Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane? No, It’s a Clark Kent Phone

Today Microsoft launches Windows Phone 7, and I’ve been thinking about this phone a lot over the last month. The closest metaphor to what makes this phone different from others is Superman. This isn’t because when Superman launched, this hero was the underdog but rose to be the most powerful, in terms of movies, TV shows and branding of all that proceeded and followed him — too early by far for that connection.

The metaphor is apt because Superman was uniquely different in a way this Microsoft product is. That’s what I’ll explore this week, and I’ll close with my product of the week: a new service from T-Mobile that could not only save you money, but also turn your smartphone into a superphone.

Superman’s Story

I personally was a bigger fan of Batman initially — hard to not fall in love with the gadgets, black outfits and cars. I’ve long been fascinated by Superman, though, and I have a broad collection of shirts with his logo on it. The first Superman wasn’t a hero at all but a villain — and a bald one at that — and suddenly I’m wondering if I’m going to piss off Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, again. Nobody thought the hero would be successful — yet by 1941, the franchise — based on a hero more similar to today’s Superman — was arguably the most popular and successful in the industry.

What made Superman different was that unlike other costumed heroes of the time, he effectively put on a mask to become Clark Kent. For most, the Superhero was the disguise — for Superman, the disguise was being human. So what does this have to do with Windows Phone 7?

Hang in there — I’ll get to it.

iPhone, Droid, Etc.

If you look at the current popular phones, they are characterized by names and messaging that make them seem much more than they are. The iPhone is magic, wonderful, magnificent. It is presented much like a costumed hero, and you’re asked not to look behind the costume or the hype at problems with its antenna, its yellowing display, or, most recently, its very fragile glass case.

Don’t get me wrong, with all of this it is still rated as one of the best superphones (we call them smartphones) in the market, but to get there it needs a costume (case) and a lot of Apple magic. If I were to connect it to a Superhero, Booster Gold with a better PR manager comes to mind.

If you think about it, isn’t Booster Gold kind of like Steve Jobs as a Superhero? For instance: “His obsession with Fame and Wealth irritates other heroes.” That feels like it came out of the book iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business (Jobs was so pissed he actually banned the publisher).

Android is more of a family of devices, but the top product is likely the Droid, and it is positioned as the counterpoint to the iPhone. Mutable, with a little bit of humor, but made possible by a company — Google — that seems torn between being good or evil.

As a platform, Android lacks the support that the iPhone has, but it’s more like a hero that went through a transformation to become what it is. Its core is Linux, after all, and the average consumer would generally run screaming from anything that was based on that platform (recall Lindows? No, me either…).

So Android feels more like Plastic Man to me, conflicted with regard to good, certainly funny, but with roots that make you wonder if the device is really there to help or to permanently borrow your stuff. (An alternative would be the original Human Torch, but this Android lacks the humor that seems inherent in a company whose motto on evil is the opposite of its actions.)

Google seems to think it owns your personal information, and that doesn’t feel to me like a true blue hero — more someone who is struggling with good or evil alignment — and that is Plastic Man. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, seems to be exploring his comedic roots these days, and is likely the most closely aligned with Plastic Man as well.

Windows Phone 7: Superman or Clark Kent?

The name says it all, because unlike the iPhone or Android, which sounds like a superhero’s device, Windows Phone 7 is much more closely related to Clark Kent. As the other devices are surrounded by hype and promise, the Windows Phone 7 product lives on what it can do and how it does it. Ground up redesign, off the chart graphics performance, WinPho 7 offers many of the things liked about the iPhone (highly consistent, visually stunning, and easy to use) and the Android (multiple designs, multiple carriers) — but little or none of the hype.

It presents itself as Clark Kent — but in use, it’s capable of doing the smartphone (superphone) stuff that the other platforms can do. It lacks the pretense and the flashy name, but it appears to get the job done as well or better (assuming you want to communicate and browse the Web) than its contemporaries. And when thinking of it as a smartphone you’ll use names like Kraken (a superhero-sounding name) but in pieces like this, it is Windows Phone 7 the phone equivalent of Clark Kent.

Also, with Superman, the world’s fate seems to more often hinge on what he does. The other heroes go after more trivial adventures, but Superman is asked to save more than Metropolis — he is often asked to save the planet. The hot product at Apple is the iPad, at the moment, and if Google were to discontinue the Android platform tomorrow, its profit would likely go up and not down.

The world is watching Windows Phone 7; if it fails, the belief that Microsoft has a bright future will likely fail with it. This platform launch is tied tightly to the perception that Microsoft can, or can’t, execute — and if it performs like Superman and is a hit, it could cause the world to see Microsoft differently and single-handedly save the company and ensure Steve Ballmer’s job.

Wrapping Up: Windows Phone 7 Could Be Epic

In “The Death of Superman,” Superman has the snot knocked out of him, and he is about as dead as you are going to get. Doomsday, the villain who pounds on him, is more of a force of nature, and he was built expressly to take Superman out. Windows Mobile is all but dead, and its Doomsday was massive Microsoft mismanagement. Looking across a lot of companies over the last decade, it seems that mismanagement, like Doomsday, is also like an unstoppable force of nature.

Products, like real people, seldom emerge from the kind of death that the Windows Mobile platform has experienced. However, Superman came back, and the death and rebirth story of Superman is epic in the telling. This week, we’ll see if Windows Phone 7 can be equally epic. There are a lot of folks hoping and praying it will, because whether the metaphor is a superhero or a country, we all like to believe that something that was once great can be again.

Oh, and BlackBerry is Batman for obvious reasons.

Product of the Week: T-Mobile WiFi Calling

Product of the Week

3G or 4G — neither is ever fast enough, and you tend to get killed on phone charges while the performance of your wonderful smartphone suffers. Most carriers seem to do all they can to keep you from using the faster, and far cheaper, WiFi network to make phone calls.

Last week, T-Mobile (the carrier I use because AT&T and Sprint suck where I live, and Verizon is way the hell too controlling) announced a WiFi calling service that allows its Android and BlackBerry phones (yes, I’m told Windows Phone 7 is coming) to switch automatically to using WiFi whenever a network you are authorized to use (like a T-Mobile, business or home network) is available.

T-Mobile Logo

This should not only save most of us who travel internationally a ton of money (assuming we take the time to register on local WiFi networks) but increase the speed of our smartphones significantly, making them superfast in some cases.

In a world where 4G is more of a wish than a reality and 3G often really sucks, a service that makes my phone as super as it should be is a natural for product of the week, so T-Mobile WiFi Calling is my product — OK, more like feature — of the week.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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