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The Rise of the Superphone

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John Sangiovanni
John Sangiovanni

To describe the segmentation of the mobile phone marketplace, analysts and industry professionals use a common lexicon to group similar devices by their relative features and capabilities. The majority of mobile phones that have graced retail shelves in recent years fall into two distinct categories: featurephones and smartphones. Lately, however, a new category has begun to emerge, that of the superphone.

Featurephones are so named, counterintuitively, because at one point in recent memory they defined the higher end of the device strata, due to their support for basic WAP browsing, the inclusion of a basic web browser, and possibly a color display. They offer no branded operating system, no open software API, and no (or limited) PIM sync capabilities. Today, such phones define the low end of the market in developed regions.

The next segment, smartphones, are devices that provide a more substantial, general purpose computing platform: Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Palm and certain devices powered by Series 60. In recent years, these devices have penetrated deeply beyond the enterprise market for which they were designed. It is possible, albeit painful, to write third-party software for smartphones, and they boast robust over-the-air synchronization with mainstream email, calendar, and contact management systems.

Featurephones and smartphones have defined the strata of mobile phone offerings in the mainstream marketplace for the past five years. However, now it’s clear that we see a new category emerging, with an impact on the wireless business that is difficult to overstate. With vastly better performance, desktop-grade web browsing, and high-resolution displays, a new category is born. I call them “superphones,” and they are achieving tremendous traction with consumers and professionals alike.

So what makes a superphone a superphone?
Though many try, it is difficult to dispute that the product that created and continues to define the superphone category is the iPhone. The iPhone offers an elegant user interface powered by an impressive array of integrated hardware, all wrapped up in a masterwork of industrial design. And within months of the iPhone’s release, several manufacturers rushed to market with devices that industry blogs would soon call the “iClones” — devices that were seemingly similar to the iPhone in design (large, high-resolution touchscreen) and a few core functions (high-quality integrated web browsing), but lacking the deeper foundational technologies that made the iPhone a platform.

Nevertheless, some of these devices were forged through ambitious collaborations, such as the Instinct (from Samsung and Sprint) and the Dare (from LG and Verizon). Although they didn’t achieve nearly the buzz or sales of the iPhone, these devices suggest that maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

If a large display and a robust web browser do not a superphone make, then exactly what is it that defines this new category? The operative word is platform. The creative potential of this next generation of hardware is defined by the ecosystem that each respective Superphone vendor’s platform will enable. When features like touchscreens, browsers, location-sensing technologies and hardware acceleration are programmatically exposed through elegant developer tools, a device is two-thirds of the way to superphonedom. Lastly, add an end-to-end international storefront, and a new medium is born.

A superphone must have:


  • Display with at least 320 pixels on the short axis
  • 3G connectivity or greater (plus additional radios as appropriate…Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc.)
  • Location-sensing technology (GPS, high-resolution signal-strength-based location, or equivalent)
  • Hardware-accelerated graphics subsystem


  • Integrated web browser that supports current desktop development standards
  • Published native developer SDK that allows programmatic access to the specialized hardware/software features listed above.


  • Integrated process for certification and searchable catalog distribution of 3rd-party applications. (Many will add that having a truly open distribution channel would be ideal, and I agree. However, through the publication of Zumobi’s iPhone app, we have found Apple’s AppStore certification process to be efficient and transparent.)

The next wave of true superphones promises to back up a device’s good looks with deeper platform technologies and more robust back-end services. Google’s Android platform will give way to a new breed of “gPhones” from Google’s partner manufacturers such as HTC. The much-anticipated BlackBerry Bold offers a gorgeous high-resolution display and also includes a physical keyboard -– essential for BlackBerry loyalists.

Microsoft’s response will likely be forged from the recently acquired consumer expertise of Danger (creators of the T-Mobile SideKick), together with their in-house Windows Mobile platform experience. Each is likely to provide a robust developer SDK, evolved from the toolchains that have served their platforms in years past.

The superphone promises to continue to challenge our notions of what a mobile device is and what it can do. This is neither the beginning nor the end of our mobile technology adventure, but nevertheless a notable chapter in our species’ paradoxical quest to be completely untethered, yet perpetually connected.

John SanGiovanni is the co-founder and VP of Product Design at Zumobi.

42 Responses to “The Rise of the Superphone”

  1. Here are some observations about Mr. SanGiovanni’s proposed definition of a new category of personal technologies he coins the “superphone”:
    1. It appears this classification was developed by listing the attributes of what he believes is the “gold standard” of this new category (iPhone). Such a definition should allow others to use this as a check list to evaluate current and emerging technologies and discriminate superphones from non-superphones. When I tried this, it was difficult to apply because of the lack of detail in “operational definitions” and the limited number of attributes. I therefore remain skeptical of the applicability of the proposed definition. I also question the need of defining yet a new category when, to my knowledge*, we have not yet standardized the definition of a “smartphone.”
    2. Shouldn’t a definition of “superphone” include an attribute that the device is a phone? (Just asking.)
    3. If we must move beyond the term “smartphone,” this would be a great opportunity to change that inaccurate name to “smart communication device” to emphasize these devices are multi-channeled communication devices for voice, text, and graphical information.
    4. I am particularly concerned about text entry on the iPhone and the iClones that have followed. (A superphone should have a supereasy method for communicating, including text.) I believe there is something revolutionary about the iPhone — it is a communication device that completely cut the umbilical cord to the physical keyboard. To my knowledge*, short of buying a 3rd party Bluetooth or IR keyboard, there is no option for a physical keyboard for the iPhone. Text must be entered using a virtual keyboard. Out of all the reviews of the iPhone I’ve read, I have yet to find one that challenges whether this is such a good idea. Someone’s grandma may be able to pick up an iPhone and intuitively know how to use it, but how many characters-per-minute can grandma enter given her rheumatic twisted hands and fingers swollen from steroid therapy). Definitions and classification schemes may be useful (if thoughtfully designed, tested, and refined) for discriminating the hardware (“form”), but add no insight into the “function” side of the equation. If the definition is going to include such categories as “distribution,” why not add one more for the function side of the form-function equation — “ergonomics” or just plain “does the superphone even work under real life conditions when used by humans who come in all shapes and sizes?” To be classified as “super,” a personal technology device must be more than what is currently listed in Mr. SanGiovanni’s scheme. It should be also superfunctional, be superreliable, and make our lives easier, safer, and more super.
    [* Where I state “to my knowledge,” I would greatly appreciate being directed to information that corrects me.]

  2. Just a disclaimer, I am not an Apple fanboy and I think they are truly one of the most arrogant companies out there. Some of their monopolistic practices make MS look like choirboys. Though I would also say their arrogance is somewhat justified. ;-)

    I understand the bias against iPhones from a power user perspective. Without going into the details, which most on this thread could enumerate ad nauseum, I did say that the iPhone lacks many things. I just took exception to one more “geek” who doesn’t get that he is the exception, not the rule, and whines about why iPhone gets all this love.

    If you look at this article from a business perspective, and I think talking about market segmentation was a hint that this was kind of a main theme, then you aren’t talking about selling something just to the perhaps 5-9% of the population who qualify as power users or early adopters or whatever elitist label the tech saavy want to call themselves.

    For a “superphone” to be broadly successful that means it needs to be accessible by the “idiots” – though I suspect your mom or your Uncle Joe would probably not appreciate your use of that term to describe them. I stand by my statement that you put a Tilt and an iPhone in the hands of 10 “normal” people then the iPhone will win hands down which translates into more sales which means more money and isn’t making more money what it is all about?

  3. @Laurie:

    First, if you have trouble finding features on Windows Mobile then you’re either an idiot (prime candidate for Apple products) or not really looking. Hit Start then Programs and it lists all of your programs.. wow that was tough! Bonus hint: Touch the program you want to run and it will open!

    As for PIE it works just fine for me. What does the iphone browser do that PIE can’t? My tilt has WinMo 6.1 which includes the zoom out feature and finger scrolling so don’t bother mentioning either of those. PIE also renders webpages just like you would see them on your desktop (and has since version 5.0) so don’t repeat that tired old fanboi excuse.

    If you judge technology based on it’s “beauty” then you are, again, an idiot who is a prime candidate for Apple products since they focus on appearance over functionality. I will agree with you and Tsahi that it’s all about the user experience… I have a much better user experience on my tilt because I can do so much more with it and I have control over it.

    Here’s an example for you. Let’s say I want a program to keep track of my running. I have 100’s to choose from on WinMo (most of them free) and can get them from tons of places. I download it directly to the phone (or put it on a storage card which isn’t possible on the iphone) and click it to install. But on the iphone I would have to first install certain software on my computer, connect to 1 certain store, hope that Apple approved the type of app I’m looking for and hold my breath for the price. Which one is a good user experience? And that’s just on the 3g iphone.. if it was the original iphone the answer would have been that the iphone user is just out of luck!

    Another example based on the first part of your comment. If your battery goes dead then you’re screwed. If mine goes dead I just pop in my spare battery and keep going. If you want an extended battery… tough! If I want it I just buy one myself and pop it in. If your battery dies you have to pay a ridiculous fee and wait several weeks for Apple to replace your battery because they don’t think consumers are smart enough to do it. If mine dies I just replace it myself in about 4 seconds. Who just had the better user experience?

    I do NOT have a good user experience on the iphone because I cannot customize it or control anything about it since Apple has it locked down. As long as Apple tries to control what consumers do with the device it will not have a good user experience.. except for idiots who like it just because it’s shiny.

  4. First, I think the list of what defines a superphone is missing a key component – namely a battery that lasts at least a business day worth of time. Without that, it will be a long time before we can really achieve the “quest to be completely untethered, yet perpetually connected.” How can you even utilize just the features found on your “ordinary” smartphone with today’s battery life?

    Second, WRT to Scionguy’s comments:
    Wow – you can NOT have ever played with an iPhone for even an hour or you couldn’t make such a pathetic comparison to the Tilt. I use a Tilt everyday (my work phone), and my son has an iPhone that I can occasionally pry loose from his clenched hand, so I have real experience with both of these two devices. I am at a loss to understand how your normal non-technical person even figures out how to *find* Windows Mobile features let alone actually use them. And IE on mobile – horrible! But Grandma figured out how to drive the iPhone – mostly by herself – in a few minutes. Forget that it is a beautiful piece of hardware – like Tsahi said, it is all about the USER EXPERIENCE. I completely acknowledge all the things the iPhone doesn’t have, but really, you think a Tilt is better?!?!?

  5. As one commentator has already pointed out, the iPhone’s list of features is neither unique nor as long as that of many phones, especially those made by HTC (usual disclaimer applies). The difference is the way that Apple has managed to persuade the media to write loving puff pieces about the iPhone as if it were anything out of the ordinary.

    Yet Apple’s is and has always been a closed world, with many fewer applications than eg the HTC TYTN II (aka Tilt or Kaiser), with Apple’s control freakery restricting the software available for it.

    Why is the iPhone held up as something so special, when in fact it’s one of a number of differing approaches to the problem of mobile data – and it’s by no means the most advanced?

  6. Thanks for your useful checklist of superphone features. It’s advances like these that are making the remote and mobile working revolution. Like you, we’re looking forward to the next stage in the adventure!

  7. N95/N96 perhaps makes sense for those who place an emphasis on photography, unfortunately there are other things a phone has to do and that’s where N95 betrays weakness. Screen size, screen quality, form factor, qwerty, UI, feature implementation, browser and Internet, appstore,iPod.

    But compared to Nokia and WM, Apple and Android are still young platforms and so early adopters need to be patient, if you can’t be patient and expect everything then you need to buy something from mature platform vendors and let early adopters deal with the issues.

    But the mass arrival of phones that look like the iPhone with touch screens and similar form factors indicates Apple’s ability to identify gaps in the market and explains to some degree their success with the iPhone. They identified and gap and filled it.

    S60 has been stagnant for what 5 years, apart from the introduction of DRM, and untill N95 8GB Nokia was selling devices with crippled ram inspite of ram being dirt cheap and delivering an awful UI experience, that doesn’t show a lot of respect for consumer. The value of 3G and wifi on 2.2-2.8 inch screens with keypads for internet use is also questionable. This kind of limited internet experience will put off all but the most determined and that’s the future of smart phones.

  8. If a superphone combined the features of a smartphone and a feature phone, the iPhone ain’t it. Only 2 megapixel camera? Pathetic.

    Rather the Nokia N95, which has great feature phone and smartphone features would qualify. Also the Samsung Omnia or the new HTC Touch HD.

    The iPhone’s feature set is weak indeed. It does not even offer video recording (another hallmark of a feature phone) or proper turn-by-turn GPS.

  9. I think the iPhone is a smartphone with the distribution part added and a UI that is done right. You can call it a superphone, as more phones like it are coming out to the market, but I don’t think it deserves it.
    As to the previous comments here, feature-to-feature comparison won’t cut it. People like the iPhone a lot better simply because it provides beter USER EXPERIENCE. And this is the new name of the game.

  10. Are we ever gonna hear the end of the iphone crap?! Seriously! First of all, by your own definitions the 1st iphone was not a “superphone” because it lacked 3G, GPS, an SDK and 3rd party applications. Secondly, when compared feature-by-feature against many Windows Mobile phones (mainly HTC devices) it is most certainly still not a superphone.

    Other than the interface (which a lot of people DON’T like because it can’t be customized like WM), give specific examples of what the iphone has that Windows Mobile devices don’t have. Even after 2 attempts at copying devices that have existed for years, I can still list numerous features that my HTC Tilt has that neither iphone has. To me that makes neither iphone very “super”.