Opinion: Why the new 'superphones' really are super

The word 'superphone' is an old marketing and headline gimmick, but this year's lineup of extreme phones has earned that moniker.

The word superphone has been used by marketers and journalists since the 1990s to convey the idea of a phone that far outshines the competition.

More than 10 years ago, for example, the Nokia 9210 was widely hailed as a superphone because it was more like a laptop than other phones. It was a clamshell device, opening up to reveal a keyboard and a color screen that were much bigger than those on other phones but much smaller than the ones on actual laptops.

With its 41-megapixel camera, the Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone falls into the category of "superphone," says Mike Elgan.

Since the '90s, the superphone label has been used by marketers trying to set their products apart from the competition and by journalists grasping for a colorful word to express their excitement about a new phone or a new feature.

In other words, the word superphone never really meant anything. It was a word without a clear definition. As a result, it hasn't been taken up by the public.

The time has come for that to change. A new crop of phones really should be described as "superphones", and I'll tell you why.

A new definition for 'superphone'

We have come to accept that phones have features and functions that are inferior to other devices. Their processors are weaker than PC processors. Their camera electronics are inferior to the technology in real cameras. And their usage models are based on the idea that people will use them to do limited, scaled-down versions of what is possible on other devices.

We love our phones because they're mobile and multipurpose, not because they're more powerful or do something better than anything else out there.

But it may be that our understanding of the term super, as applied to phones, is flawed and should change.

Supercomputers are super not because they are pretty good for room-size machines, but because they can do things only supercomputers can do -- like predict future global weather patterns or beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy.

Superman is "super" not because his powers are pretty good for an alien, but because they exceed those of any human, alien or other superhero.

In order to qualify as a superphone, a smartphone should have key features that radically exceed not only those of other phones but also those of other consumer devices. It should be able to do things that even our PCs, laptops, digital cameras and other things can't do.

Meet the new superphones

New superphones are being announced and coming on the market that do super things. They have fundamental abilities you can find only on these phones.

Super cameras

A new category of superphone has cameras capable of using more pixels than even high-end prosumer digital cameras.

Nokia this week announced its Lumia 1020 superphone, which is super because it has a 41-megapixel digital camera inside. (My high-end prosumer Canon EOS 7D camera has an 18-megapixel CCD.)

While the best use of all those megapixels will be for digital zoom and "oversampling," which means removing digital noise by giving a 5-megapixel image multiple choices for each pixel, the phone will also be capable of taking 38-megapixel photos -- far more than prosumer digital cameras can.

Other superphones in this category are Nokia's older Symbian-powered PureView 808 (also 41 pixels) and the upcoming Sony Honami i1 (expected to have a 20-megapixel camera).

Super smarts

Describing Siri and Google Now as "artificial intelligence" is controversial, but I've heard leading AI experts do it.

The ability to understand what you say in everyday language and then talk back -- plus the ability to learn, do things for you and make decisions about whether to interrupt you -- are AI-like features that consumers can get only from a small number of phones.

For example, iOS phones like the Apple iPhone have hardware inside designed to optimize the use of Siri. This experience is not available on laptops or desktops or anywhere beyond the hardware-optimized iOS devices it runs on. That exclusivity makes the iPhone a superphone.

Likewise, the small number of phones specifically optimized at the hardware level for Google Now are also superphones, according to my definition. The Nexus 4, co-designed by Google and made by LG, probably fits into this category, and the upcoming Nexus 5 (rumored to become available in October) almost certainly will.

Google has teased but not announced the specifics of its upcoming Moto X phone. Some pundits have suggested that this phone may have hardware optimizations for Google Now as well, since Motorola is owned by Google.

By my definition, any phone hardware-optimized for artificial intelligence capability that's unavailable on desktop computers is a real superphone.

Other super capabilities

The coming age of wearable computer products, like Google Glass devices and smartwatches, means smartphones will increasingly serve as the hubs of wireless personal area networks.

When smartphones are specifically hardware-optimized to boost the capabilities of wearable devices, they will become super, as long as those hub functions are unavailable on other devices.

These are just examples. I think we're going to see a rise in the availability of superphones that will be not only better than other phones, but also better than any other device at fundamental tasks important to users.

The superphone label is finally meaningful, and it has become meaningful because we're in the midst of a shift from a world in which phones do limited, stripped-down versions of what other devices can do to a new world where phones can do things no other consumer device can do.

And that's going to be super cool.

This article, " Why the New 'Superphones' Really Are Super," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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