The Rise of the Superphone

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.