A thought that hasn't left my mind after my recent trial of the HTC Hero smart phone is a creeping suspicion that the days of the general purpose mobile phone are numbered. Up until now we have tended to carry one mobile device with us and used it for all occasions. It was fine for when at work, and on an evening out. It didn't matter what we where wearing or where we were, we would just have one phone. Now mobile devices are providing more and more functionality, and that functionality will differ in importance according to your situation. Is it logical any more to stick with one phone?
It all started with a conversation with a good friend of mine who when she saw the HTC Hero commented that it would not fit in her clutch bag. She showed me such a bag (I am largely ignorant about such things) and indeed it wouldn't leave a lot of room for anything but the phone. Of course these points can start off a train of thought. The cameras found on many smart phones can be poor, and the lack of a flash can rule out using the camera in low light situations, such as a night out. This might mean that a smart phone is a less than ideal companion on a night out when you might just want to take photos of your friends, send text messages and semi-drunkenly ring a taxi at the end of the night. Plus these devices are rather expensive.
On the other hand smart phones completely outshine conventional phones when it comes to rich functionality like using the mobile web or local applications. The larger screen and sophisticated user interfaces and operating systems make these devices into much more that a phone, and as I said in my review make them into computers that happen to be able to make phone calls. This is great for when you want to keep in touch as Web 2.0 has meant that it isn't just email that matters anymore, but Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn as so on. Having sophisticated applications on a device that is always on and always on you is a great opportunity and might mean that you can carry out some of the functions on it that you might have previously needed a full size computer for in the past.
Merely a few years ago we did not expect that much from a mobile device, if it made phone calls, sent text messages, took some photos and maybe made an effort to surf the mobile web we were happy, but smart phones have opened up a whole new set of possibilities and a widening of what is perceived to be the purpose of a mobile phone. As the number of potential functions increases them what might happen is the number of phones that can perform all of these functions well will decrease, and how important different parts of mobile device functionality are to you will vary with the time of day and what you are up to.
An additional factor is that mobile phones are getting cheaper. Take the INQ Mini 3G for example, a rather funky little mobile that will only set you back around £40. You might spend that on a pair of shoes. I had a quick look at it at a recent 3MobileBuzz meet up and was struck by how much effort had been made to provide not only rich social networking functionality, but also how stylish the phone was, from its vibrant case to menu systems and instruction cards that had been liberally mixed with modern artwork. A good phone for a night out maybe? Of course you would wear different shoes with different outfits, so why not different phones for different outfits? You would also use different footwear for different circumstances so again the same might go for mobiles?
You could have different phones for different occasions now, but currently this leads to having different phone numbers for each device, a situation that could be solved by making multiple SIM cards answer to one telephone number or through something like Google Voice. Currently mobile operators subsidise the cost of mobile phones so the price you pay isn't the actual cost of the device, but the cost of manufacturing mobile phones will fall (as the cost of technology always falls) so this barrier will fall too. Selling lots of different mobile phones to people to use for different occasions might one day become an interesting revenue stream for mobile operators.