How Are Cell Phones Different From Smartphones?

This entry explains how to spot a cell phone as compared to a smartphone

Young woman browsing in phone store
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While we all know what cell phones are, we don’t always know how to differentiate them from smartphones. Here’s how.

Smartphones Have a Mobile Operating System

You can think of a smartphone like a miniature computer that can also place and receive calls. Though there lacks an industry-standard definition of a smartphone, the simplest way to tell a cell phone apart from a smartphone is to determine whether or not the device has a mobile operating system.

A mobile operating system is much like what’s powering your personal computer at home or at work.

In the mobile world, though, the software goes by different names. While cell phones don’t have operating systems at all, smartphones can be powered by:

  1. Windows Mobile
  2. iPhone OS
  3. Google’s Android
  4. Symbian OS
  5. RIM’s BlackBerry
  6. Palm’s WebOS
  7. Linux

The iPhone OS comes from other operating systems that are related to Unix. Palm’s WebOS and Google’s Android are built on top of Linux. Smartphones can typically view and sometimes edit documents (i.e. from Microsoft Office). Cell phones cannot.

While many cell phones now have full QWERTY keyboards, this is a basic requirement for smartphones. The keyboard is much like your computer’s keyboard. On a mobile phone, it can come in the form of hardware (i.e. a physical but small keyboard) or software (i.e. tapping digital keys on a touch screen such as with the iPhone 3G).

Cell phones can typically send and receive text, picture and video messaging. Many cell phones can email, too.

Smartphones, though, typically go a step further by syncing with the email server of your personal or corporate provider.


IBM designed the first smartphone in 1992. It was called Simon. The smartphone was presented that year as a concept device in Las Vegas at the computer industry trade show known as COMDEX.

The first cell phone, on the other hand, was demonstrated 19 years before the first smartphone.

Motorola employee Dr. Martin Cooper on April 3, 1973 called researcher Dr. Joel S. Engel of AT&T’s Bell Labs using a prototype from Motorola called the DynaTAC.

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