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.

Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone
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.

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