Rise of the phablet, or a shrinking of the tablet?
If you adhere to the journalistic wisdom that three incidents equal a trend, then we have officially entered the era of predicting that phablets are taking over.
Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo points out that Samsung's Note sold 10 million units in 2012, "making it one of the most successful smartphone launches in history," and points to the hybrid phone-tablet device as an example of the Korean's company's willingness to experiment with many products.
At Quartz, Christopher Mims has argued that phablets – which are set to grow 70 percent in each of the next three years and become a $135 billion market by the end of 2015 – will be "the PCs of this decade" and "the default computing computing device of most of the developing world."
Yesterday, at TechCrunch, Natasha Lomas declared that "Phablets are the new normal."
Ladies and gentlemen of the media, it's officially a trend. Editors, commission your tech-lifestyle features now. Suggested headline: "Phablets kill desktops, netbooks, real books, smartphones, telephones, tablets, laptops, laplets, and Laplanders."
Japes aside, I agree that we're about to see a boom time for phablets. They're already huge in Asia. Last year, Asia Pacific accounted for 42 percent of global phablet shipments, and that figure is set to surpass 50 percent by 2017, Reuters reports. Consumers in Japan and South Korea are already hot markets for the device, but analysts expect China, India, and Malaysia will also heat up demand as 4G networks become widespread. Those countries alone account for more than 2.7 billion people, so, even if the West continues to disdain the hybrid device, it likely has a big future.
But what I see in this trend is not so much a big rush to a spangly new device as a movement away from the idea of the "phone" and toward the optimization of the tablet.
The iPhone has indoctrinated us into thinking about the computers in our pockets as "phones," when in fact we are using them less and less for real-time voice communications (otherwise known as "phone calls"). Research from UK mobile network O2, for example, has shown that phone calls are only the fifth most popular activity on smartphones, falling well behind browsing the Web, using social media, playing music, and playing games. Another British study has shown that texting is way more popular among young people, the future of the market, than are phone calls. On New Year's Eve, mobile messaging app WhatsApp processed a record 18 billion messages on one day.
Once you stop thinking of phablets as phones first, it becomes harder to dismiss them as a silly flight of fancy or "just too fucking big." Then you have to start thinking about the device as a smaller tablet, and wondering whether or not it might be just the right size after all. The 5.55-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 2, for instance, is not the ideal size for holding up to your ear for phone calls, but how often are people making those sorts of calls these days? Or, more importantly, how often will they be making them in the future?
Thanks to the likes of Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangout, tech-savvy and international consumers are used to making calls via video, or at least with a computer on their lap or on a table in front of them. If you're making a call that way, it doesn't matter a jot if the computer you're using would look awkward when held up to your ear – because it doesn't need to be. The only times you need to raise the phone to your ear are if you're out and about and don't happen to be wearing microphone-enabled headphones (as all Apple's earpods are, for instance). Plus, we're using these devices more for Web browsing, games, media, and messaging these days anyway.
The Galaxy Note is also not too different from the iPad Mini, which is destroying the original, larger iPad in sales. The success of 7-inch device suggests that there is no certainty about the optimal tablet size. Steve Jobs once said there was no way that Apple would make a 7-inch tablet. While it can fit in one's jacket pocket, the iPad Mini is still slightly too large to comfortably handle in one hand, but some tech watchers, including the New York Times' Nick Bilton, think it's the perfect size. Stepping down to an even more portable device that provides a little more versatility might not be such a radical thing.
Actually, as Quartz's Mims points out, the iPad Mini is effectively a phablet already, with the exception that its cellular radio can't yet make calls. If it gets that upgrade, there'll be very little to distinguish it from the Galaxy Note, except for an inch-and-a-half of screen real estate and the lack of a stylus.
Mims also notes that high-end phablets are now competitive with low-end laptops in terms of processors and storage capacity. For people with limited budgets – like, say, all of the developing world – it would make sense to use a phablet as a primary computer, and to do away with phones, tablets, and laptops altogether. It's easy to forget sometimes that the developing world, especially when coupled with Japan and South Korea, is a gigantic market and will be one day be the most lucrative.
Still, the phablet's future dominance is far from assured. Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi told AllThingsD that she believes the opportunity for phablets is small because of the compromise they deliver. "It’s too big for a phone, too small for a tablet,” she said. After all, to take advantage of the computer-in-your-pocket promise, these things still have to actually fit in your pocket.
Or maybe, to satisfy Samsung, we should all just get bigger pockets.