What makes your phone so smart?

Paul Woodward
7th March 2016 at 15:01

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, What makes your phone so smart?

The ubiquitous modern day smartphone; must have accessory and the bane of the teacher’s life. If not beeping to signify a received message, then constantly being scanned suspiciously under the desk to check a Facebook status. Yes, they are a pain but also an amazing piece of technology and a perfect, and topical, subject for a design and technology lesson. They’re not called smart for nothing after all.

The smartphone, more than any other device that I can think of, epitomizes the nature of rapidly developing and convergent technology, yet despite being so technologically advanced it is often simply taken for granted. You can guarantee that the student who just dropped their phone (again) only cares if it still works not that they may have compromised a complex piece of technology worth hundreds of pounds. Conversely, those with the latest technology continue to berate owners of older models for no reason other than they are ‘out of date’. Hard to keep up when a new model is released seemingly every other month!

Having lived in a world before mobile phones, and the first 'smartphone' in 1992, I am still amazed by their development and struggle to understand how teenagers can be so dismissive of the technology involved. I am sure most early adopters of new phones can happily reel off the list of features their new ‘toy offers’ but I wonder how many will actually understand what they do or, more importantly, how they used to do them. The smartphone has replaced just about every portable device I can think of and a few more besides. Let’s consider just a few of the features we now take for granted:

Once cutting edge technology in the classroom was a battery powered pocket calculator, now that’s a little used basic app in a phone. Photos that once took weeks to develop now show up in your Instagram account instantly and negate the need for those painful family holiday slide shows!

Your entire music collection used to sit in boxes, stuffed full of records, 8 track cassettes or rows of shiny CD’s…now your phone can store more music than you could listen to in a lifetime, all indexed and readily accessible complete with album art. Radio, once laboriously tuned to manually, is now digital and on demand presuming you are not simply streaming from the cloud.

The internet, once the privilege of academic institutions and industry now sits in the palm of your hand and can be accessed anywhere without the need for any wires and at super high speeds. Snail mail became email and SMS texts are now old fashioned when compared to Whatsapp and Snapchat.

The diary which became the filofax in the 80’s is now a calendar app and that rolodex full of contacts is a generic feature on every phone which can be accessed by using your voice. That expensive Sat-Nav unit in the car is now replaced with a Google app.

The humble digital camera at one time considered groundbreaking at a few megapixels now fades into comparison to your latest super duper camera equipped phone. Even professional photographers have ditched the DLSR and use their iPhones to take professional quality images.

Need a games console? Your phone has you covered there as well and can run 3D games in high resolution with gyroscopic controls once only found in military aircraft. Lost your watch? No worries, you don’t need it as your phone tells the time, calories burnt for the day and even what time to get up complete with custom ring tone alarm.

Multi point pressure sensitive touch screens with oleophobic and hydrophobic coatings and liquid metal casings. That’s your modern and smart materials covered right there.

System on a chip (for the electronics crowd) replace SMC’s and large scale integrated chips, OLED’s replace TFT’s and screens now have a higher resolution than the latest big screen TV’s...Did I mention you can watch TV on your phones as well?

Processors now running up to 16 discreet cores, memory counted in Gigabytes when back in the day a megabyte would have cost hundreds of pounds. Solid state storage up to 128GB that was only dreamt of 20 years ago.

Lithium Ion batteries that can run for days off a single charge, speech recognition software that used to cost hundreds of pounds, mini versions of Office programs, email instead of snail mail, Snapchat instead of SMS texts…the list goes on and it’s not finished yet.

They can remind you of important appointments, control your TV or heating from anywhere in the world. You can talk to them, asking questions like you might a learned friend or colleague and they can even tell you where they are should you lose them.

All that before we even consider premium materials, modern manufacturing methods and the ergonomics, graphics and interface design. 

Apparently, you can also use them for making telephone calls!

Yes, the smartphone has a lot going for it as a learning tool for technologists. If you want to really drive the message home about convergent technology, just try collating all those different devices and place them next to a modern smartphone…presuming you can find the space. You can even put one next to a 10 year old model just to illustrate how far we have come in a decade.

However, consider this; here is a machine as thin as a pencil that can run for days on a single charge, which fits in your pocket and can access all documented human knowledge since records began, and what are its main uses? Taking selfies and watching cat videos! I also remain convinced that if I could find a way of texting the material on the board in class to the phones in the room, I would get far more attentive audience. Perhaps I should use Whatsapp for my next lesson…

The phone is also an incredible way of linking the generational divide between student and teacher. While we may sometimes struggle to understand Xbones, PSN and the like, pull a smartphone out of your pocket and attention immediately turns to the device with a mutual appreciation of technology. When it’s the latest model, it may even elicit a knowing nod of approval which you may struggle to get for anything else you do.

So, remain vigilant on their use in school by all means but rather than considering them the enemy, embrace them for the little technological marvels they are. Remember how much discreet technological items they have replaced and start a discussion about what else they may converge with or incorporate in the future. They seem to be replacing everything except the teacher but, as Arthur C Clarke once said;

‘Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!’

I’ll get my coat…


Paul Woodward has been a teacher of DT for 22 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of Faculty, qualified to MA level and an examiner and moderator of Resistant Materials for the AQA.