How Does a Smartphone Work?

By G.S. Jackson

Smartphones can be used to call or text message, and can be used as GPS devices.
i Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

The availability of hardware and software determines how smartphones work, or, for that matter, that they even exist. With the advent of touch screens that actually gave users a responsive surface, smartphone interfaces become more intuitive. Furthermore, the introduction of geolocation technology as an integrated part of cellular provider services provided applications with a way to locate the user on maps or for social networking purposes. Small and portable long-term memory gave these phones the ability to store pictures and other media. Finally, mobile device-specific operating systems brought all this technology together into a smartphone that can take pictures, browse the Internet, and run applications. This collection of technology is what makes smartphones work.

Touch Screens

Touch screens have existed since the days of PDAs, usually used in tandem with a stylus. Following that, resistive touch screens emerged. These touch screens were constructed of layers of conductive material separated from each other. When the user puts pressure on the surface of the screen, either with a stylus or finger, the layers would touch and complete a circuit, sensing the location of the touch. Capacitive touch screens use the conductivity of the touching object -- a finger, usually -- to register touch. Smartphones use capacitive touch screens to make touch interaction comfortable and natural.

GPS and Geolocation

Smartphones also contain the ability to locate the user via GPS technology. Typically, the smartphone, like any cellular phone, sends and receives data, including GPS coordinates, from the cellular network. The network or third-party applications can then use this information to identify the location of the user. This way, the applications on the phone, such as map applications or social applications, can use this information to suggest driving or walking directions or attractions to visit.

Flash Memory

The invention of flash memory has made high-capacity data storage easier to accomplish on small devices. Flash cards represent the way this technology makes smartphones possible. Flash cards are small, thin and can hold anywhere between 1GB and 64GB of data. This allows smartphones to download and store applications from the cellular network. It also allows smartphones to save a large number of pictures, text messages and voice messages.

Operating Systems

The aspect of smartphones that tie all the hardware innovations together is an operating system made specifically for smartphone use. Apple's iOS functions on Apple phones and tablets, and provides a stable platform meant specifically for mobile use. Google's Android and Microsoft Windows Phone 8 do the same for non-Apple phones. These operating systems are meant to run on small devices, using touch technology and functioning primarily with limited processing resources and smaller hard drive space.