The Phablets Are Coming. Not.

Posted: January 29, 2015 in Tech
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Phablet 2

Saw this on Fox News today:

Massive smartphones are not only here to stay, but they’re about to take over the world | Fox News.

I do get where the Juniper is coming from in this article, but I don’t think they are quite right.

Yes, the “phablet” is certainly here to stay and it does fill an important role.  However I do not think they are going to take over as the dominant format.  Or if they do, it will be a short-lived bump (i.e. an outlier).

Who will prefer the phablet format?  That’s not hard to figure out.  It’s the people who for reason of preference or cost only want to carry around a single device.  These are the people that sometimes want tablet capabilities but need a phone.  Most important, though, is that size is more of a secondary concern.  The device doesn’t need to fit comfortably in a pocket or usable one-handed.  The phablet is more of a compromise of features/form-factor than a balance of them.  That’s not a negative though, and it will fit the need of a significant number of customers.  I simply don’t believe that will ever be the dominant group.

I think the balance point has been reached in the 4.7-ish inch screen.  There are plenty of Android phones, the iPhone 6 and even Windows phones that fit this form factor.  While I own an iPhone 6, I’ve handled and used examples of the others, so take my thoughts with that in mind.

Most phone users, I believe, still want something that is a comfortable fit in a shirt pocket or a clutch bag.  Size is still a factor and users want the thing out of the way until its needed.  Most people can still comfortably use a 4.7″ phone one-handed without risking a drop.  You can navigate, call and text (or type a URL, etc.) with one hand easily.  In fact, with the slightly larger keyboard spacing, I find myself “thumbing” more accurately than on my old iPhone 4.  By contrast, the phablet is slightly too big for easy one-handed typing, but slightly too small of easy two handed typing.

The personal organizer – calander, notes, contacts, etc. – aspects between the 4.7″ and phablet are mostly a tie.  Not much is really gained or lost between the two.  To truly be more useful, you need to go up to a 7-8″ screen of a small factor tablet.  By contrast, once you get used to a 4.7″ calendar, you will never want to go smaller.

In the case of cameras, I find the 4.7″ as large as I can easily handle.  Actually, for taking pictures, I strongly prefer a real camera, but that’s a different subject.  Again, in viewing photos, the 4.7″ phone is far superior than smaller ones.  In this case, phablets do beat out the phones.  In this case, I’d say it’s more of a priority – taking pictures or showing them.

The popularity of ebook reading on a phone is something that has surprised me, but it’s there and is a consideration.  In this case, while the phablet does put a bit more text on the screen, it really doesn’t bring a benefit.  Either format you have to chose between either too small of a font or too little text on screen for a pleasant reading experience.  In both the phone and tablet, I suspect there will be people who initially use it because it’s better than their old phones.  After a while they are going to be pulling out their tablets or ebook readers again to get away from nuisance of the too-small device.

Web browsing, I know, is one thing that people will be quick to point out as an advantage of phablets.  I don’t agree at all.  Web browsing on a phone is, with rare exception (e.g. text based items like Wikipedia), a sub-optimal experience.  In this case, just as with eReaders above, being “barely less bad” is not going be be considered a benefit.  People will soon abandon the novelty and pick up their tablets again.

 Applications, I think, will be the ultimate deciding factor that keeps phablets from being the dominant format.  Well, with one exception: games.  If you want a gaming device that doubles as a phone (and that will be more people than you think), then the phablet will win hands down.  I will include video consumption in this category, which is an admitted personal bias.  For the rest of us, however, that is not going to be the case.  It is going to come down to human factors engineering and anatomy.

Just as with typing there is a balance point between what works well one-handed and what works well two-handed.  This is already easily seen in today’s mobile apps and especially in universal apps.  While there is certainly a degree of individual preference, that balance point is based on the physics of human anatomy and engineering to that anatomy.  It appears that the 4.7″ phone represents the upper end of the one-handed side and the 7″ tablet the lower end for two-hands.  Phablets fall right into that human-factor-unfriendly middle.  Once the novelty wears off, I predict we will see a divergence to back to the two form factors.

So where do I think the technology will go?  Well, speaking as someone who has been involved in mobile computing since the TRS-80 Pocket Computer, I think the market will stabilize around the 4.5-4.7″ format on phones and 7-11″ on tablets.  Yes, I’m bucking the convergence trend (again) and suggesting two devices.  I also expect that tablets, especially those with 10″ or larger screens, will make laptops as much a niche market as the phablet (a trend I will address at another time).  However, just as people today often leave their laptop at the desk when their tablet will do the job, they will leave the tablet at home with the phone will suffice.

So what are you thoughts on this?  Am I missing something or do you think I’m on target?  I welcome your thoughts and your predictions.

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