Big screens equal big bucks. That’s what Samsung realized with its first–and still quite popular–Galaxy Note mobile device, which was a whopping 5.3-inch screen pseudo-tablet that only folks like Andre The Giant (and perhaps certain members of his posse) could hold like a traditional cell phone. It fit between the 3.5-inch size of early iPhones, and the smaller 7-inch size of the typical Android tablet.
Now other manufacturers are betting the phablet, as Samsung has, unfortunately, christened it, presents a new market to conquer. Chinese maker Huawei, for example, has turned up at CES to promote its 6.1-inch screened Ascend Mate device, which is impressively thin, but dwarfs nearly every other smartphone and phablet in terms of screen size. And Sony’s Xperia Z, with a 5-inch display, is distinguished in the marketplace by being impressively waterproof.
So what’s happening here? For one thing, it’s a question of scale. Smartphones, in the modern iPhone-esque sense, are usually small, pocketable devices and tablets are typically larger machines that you need to hold in two hands and often live in a bag. Each device has its niche, with smartphones being more portable and offering limited capabilities thanks to their smaller screens, and tablets being more powerful but usually lacking the ability to make “phone” calls over 3G or 4G (assuming they’re not a Wi-Fi-only version). This bipolar market situation of course means there’s room for a device that’s halfway in between.
In developed markets, where the smartphone saturation point is rapidly approaching, phablets offer a slightly more powerful user experience than typical smartphones because their larger screen is a bit better for tasks like reading an e-book, watching a movie, or tinkering with a spreadsheet.
In developing markets the phablet may be a more important tool for web access and mobile computer access. Developing nations have already seized upon the feature phone and the smartphone as powerful tools. But where tablets offer mobile Net access and a plethora of useful apps, a phablet could radically improve accessibility to banking, computing, health and other services in ways that more expensive tablets can’t do (because they can’t make phone calls, and are more breakable). And phablets could also outstrip cheaper, smaller smartphones because of their greater screen real estate–useful for reading books, and in educational scenarios–plus their greater power.
The rise of the phablet means there’s even a rumor that Apple is going to join the party, and that this year’s iPhone release will see Apple targeting emerging markets and launching phones with different screen sizes, including a bigger phablet edition.
Whether or not the Apple rumor is true, the usual consumer electronic war cry of “bigger, better, faster, more!” has now given us a long list of phablets. We’re all getting used to smartphones and tablets now, and the phablet hybrid stands out as unusual. Since many smartphones are very similar in looks and specs, it’s nice to be able to distinguish your own phone from a friend’s by showing off what it can do. And a giant screen is a huge geeky boasting point…perhaps harking back to the old days of “my Pentium is faster than yours.”
But the rise of Bluetooth Smart technology and the associated de-dorkification of Bluetooth accessories means a smartphone can stay safely stowed in a bag and still be used to make calls or listen to music while commuting. In the near future, as “invisible” interfaces like Apple’s Siri become more commonplace, we’ll be able to more usefully command mobile devices to perform tasks without having to touch them. With alternative solutions like Google Glass coming along, we may even find we interact still less with our smartphones by touch…if at all. Which makes the screen size ironically less important, and portability more critical.
So despite what Samsung thinks, the world may soon move on from this tech trend du jour (which one Fast Company editor compares to the great mutton chop facial hair craze of 2010) to phind the next phantastic device to replace the phablet.
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