Should We Even Call Them Phones Anymore?

Andrew Sullivan makes note of this chart showing that making phone calls was the fifth most popular use of a smart phone according to a recent study:


Megan Garber comments:

This is all per a report released by the UK mobile network O2 (more on the numbers here). And the findings translate: voice minutes per user have been falling here in the States since 2008, according to CTIA, the wireless industry association; customers, as such, have been cutting back on their voice plans. That’s due in part, perhaps, to the fact that the iPhone, the ur-smartphone, relies on notoriously inconsistent networks for its voice services … but it’s due as well to the cultural shifts away from the phone conversation itself. A text message is more efficient than a voice call; an email — which lets the recipient respond in his or her own time — can be the most considerate way, these days, to reach out and touch someone.

The smartphone itself is both a cause and an effect of that shift. In offering efficient alternatives to the phone call, it helps assure not the obsolescence of the call itself, but the evolution of the call into a kind of luxury good — reserved for the most valuable people in our lives. The smartphone introduces friction into the concept of a “phone” itself. As a portable calling device, the smartphone is bulky and call-droppy and shattery (who makes a mobile device out of glass?) and, it must be said, noticeably unfriendly to the cheek. As a portable computer, however, the smartphone is elegant and efficient and – Mr. Jobs was not exaggerating – revolutionary. It’s a computer with phone functionality, rather than the other way around.

Though this study was from a British carrier, there’s no reason to believe that the same trend isn’t being repeated here in the U.S. As I noted back in May, in 2009 the amount of data transmitted by smart phones surpassed the amount of voice data, three years later it’s likely that the differences between the two have become even more apparent.  With the advent of 4G networks nationwide, most carriers have moved away from unlimited data plans but have kept unlimited phone minutes, suggesting that these devices are fast becoming portable computers that you can make a phone call with rather than phones that you can use to access the Internet.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. rodney dill says:

    We could call them ‘Personal Hybrid Omnimode Network Extension Servers,’ but it would probably have to be shortened somehow.

  2. Kylopod says:

    A general truth about technology is that names for things often stick long after they cease to be accurate descriptions. People today still talk about dialing a number and dial tones, decades after phone dials became obsolete. Similarly, I doubt people are going to stop calling these devices phones even if phoning ceases to be their main function.

  3. @Kylopod:

    A general truth about technology is that names for things often stick long after they cease to be accurate descriptions.

    Heck, we still use a 3.5″ Floppy Diskette as the generic “Save” icon. When’s the last time you actually used one of them to save something?

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    Let’s just term them what they truly are: Annoyance.

    “My annoyance just got a text.”

    “Hold on, I need to check my annoyance.”

    “Is your annoyance ringing?”

  5. The word has acquired a while new meaning and won’t go away, I’d wager.

    Indeed, they are “phones” not “telephones” (something that I suppose people still occasionally call land line devices, but never call cellphones”). This is double so since the most well know smartphone is the iPhone.

    I suppose we could adopt the British “mobile” but I doubt that will catch on.

  6. Android says:

    Awww…. iPhones.

    How cute.

    That must be for the non-tech folks out there.

    … bless their hearts!

  7. PogueMahone says:

    I vote we call them tricorders.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rodney dill: Heh.

    On the personal side, am I the last person in America to use them only as a phone? (yes, I am a troglodyte)

  9. John Burgess says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Not quite. I use mine primarily as a phone, but occasionally check e-mail (especially if I’m out but expecting an important one). I use the alarm clock, the calendar, a units conversion app, and an app that lets me watch baseball games if I’m out.

    I definitely use the included camera, too. I’ve been known to use it to listen to music on the beach or to watch a Netflix streaming video when I’m in some sort or situation–cable out, for instance, or a delayed flight.

    I also have an app from my insurance company, just in case.

  10. Jeremy says:

    I’ll be honest–who the hell really needs unlimited data? Unlimited texting absolutely, and I could also see unlimited calling (though not for me, personally; I get by on, at most, 250 minutes a month. I use Skype when I’m home to save minutes.) But aside from having those 4G mobile broadband plans so you can use your tablet where there’s no wifi, do you really need unlimited data on a phone?

    I sincerely doubt it. And I’m in my early twenties.

    I text, I check the news, my email, and my social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.) That’s about it. What more does one need?

  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @John Burgess: I, also use mine primarily as a phone. I do text sometimes, and I use the calendar, world clock (Tokyo to PST), and stopwatch occasionally. I don’t even have online service for my phone (a model from late in the 2g era about 4 years ago).

    My phone bill–12-16,000 Korean won (about $11-14)/month, with metered phone/text service. Troglodyte status is very economical here.

  12. rodney dill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’ve also heard people just call them ‘cells’, as in ‘My cell is ringing.’ iPhone or smartphone is just lengthening phone so it won’t catch on. Actually ‘droid could catch on after is has been genericized like aspirin or xerox.

    Tricorder won’t work just because its too long, and would be too trekkie for some.

    We need a good monosyllablic word that means data terminal, data processor, email/texting device, phone, multi-media device, portal, networked device, and data storage unit.

    A repurposed ‘phone’ is probably it, until a better one surfaces.

  13. ernieyeball says:

    When I started working in the communications industry 39 years ago the joke of the day was:
    What are the three fastest kinds of communication?
    Telegram, Telephone and Tel A Woman!

    Somehow Tel A Droid just doesn’t have the same …ring…to it…(rimshot please)…

    Oink Oink

  14. matt says:

    @Jeremy: People said the same thing about roaming then minutes then texting then…

  15. rodney dill says:

    I googled the question on what to call phones and found a thread with a lot of suggestions (at Gutenberg the Greek at Google+).

    The funniest response I found was.
    “Why don’t we just call them phones? Is Apple suing because its too close to iPhone?”

  16. James in LA says:

    Does anyone still use the verb “to xerox?”

  17. @James in LA: It still comes up,

    People are certainly still calling facial tissues Kleenexes and petroleum jelly Vaseline.

    There is also the semi-ubiquitous “coke” for soda.

  18. al-Ameda says:

    The older term PDA applies more aptly now than it did 10 years ago, that’s for sure.