in my area — and an iPhone — which is clearly the better phone for my most pressing needs (heavy web browsing, some email, and an intravenous Twitter drip). Given the type of things that smartphones do these days, is it fair to label them as computers?

Mobile blogger James Kendrick noted today that if mobile phones like the Apple iPhone, HTC/T-Mobile G1, Blackberry Storm, or Nokia N95 are considered computers, then Nokia was the largest computer manufacturer in 2008. But are smartphones really computers? Yes, they have increasingly more powerful processors and do many computing tasks, but as Kendrick points out, they don’t do all the things your laptop or desktop personal computer can do.

Smartphones are not personal computer replacements just yet — and they might never be. It’s hard to imagine writing a term paper or designing a web site on your phone. As good as the experience on the iPhone and Blackberry is for many common computing tasks — like email or web browsing — you wouldn’t want to use your smartphone to edit a photo.

On the other hand, in many parts of the world, especially in developing nations, mobile phones are already being used as primary computing devices. And more and more we’re spending a majority of our computing time on smartphones, doing common, everyday tasks like emailing, instant messaging, web browsing, playing games, taking photos, managing appointments, and even doing things like monitoring servers or managing our financial portfolios. If we can do all that, isn’t the smartphone a computer after all?

Let us know what you think in your poll and then share your definition of what makes a computer a computer in the comments.

[poll id="13"]

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  • Teifion

    A calculator is technically a computer, it depends if you are asking for an opinion or a technical agreement. At that point, what metric do you used to measure it?

  • Anonymous

    Smart phones have much better specs than personal computers had in the mid 80s.

  • http://altoonadesign.com halfasleeps

    My opinion is if you can’t hookup the main HIDs such as a keyboard or mouse, then I don’t consider it a computer.

  • Jan Jelínek

    I have an iPhone for half year. Definitely it is not a computer. It is a nice toy for boys.

    But if you are dense net lover, I suggest you this machine. Because for the browsing,mailing and networking it is a best tool at the market.

    But without interesting future like HTC with Android (it does not let me sleep:)

  • dawgbone

    The first time you try and copy and paste something in your iphone you’ll realize how stupid it is that they don’t have it. Added to that it’s got possibly the worst bluetooth support of any phone released in the last 3 years.

    Worst thing my company ever did was replace my blackberry with this stupid phone.

    But yes, they are a computer. You don’t need to attach an HID device like a keyboard or a mouse because they all have built in devices that work the same way, and we can perform many of the basic tasks computers have performed for years.

  • randywehrs

    They may not do all of the things that our tricked-out desktops and laptops do, but they’re still by all means computers. They are even way more powerful than a lot of computers still being used by people today!
    Aren’t keyboards and touch-pads human interface devices? If not, what are they?

  • http://altoonadesign.com halfasleeps

    Aren’t touch-pads human interface devices? If not, what are they?

    Just because they do deliver input/output to humans does not make them an HID device, same as PS/2 devices, if they do not support the HID protocol then they are not HID devices. Can you hook up the touch screen on your phone to another device and use it to interact with that device?

  • Website Black Belt

    Can you hook up the touch screen on your phone to another device and use it to interact with that device?

    Yes, you can. there are several apps available that allow you to use your iphone or several other devices as a trackpad, or as a mouse (tilting to move instead of dragging across the desk), and there are smart phones which do allow a separate keyboard and/or mouse to be used as input devices.

    But I think the question shouldn’t be “are they computers” and certainly not “are they HIDs”. The question should be: “Are smartphones workstations?” or perhaps even “are smartphones laptop replacements?”. The answer, for most of us, would be no. But I have, in fact, edited photos on my iphone, and also edited webpages when it was urgent enough that I couldn’t wait to be at my workstation.

    My iPhone has better specs than older computers that I have run photoshop on, and that I have run multi-track recording sessions on. Can I throw out my laptop? Not yet, but we’re so close it almost hurts.

  • randywehrs

    if they do not support the HID protocol then they are not HID devices.

    That makes sense. I guess what I’m trying to communicate is more theoretical. It may not be considered an HID because it doesn’t support the true format, but it is a method through which the operator interacts with the device – and to me, the ability to interact with an electronic device would make it a computer. A calculator is even a computer.

  • randywehrs

    But I think the question shouldn’t be “are they computers” and certainly not “are they HIDs”. The question should be: “Are smartphones workstations?” or perhaps even “are smartphones laptop replacements?”.

    I agree with WBB. Of course they’re computers, but to what extent, if any, do they replace the computers we currently use and how we use them?

  • sbdi

    They are computers – computing has become increasingly ubiquitousness. I guess a PC falls into the workstation bit of the world. Most people use computers to use the internet. They use the internet to get access to media (Text, Video, Music)

  • http://altoonadesign.com halfasleeps

    Well I guess in the raw meaning of the word they are computers, but when I think of a ‘computer’ I don’t think of a “device that computes information” I think of a ‘workstation’.

  • Tarh

    They are Turing-complete, so they are computers.

  • http://www.lunadesign.org awasson

    By all means they are computers… The have a CPU, RAM, ROM and a buss for input output. I have 8-bit computers from the 70’s that an iPhone will run circles around.

  • glenngould

    I agree they are computers.

    The real question here is, are they ‘personal computer replacements’ yet:

    Smartphones are not personal computer replacements just yet — and they might never be. It’s hard to imagine writing a term paper or designing a web site on your phone.

    I think we’ll have to wait until the invention of a new visual output device which replaces monitors, which would be a huge change.

  • http://MeitarMoscovitz.com/ Meitar

    I think if you mix this post with your next one, you make a much stronger point for both: namely, that “cross computer” or “cross device” web development is becoming more relevant because not only is browser market share finally fracturing from a single dominant player, so are the hardware form factors that people use to connect to the Internet.

    This doesn’t really answer the question of “whether smartphones are computers,” but that’s just not as important a question for web developers to consider when the fact is people can access our web sites from smartphones, desktop computers, or even handheld gaming consoles for pete’s sake! ;)

  • Ketira

    I just got the LG Incite, and AT&T thinks of it as more of a PDA instead of a computer – although it’s got WiFi as well as it’s own browser. However, I’m still learning about this neat phone/browser/PDA/music player, but that’s why I wanted it. I miss my PDA!

    I’m just glad it uses a stylus. My fingers are a tad too big to use as such. But is it a replacement for my desktop? No way! (Did I mention it syncs with Outlook 2007? ;> )

  • Anonymous

    my toaster does a fantastic job at being a computer…………

  • dttri

    They are definitely computers. Just because they are used mainly for telephoning, they aren’t called computers.

  • Anon

    I think they are basically small PCs now.

    My Nokia E71 does everything I use my PC for (albiet, on a smaller screen). I mostly use it for checking news, listening to music and other such things.

    Technically they’re also computers by definition.

  • Anonymous

    A computer’s a programmable calculator, essentially, that stores its own programs that can be made by the user.

    By that definition, my TI calculator (an 83+) is a computer, as it is programmable in TI-BASIC. A cell phone only has the potential to be considered a computer (you could, for example, write an interpreter app). I suppose, though, as long as it could be a computer, it is a computer. Therefore, Nokia would be the biggest producer of computers.