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Re the FAQ:

If you have a question about...

computer hardware computer software and it is not about...

electronic devices, media players, cell phones or smart phones, except insofar as they interface with your computer ...then you’re in the right place to ask your question

My (smart) phone has a CPU, memory and IO, an OS (windows as it happens) and I can write and purchase software for it. I browse the web, including this site, I use email and write documents and spreadsheets on it and I play games on it.

Can someone honestly say a smartphone like this is not a computer? If It was slightly bigger like an iPAD would it be a computer?

  • I don't understand why the downvotes. Fine we'll consider a modern phone something other than a computer, but is this question fundamentally flawed? – James T Snell Jul 12 '11 at 0:34
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    @The White Phoenix, downvotes on Meta means they disagree with the proposal. – Ivo Flipse Jul 12 '11 at 11:42
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The distinction is there for a good reason.

Yes your fancy phone has CPU right? So you'd expect the Linux kernels for ARM would probably also be the same right? Well they aren't, which causes all sorts of unexpected differences between phones running the same version of Android, because beneath that nice GUI things aren't the same at all.

Furthermore, those things are hidden behind proprietary code that's different between ARM fabs, chipsets and generation. Yes it has a CPU and memory, but it also comes with GPS, a quadband for the phone signal and several other components that we may or may not be able to help you with.

That's just within Android phones, now let's bring in all the Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, iOS, Nokia, Bada phones into the equation to make the equation even more complicated.

On the desktop side things are way better standardized throughout the past decades, until something similar happens with phones its going to very difficult for us to answer questions to every single device out there.

A good example is XDA-Developers, which for a very long time basically only supported HTC devices. That's a very small subset of all smartphones, but they were successful because they had focus and didn't try to be a solution to everyone's problem. Well Super User is the same and that's why we don't allow questions about smartphones.

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    It may also be worth noting that under this man's idea of a "computer", we'd have to include Gaming Consoles. I almost want to say that phones are smaller computers, optimized to do a different job than what we do on a computer, and the same goes for game consoles. Your points are great though @Ivo – Simon Sheehan Jul 9 '11 at 14:34
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    @Simon, you can add most BluRay players, high end TVs, expensive car entertainment systems, building automation, security systems, SCADA (industrial automation), and plenty of other electronics to that list of hardware that falls within his definition of a Computer. – Chris S Jul 10 '11 at 1:59
  • Sneering about my understanding of kernels is not really conducive to the discussion. However letting that slide for a moment. Just because something has a variant does that preclude it? You cannot answer a question about a particular driver for a particular hardware card using your argument as it may not apply to another version of the same product produced by the same manufacturer. Super user by it's nature is answer specific questions as well as general questions. – Preet Sangha Jul 10 '11 at 6:50
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    @Preet It wasn't meant as a sneer about your understanding, but rather a snarky way of pointing out that mobiles are an extremely immature, fast moving platform with much, much more diversity than the 90% Wintel market share we're talking about with desktops. Either way, the only right answer is gadgets should get their own SE-site to which the only other right answer is the gadgets SE-site failed, hard. So there you have it, end up discussion – Ivo Flipse Jul 10 '11 at 6:53
  • Sneer/snark potato/elephant. I appreciate the distinction you make about immature platforms - thank you. Can the FAQ be updated to include this terminology then? – Preet Sangha Jul 10 '11 at 6:59
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    @Chris this Site is for Users, and you don't use Car Electronics like a computer. I use my iPad like a computer though. I'm not oppsedt this answer, but there are things mmuch more like computers than your examples that are still off topic. Its just where we draw the line. The kind of underlying hardware is clearly not sufficient. – Daniel Beck Jul 10 '11 at 7:25
  • @Daniel, I don't think you've seen high end Car Electronics. Heck there's even a system that uses you iPad as the UX interface; so if using your iPad counts I can't see how that entertainment system wouldn't by extension. You completely missed my point however, evident by your repeating it verbosely, that simply defining what in On-Topic by hardware and a very limited set of use cases is insufficient to define SU. Subject matter for SU has been arbitrarily definied, the way it should be. – Chris S Jul 10 '11 at 14:42
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    By the impression I get by the term "Super User", I totally don't see devices meant to perform user-programmable functions, and that interface with my x86-based devices, as off-topic. Maybe someone should make a "Actual Super User" site that has a broader scope to permit discussion of basically any dimension of using consumer electronics? :D – James T Snell Jul 11 '11 at 23:01
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Can someone honestly say a smartphone like this is not a computer? If It was slightly bigger like an iPAD would it be a computer?

Someone can "honestly" claim a smartphone is not a computer. Afterall, it's not inherently dishonest to be completely wrong. ;)

An iPad is also a "computer". As a computational device, iPads are very very similar to iPhones. They are fabricated with different use cases in mind, but architecturally they're profoundly similar.

The root of this discussion is entirely a matter of definition.

The term "Computer" has become extremely ambiguous in the modern context. In a historical sense, a "Computer" was actually a person who would solve math problems. Obviously, no one here is concerned with that.

The Wikipedia article on "Computers" has a fairly accurate strict definition of 'Computer':

A computer is a programmable machine designed to sequentially and automatically carry out a sequence of arithmetic or logical operations. The particular sequence of operations can be changed readily, allowing the computer to solve more than one kind of problem.

Mr. Alan Turing is generally considered the father of modern computer science due to his creation of the Turing Machine, which provided the conceptual framework upon which all modern computers are based. A Smartphone is as much a turing machine implementation as an x86 derived device.

Smartphones have become characterized by their general computing abilities. The emergence of HTML 5 will further close the distinguishing gaps between smartphones and desktop/notebook machines.

Currently, most people tend to think of "Computers" as x86 machines running a "Desktop" Operating System (Win XP, Apple's OSX, Ubuntu Linux, etc). Granted, they may generally not realize that's what they have in mind.

The use of BIOS/EFI, as a hardware abstraction interface for software is a major architectural property that leaves a notable distinction between how operating environments operate on an x86 machine versus an ARM machine (and related machines often implemented in the Smartphone space). I think it's fair to speculate this distinction will be resolved within the next several years.

By strict definition "smartphones", certainly are computers. And they are extremely comparable, across the range of machines that constitute "Computers", to x86 machines (as used for Desktop and Laptop computing devices). However, in the context that the general population applies the term "Computer" (by which they mean something running a desktop operating system), a smartphone presently falls outside of the context of the term.

As Smartphones continue to develop, we will very soon see this distinction evaporate. With the emergence of cloud computing, improved network communications, HTML 5 and more efficient hardware (in all dimensions), the tasks that we use Desktop Computers for will expand well beyond such devices and be driven by a wider range of devices - all of which will always fall within the strict definition of what a Computer fundamentally is.

In closing, none of this really matters anyway. It's entirely a matter of definition. If enough people band together and decide the meaning of a term, then the rest tend to accept that definition.

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