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Terminology - Mobile device or smartphone? PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 04 November 2016 12:56

An interesting question arose recently in one of my email lists I contribute to. It related to the use of "mobile devices" versus the more specific (and I believed appropriately specific) use of the term "smartphone" in a marketing blurb document. My reasoning is summarised below.

The poster’s comment was a suggestion about using ‘mobile devices’ for a type of telephony  with respect to internet browsing, app usage, data downloading, and retrieval, but specifically using cellular or mobile phone systems.

Firstly, used poorly this phrase "mobile devices" is, or can easily become, a weasel phrase, or ‘buzz-word’. For me, "mobile devices" is what I call in my business practicum: ‘contagious usage’. And the poster was absolutely right-on the money to ask the question – I’d ask it too and in cases like this I ask it often

By ‘contagious usage’ I mean that in modern technical usage we see ‘virus-like’, ever changing usage patterns of technical compound nouns, verbs and adjectives, moving in and out of vernacular and narrative writing that almost ‘virally’, grab meaning; and just as quickly, then discard that meaning for some other meaning. It is as if they have a contagious capacity for spreading changeable meaning in every new usage they’re found in. These technical compound terms are loosely or poorly defined, contextually laden with meanings, and are sometimes accepted into the lexicon, but without any fully categorised, limiting, technical definitions. They take on short lives of their own and in any sort of technical documentation, need to be very specifically isolated within a schema of technical meanings, limits and definitional criteria.


In the case of the passage, I think ‘mobile devices’ was too broad.


Here’s why. I believe that in that passage, any compound term should have been defined within the context of mobile (mobile is Australian for ‘cell’ btw) telephony, telecommunications, and the use of various telephony technologies (for example: VOIP telephony, or cellular). However, as a couple of posters noted that a laptop with VOIP could easily be dragged into this mobile telephony paradigm. Yet many mobile phones could easily be excluded – because there are still mobile phones manufactured without internet browsing capability. There are also many mobile phones that can browse the internet, but cannot store or use software applications. In the passage's context, these app and data considerations were essential criteria, all mutually inclusive, tightening the specificity of the terminology chosen.


And here is the nub of the problem, because all of the activities in that passage required four major (there were more, but four were enough to demonstrate my argument) elements:


  • Mobile telephony as a carrier.
  • Internet browsing capability in the device and carrier technology.
  • Devices that can store software applications and data.
  • Devices users can manipulate to use the software applications and data.
  • Mobile telephony AND internet browsing capability, AND [software application storage, data storage] AND [software application and data usage].



All of this means that the compound usage now has a schema. The schema is defining significant limitations. So the passage now has specific technical context where:

Consequently I suggested ‘smartphone’ was probably a more appropriate usage.


I think that it is still a buzz-word, weasel-wordy, and potentially contagious usage. But it fitted most completely within the context of that passage and also linked limiting context to what a non-technical audience would contextualise within their experience of modern mobile phones that do much more than make phone calls. As a compound term, it silently defined the passages context, and specifically describes a criteria that appropriately listed something more than just a telephone, but specifically limited the context to a type of specialised telephone.

Last Updated on Friday, 04 November 2016 13:26
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