Are Smartphones Nanocomputers?

Young people will probably not know this, but back in the 1970s personal computers were called microcomputers.  The dinosaur of computers, mainframes, were huge, some as big as houses, and cost millions.  Then in the 1960s newer, smaller computers started coming out that were dubbed minicomputers.  These were still too expensive to be personal, but they were cheap enough that they spread like gossip.  So when even smaller computers came out in the 1970s they were dubbed microcomputers.  These eventually became cheap enough for almost everyone to own one.

Now most people think of their smartphone as a phone, but it’s really a computer, just a very small one, so why not consider the smartphone the next paradigm of computing and call them nanocomputers?  I doubt if smartphones have any actual nanotechnology in them, but they might, but nano is obviously the next label in the series, so why not call them that?  Of course, what will picocomputers be like?  Nanocomputers are a planned concept, and smartphones might eventually use real nanotechnology, so it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the current vernacular, a “PC” is a Windows based computer.  PC used to stand for personal computer, and in the old days all microcomputers were PCs, even ones from Apple.  Somewhere along the way it became the PC versus Mac.  The smartphone is even more personal than the original PC because people actually carry them on their person.  We could call the smartphone a pocket computer, but that would be another PC acronym.

We could also call the smartphone the hand computer, following the labels of desktop and laptop computers.  The term handheld was in use for awhile, but it doesn’t quite work.

So why do I object to the phrase “smartphone” when it’s already so popular?  Because it’s rather limiting to think of the device as a phone.  Steve Jobs and Apple have done a wonderful job with the iPhone by creating a new category of pocket computer with hundreds of thousands of applications.  The phone part is just one of those applications, so why should it get top billing?

Already iOS phones and tablets have garnered over 1% of net user market share, competing with both Windows and Mac operating systems.

iPhones and Androids are quickly evolving into what I dreamed of having, an auxiliary brain.  Cellphones are about as close as we’ll ever get to telepathy.  Their GPS features give us homing pigeon like directional sense.  Adding the still and video camera broaden their versatility to create new concrete forms of memory.  The device is obviously more than a phone.

In the 1980s it was all the rage for schools to offer computer literacy courses to help the public understand the impact of the microcomputer on society.   Nanocomputers are bought and used without any training and no one talks about computer literacy anymore.  But do we understand the true impact of the nanocomputer?

Take this one example.  Public opinion pollsters are worried that telephone polls are now skewed because only certain types of people still have a landline phone, which is the only kind they can poll.  Now I don’t ever want pollsters to be able to call cell phone numbers, but what if nanocomputer users could elect to have a polling app, so whenever they felt like it, they could respond to variously kinds of polls.

What if nanocomputers became uniquely customized to its owner that they could be used to verify the identity of the user?  Nanocomputers could then be used as voting booths, and that would lead to their use for referendums.   By this thinking we should see these devices as extensions of our body.  We can already network the ear with a Bluetooth headset.  What if we connected nanocomputers to sensors inside our body?  As we integrate nanocomputers to our body, when do they become part of us?

And more importantly, how do we become part of them?  I now spend more time in front of a computer than I do sleeping.  Computers dominate my life, and so too for most people.  When do we start thinking of them as a prosthesis?  Aren’t they becoming enhancements for our brains, aren’t they becoming prosthetic minds?  We should think of nanocomputers as body enhancements that are leading us towards group minds.

The idea of wearable computers has been around for decades.   Most people thought such a concept was dorky, but now most people carry around one or more computers with them all the time.  Even a normal dumb cell phone is a computer, and so are MP3 players, game units, tablets, calculators, GPSes, digital cameras, ebooks, etc.  How long before it becomes obvious that the most convenient way to carry a nanocomputer is by wearing it?  Many people wear their Bluetooth headsets all the time now.  When will glasses and hearing aids be networked with the nanocomputer?

We need to get away from thinking of nanocomputers as phones but cybernetic enhancements to our bodies and minds.  So when did the Borg assimilate us?  When you think about it, Bluetooth headsets look like the first sprouting of Borgware.


JWH – 10/28/10

4 thoughts on “Are Smartphones Nanocomputers?”

  1. Interestingly, the Chinese name for a cell phone can be literally translated as “hand machine.” That seems to be a better term. The “micro” part of the name came from “microprocessor”, which got its name from the technology of “microelectronics”. It seems to have fallen out of use as there is no other way to build computers these days. I don’t see any reason to have a size-related name any more. How about just calling it a “hand-held” or “wearable”? The term “nano” has become so overused that we should resist further mis-application of the term.

  2. I’m not a big fan of the word ‘smartphone’ either. And you are certainly correct, the latest versions of these ‘phones’ are indeed personal computers, as personal as you can get to this point. To think a few decades ago that in the early 2000s you could carry around a phone and have no need to even own a computer would have been seen by many as science fiction. Even though I am not at a point in my journey towards financial freedom to want to spend money for a “smartphone”, I am still excited to watch how the technology progresses and I have no doubt that the time will soon come when I will join the 21st century.

  3. But they are all really von Neumann machines and they didn’t tell me that at IBM even though John von Neumann was hired by IBM as a consultant in 1952.

    They all work alike, just how big and how powerful.


  4. computer processors are produced on the nano molecular scale so yes they do contain “nano” technology but that’s been around since they first started producing micro-processors. Most new processors are produced on the scale of 32 nm

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