What is a smartphone?

A smartphone is a combination of a cell phone and a computer. It also works as a camera, media player, and a satellite navigation device.

The mobile operating system endows the device with many advanced computing features.

The prevalent operating systems are: Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, Microsoft’s Windows Phone, Nokia’s Symbian, and Blackberry’s OS.

These systems enable smartphone owners to:

  • Use broadband, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and near-field communication (NFC).
  • Browse the Internet.
  • Send and receive emails.
  • Download files.
  • Share and edit documents.
  • Take photographs and record videos.
  • Play computer games.
  • Listen to music and watch movies.
  • Stay in touch with friends and family through text, voice, and video messaging.
  • Keep address and contact lists, calendars, to-do-lists, notes, clocks, alarms, and reminders.

Users can also install a huge selection of applications (apps). From news gathering to finance management, apps keep users informed, productive, entertained, and organized.

Hand holding smartphone with graphs - tax refund anticipation loan article 3

Every year spawns new models of smartphones with more power and storage. In addition, more and more apps come on the market.

Today, people use smartphones to shop, book holidays, stream live content, connect, control their homes, and even monitor their health.

The devices are essential survival tools of modern times. It is hard to imagine life without them.

According to Statista, there are more than 3 billion smartphone users worldwide. The German data company also estimate that global production of smartphones exceeded 1.4 billion in 2018.

Evolution of the smartphone

Smartphones evolved from the convergence of two devices: the cell phone and the personal organizer. In the 1990s, the two devices were separate and consumers tended to own one or the other.

Over that decade, competition among networks drove down the cost of cell phones and calls. By the close of the 20th century, teenagers were using them. The addition of a camera meant that they could text their friends and attach a photo. Also, the addition of a music player meant that they did not need a separate portable stereo.

In the meantime, business people were increasing their use of personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as the Palm Pilot and the Psion Organizer. PDAs allowed users to access their calendars, work on spreadsheets and documents, and use other applications on the move. Some could also synchronize their PDAs with their desktop computers.

The first device to embody telephone and PDA features was the Simon Personal Communicator from IBM.

Launched in 1994, the Simon predates the use of the term smartphone. It was years ahead of its time. Not only did it work as a phone, it also provided email, calendar, contacts, calculator, notepads, and fax services.

ARM and 3G

It was the convergence of the ARM microprocessor and the 3G mobile network that spurred the smartphone revolution.

ARM microprocessors made it possible for a small device to run a lot of computing power on little energy. Acorn Computers launched the first chip for the mass market in 1985.

The advent of 3G allowed networks to send data at much higher rates. This opened the door to sending and receiving video and multimedia. With the arrival of 4G in 2012 and the imminent arrival of 5G, the data-carrying capacity continues to grow.

In addition, developers have added features such as touch screens and navigation with the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The case for smartphone recycling

The increasing use of smartphones is putting a strain on Earth’s resources. Researchers at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom demonstrated this by analyzing the chemical make-up of the devices. They blended phones to dust and carried out an analysis of the dissolved results.

The team found that, among other substances, a smartphone contains 33 grams (g) of iron, 13 g of silicon, and 7 g of chromium.

They also found smaller quantities of silver (90 milligrams or mg) and gold (36 mg), and other critical elements, including:

  • 900 mg of tungsten.
  • 160 mg of neodymium.
  • 70 mg of cobalt and molybdenum
  • 30 mg of praseodymium.

The results show that to make just one smartphone it is necessary to mine 10-15 kilograms (kg) of ore. Of this ore, some 7 kg is high-grade gold, 1 kg of copper, 750 kg of tungsten, and 200 g of nickel.

The researchers carried out the experiment to highlight the rare elements that each phone contains and to promote greater recycling. Some of the elements, such as tungsten and cobalt, come from conflict zones in Africa.