Just beyond Christmas’s soft red and green glow, the harsh neon of the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show is already radiating above the horizon line.  Reliably falling in the first full week of January, CES blows in like a flash snowstorm, bringing thousands of exhibitors and 100,000-plus attendees.

Some are pondering what will be wrapped up under their Christmas tree. Others are thinking about  devices that will be wending their way to the Convention Center, cutting across long, lonely swaths of Interstate 15.

The most intriguing boxes heading there will contain a new kind of superphone, one that’s fully realized for the first time and subsumes more functions than ever before.

Taking a step back

Students of CES fondly recall each year’s technology trends, doting on them like great sports team of yore. 3D displays held domain in 2010. Blu-Ray was boss in 2009. Netbooks’ notoriety came in 2008.

And I’d bet that CES 2011 will usher in the year that fully fledged superphones hit the market and really take off, building on the first stirrings of the concept that Google introduced with its  phone.

To better understand that, let’s start with some basic terminology.

Way back when, the rage was feature phones – plain-vanilla dialers like the legendary Motorola StarTac —  they’d tend to flip open,  take basic pictures, have different ringtones and carry out straight-forward tasks like texting. Next up were smartphones – the first Blackberries and early iPhones – sporting full keyboards, true email capability, native applications, along with better cameras.

The term superphone began to simmer earlier this year. The first attempts came with displays greater than four inches; a camera of five-plus megapixels for impressive photos and video; accelerometers, and even GPS. They started sporting true computer operating systems like Android or iOS, offering better video and gaming experiences.

Superphone in full

What you should expect at CES is for the superphone category to really reach full boil.

True superphones begin the process of merging an agile handheld with a PC and a gaming device.  Full  hardware-accelerated Flash is a given. So are console-quality gaming and 1080P video. You’ll be able to multitask with a vengeance – for example, streaming Pandora while playing sophisticated games against opponents wielding PCs or while conducting a video conference.

Multitasking will be facilitated by dual-core CPUs. And powerful GPUs will run their iris-quality displays. They’ll also use minimal power and last longer than today’s superphones.

The device that ate a superstore

One way to think about the journey from feature phone to fully realized superphone is rapid-fire evolution. Like speed-reading your way through Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Another way – sticking with laws of the natural world – is to view the phone as a ravenous carnivore, chomping its way through your collection of home electronics.

The feature phone consumed your landline, alarm clock, calculator and simple disposable camera – comfortably digesting them into a single device.

It kept eating and became a smartphone by gorging on your email system, video camera, MP3 player and voice recorder – while still managing to retain a svelte, almost girlish, profile.

It started the path to being a superphone by devouring the Internet, with a side of DVD player and a GPS chaser.

And it will become a fully realized superphone, as we’ll see at CES, by swallowing your gaming device and much of your laptop.

What comes next? Well, given its appetite, it’s hard not to conclude that in another year or so, the next-gen versions will inhale what’s left of that laptop. In that sense, the superphone will prove to be the device that ate an entire electronics superstore.

That will make life easier for your IT department, which will give out just one single device to new employees. And it may also make the CES show less overwhelming for visitors, by consolidating what was once acres of offerings into a single, tidy pocket-size package.

  • Stephen

    Personally i don’t see (Super) Phones taking over the laptop and computer market any time soon, or Blu-Ray on a giant TV for that matter. Sorry but this just isn’t going to happen any time soon… if ever

  • Michael Rayfield

    Thanks, Stephen. You’re right. Laptops and computers aren’t going away, just as GPS systems, alarm clocks and MP3 players haven’t. But I can’t carry all those things with me when I’m traveling so the convenience of having things like GPS, alarm clocks and an MP3 player in my phone is something I really love. It’s a matter of convenience rather than replacement

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  • Jack

    OK, so I’ve just watched the demo of optimus, where someone pulls the GPU out of a live system, then pops it back in, and it starts rendering. Neat.

    Then I read that superphones will replace laptops.

    Well, it wont happen, because a laptop has a big screen, keyboard, and fast processors.

    But wait a minute, maybe I could just pop a laptop ONTO my superphone when I need those things, just like the optimus demo.
    So the phone becomes your laptop ‘personality’, the laptop itself just a collection of ergonomics and extra processing. Or you could pop your phone into you home theater screen.

  • Michael Rayfield

    You’re definitely thinking about this the right way, Jack. Screen size will always be important. There will be far more flexibility, though, regarding the device that feeds the screen.

  • Arun Demeure

    Hi Mike, long time no speak (mid-2009 I think?) – it’s good to see you’re still at it. I certainly agree that the performance improvement in 2011 will be the biggest the industry has seen in a long time. For what it’s worth, I think the term ‘superphone’ is best seen as being relative to other smartphones in the market at the same time – after all, you will no longer say a dual-core phone is a superphone in 2H12 (emphasis on you ;) )

    One big marketing challenge for superphones is convincing everyone that you’re not sacrificing power efficiency to achieve that performance. In the end real devices will convince people like no theoretical claims ever could, but I suspect one interesting approach would be to stress just how much power the *other* parts of the system take. Many people massively underestimate the screen, baseband, and power amplifier. I remember those silly articles claiming Tegra1 couldn’t possibly get in phones because it had a TDP over 200mW – hah!

    This reminds me I really should decide whether to go to MWC11. It’s always a bit bizarre going to those things mostly for fun, and it’s getting a bit late to book for it – ah yes, I suppose if I don’t hurry up my mind will have been made up for me like last year :)

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