Why I Don’t Believe in Superphones

Image: Collection of smart phones, via ARJWright, Ovi Share I woke up this morning purposed to get a signifiant chunk of writing done. And as usual, I turned to one of my many mobile devices to get things rolling until I was able to get out of bad and move onto other devices and workflows. Then I realized something, I felt a rant coming on.

Ok, so maybe its not so fair to anyone that I should be ranting, then again, I did redo the tagline of this blog recently to say that there would be some raw thoughts on faith and mobile, and so there is some license to the methods and madness that I tend to portray.

I have rarely been one to get into the spill about marketing language. Yes, there is vernacular that should be used when trying to denote that something is more attractive than the alternative, but lately, I feel that in the mobile realm that we’ve been doing this incessantly.

Take the terms smartphone and superphone. Unless you were intimately concerned with making your product seem smarter or better than the average electronic voice channel transportation tool, these terms absolutely mean nothing. And even if you are concerned with the product, and making a niche out of it, shouldn’t your marketing efforts focus more on what it does for the user (or even the customer in the sense that the carrier is the customer and consumers are the users) rather than specifications.

I know that I’ve had this rant coming for sometime. Check out the article and resulting discussion that I wrote some years back for Brighthand. In that piece, I argued – in a very similar vein to right now – that devices should not be categorized by features, but what it is those features enable that are readily taken up by the marketplace (carriers and consumers). To that reason, I asked people to reconsider how they define smartphones – from something that just expressed some platform’s enablements, to a device that epitomized an ecosystem’s ability to respond to connected and non-connected communications, under a consistent state of evolving.

There’s nothing in that definition about the size of a screen, the age of a platform, or even whether it has 10 developers or 10,000. Its about the abilities which are unlocked – and taken advantage of – that create refined usages, avenues for economic opportunity, and a greater awareness towards the connectivity and experiences we all share on this global stage.

There is nothing in the given and often quoted and promoted definition of a superphone. I don’t believe that a super phone exists – and as a matter of fact, have yet to hear of any mainstream journalists or mobile bloggers who use their mobile devices (no matter how many of them they review or leak) as anything more than a notification portal.

And as the picture at the top of this post shows, its not an issue of not believing because i don’t see it. I have received more than my share of mobile devices, mobile platforms, developer insights, market research, and really weird statements by ordinary folks, about what they want to see from a mobile device. A larger spec sheet is not what they want to see – nor is what they want to pay for.

Where we stand right now with mobile devices – let’s just center on phones – is that there are two types:

  • feature phones
  • smartphones

The differences between these two I pointed out in the Brighthand article link above – feature phones are not designed to be extended by users, and have a very tightly controlled user experience by the manufacturer and/or carrier; while smartphones are designed to be extended by the user (application), enhanced by developer communities (app stores, APIs, SDKs, etc.), and are more likely to be controlled by carriers on the service level (data tarrifs, service enhancements, etc.). Anything greater in functionality or feature than these two devices isn’t considered a voice terminal anymore, its considered a tablet (or MID, mild/medium/mobile internet device). And that’s because voice isn’t the primary function, text-based data and visual media is the focus.

Now, look back at the definition of a super phone. Do you notice something, it’s bound by hardware constraints and social media – the former has nothing to do with voice terminals, and the latter is platform independent (unless we consider the Internet a mobile platform as well, which would kill the entire argument on both sides). Is it true that the specs of these phone-like devices are near-to or better than similar (more expensive without contracts) tablet devices? Yes. Do these devices give any more functionality to the user, or enhance the carrier’s ability to deliver value on top of their pipes where they could not before? No.

I am as much a fan of mobile as anyone. I think that there’s a lot of room left to find what the real edges of use and function are. I don’t think that can or should be done with simply labeling a feature set and leaving it there. There’s nothing in the current stock of superphones which can’t also be done or found in mobile devices which are cheaper or missing a noted hardware/platform feature.

What would a superphone then look like? That’s easy to describe, hard as beans to implement. It would look like a Star Trek Communicator, or the button that doubles as a communicator and AI interface on the Jetons. It would be a series of devices which smartly collect and aggregate local and social-local information (think: Nokia Life Tools), and a device that needs to only be purchased once as its designed to “live” for years after its purchased (modular, software agnostic, etc.). Functions such as Nokia Bots, Locale for Android, or HTC’s Genius button would serve as primary (input and react) interfaces – learning and adapting the device to your personal, professional, and social contexts. And it would be done with a device that needs to be charged a lot less often than once per day.

When we get to that point, I’ll believe in superphones. Until that point, I’ll challenge anyone with a mobile device who plays the role of analyst (arm chair or paid) to put their smartphone in the position of primary computing device. Push it until it breaks at its software and/or hardware’s seams. Create a reason for real innovation to happen so that semantics and marketing terms don’t blur the creativity and enablement that we really should have more faith in.

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