The Rise of the Phabulous Phablet

phabletAfter decades of mobile phones getting ever smaller, mobile phones are now getting bigger and bigger. Not so long ago, a smartphone screen more than four inches across was a monster – the HTC Desire/Inspire HD excited a lot of interest in 2010 with its 4.3-inch screen, for instance – but now screens five inches across are routine, and phones with 6-inch or 7-inch screens are increasingly available.

The term coined for these new devices that cross the smartphone/tablet divide is the slightly clunky ‘phablet’. There is no real definition of this, but for most users the distinction will be a qualitative one: a phablet is a phone that means you don’t need to carry a tablet as well.

Market researchers need a more quantifiable definition, of course. For example IDC counts only phones with 5.5-inch to 7-inch screens as phablets, and it says that the phablet share of the smartphone market climbed from 4.3 percent at the beginning of 2013 to 10.5 percent at the beginning of 2014.

As an aside, of course iPhone users are limited to a maximum screen size of just four inches across, but there have been persistent rumours of a 5-inch or larger iPhone. These rumours are credible, given the popularity of Android rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note, and the HTC One.

The fact that Apple has already reacted to shifts in the wider tablet market with the iPad Mini also makes a larger iPhone believable. Sure, it is likely that the iPad team would argue against an iPhone Max that could cannibalize sales of the iPad Mini, but the higher-ups might well take the pragmatic attitude that it is better for Apple to eat its own children rather than let its enemies do it.

These bigger smartphones are bringing two changes in their wake: a decline in tablet sales, and a shift in users’ expectations of both capability and connectivity. The former is modest but detectable – figures from IDC earlier this year suggested that tablet sales in 2014 would be around six percent lower than initially forecast. However, IDC’s analysts said there are other factors at work here too, most notably that buyers are keeping their tablets longer than expected, especially higher-cost models from major vendors.

The shift in expectations relates to two things. First is the expectation of ubiquitous connectivity for tablet-type tasks as well as phone ones, although this was already well under way with the number of 3G-equipped tablets on the market. Second is the number of devices that you need to carry. After all, why lug around – and sort out roaming connectivity for – both a phone and a tablet (3G or not), if a single 5.5-inch or 6-inch device will do the job?

Other analysts are more skeptical. They argue that smartphones and tablets each have their own specific use cases and life-cycles, and that they are unlikely to eat into each other’s sales. That is certainly credible in consumer markets, where the two are typically used in different ways and places – a tablet as a personal video player at home, say, but a smartphone for TV on the bus. And for consumers, there is not that same regular push to upgrade tablets as there is in phone upgrades and contract renewals.

Things are a little different at work though. Yes, there are vertical applications that require the screen space of a tablet without pocketability or the 3G/4G connectivity of a phone, and yes, some users are critical of the greater bulk of a phablet. But for the majority of traveling execs used to a Blackberry or iPhone, anything that makes it easier to view documents or use line-of-business apps on what is basically still a phone is a win.

What does this mean for the business? There is obviously the opportunity to reduce the number of devices deployed, but it may also mean changes in how you develop and deploy your enterprise apps. In particular, apps can no longer be deployed with the expectation of just two or three screen formats. Strange though it may seem, there really are apps out there which target 4-inch and 10-inch screens but nothing much between, and using an app designed for a 4-inch screen on one with twice the real estate is clunky to say the least.

Lastly, it is another driver for remote and mobile access to enterprise resources and applications, and it makes it both desirable and practicable to have full read/write access, not merely the read-only access granted by some phone-based tools. So that will mean more bandwidth needed and more security issues.

Image credit: Kārlis Dambrāns (flickr) / CC-BY