by Michael Rayfield

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.