Are phablets really here to stay?
Sales could hit $125 billion worldwide for device that is part smartphone, part tablet
In the ever-evolving, smaller-is-better world of mobile technology, the idea of holding a high-tech device the size of a small book up to your head to make a phone call might seem a bit bizarre.
"You get that look," says Keith McWhirter, an associate director of IT services at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "Unless you're [basketball giant] Shaquille O'Neal, you can look a little dopey with it."
The "it" in this case is a phablet, a device that's part smartphone, part tablet and one that financial services giant Deloitte has predicted will outsell both tablets and gaming consoles around the world this year, to the tune of nearly $125 billion.
Still, tech experts differ on their predictions of the phablet's future. But many see the device, which has a screen ranging from five to 6.9 inches, finding a cozy niche in the often crowded electronic landscape, particularly as consumers keep showing a healthy affinity for larger hand-held screens for everything from video and gaming to web browsing, maps and GPS.
"I think there's definitely going to be a spot for it," says McWhirter, who notes that the use of accessories such as headsets has changed the public image of "holding up a Frisbee to your head" if people wish to use a phablet for a phone call.
"It's certainly not going to suit everybody, but I think it's where you're going to see a lot of people moving when you look at what these things can do in the future."
Manufacturers are also looking at what the device could do for their bottom lines, with companies ranging from Samsung and Nokia to LG Electronics and Sony offering these larger-screen smartphones.
Even Hewlett Packard is jumping back into the mobile phone market with a phablet, announcing the launch of six- and seven-inch devices last week. HP is calling the Slate6 and Slate7 devices, which will be available in India in February, voice tablets.
"Consumers are looking to consolidate their phones and tablets, which is propelling the voice tablet market,” Ron Coughlin, an HP senior vice president, said in a release.
Technology abhors a vacuum, and technology will fill all available niches.- Duncan Stewart
Deloitte is predicting phablets will make up 25 per cent of smartphone sales worldwide this year. At an average price of $415 per device, that would translate into sales of about $125 billion.
In Canada, where the tech uptake often lags elsewhere in the world, that sales rate may be lower, at 15 or 20 per cent.
But sales are particularly booming in Asia, where language comes into play: the larger screen size of a phablet means it's easier to text in Chinese or Korean.
Duncan Stewart, Deloitte's director of technology, media and telecommunications research, says phablets have filled the last gap when it comes to screen size for electronic devices ranging from a watch with a one-inch screen to a TV with a 100-inch display.
"Technology abhors a vacuum, and technology will fill all available niches," he says.
However, whatever niche the phablet fills, McWhirter doesn't see it becoming a "category killer."
"It's just another tool in the toolbox. Whoever's got the sexiest one will have a bit more market share that year."
Key to that sexiness, he suggests, is if Apple, whose iPad set the tablet world on fire four years ago, makes one. Rumours have suggested that might happen this spring, but nothing has been confirmed.
Levelling the playing field
Right now, though, phablets aren't available on all platforms, with the vast majority running Google's Android operating system. Once the playing field levels and platform doesn't matter, then McWhirter predicts there will be a better sense of the phablet's future.
In many ways, however, consumer interest and demand will dictate the phablet's fate. Deloitte also sees some practical concerns, such as the size of pockets and purses, and the need for a two-handed telephone grip, also setting a "natural ceiling" for the phablet market.
Stewart says Deloitte doesn't know how much of the interest in phablets is driven by interest in watching video. But he notes that people seem to like going bigger and bigger for it, something that isn't true for other forms of media.
"We don't carry bigger books over time. We don't wear bigger headphones," he says.
"We are a visual species and we love our big screens. If we love our big screens on our laptops and we love ever bigger screens on our desktops and we love ever bigger screens on our TV sets, why would smartphones not follow that trend?"
While phablets won't be for everyone, Stewart does see them sticking around in the longer term.
"We seem to be unable to get rid of devices," he says. "People are offering us these devices because we want them."
Other observers aren't sure the phablet will land a large and permanent place in the electronic landscape.
Aaron Quigley, chair of human computer interaction in the school of computer science at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, considers the phablet a kind of hybrid device that can act as a gateway for people overcoming nervousness moving away from a laptop.
That limited potential stems from the fact that the components within a phablet "can be easily snapped apart and basically recombined," Quigley says."I don't, myself, see them being around in the long term," adds Quigley, who will serve as co-chair of the Mobile HCI convention in Toronto in September.
"I wouldn't want to say [phablets] will be completely dead, because there will probably always be a niche market for them.
"But in the long term I don't see them being around primarily due to weight, if nothing else. The idea of having individual components that you can take and just mix and match at will is quite appealing to people."
Quigley sees potential in phablets for businesses that want to shift people from desktop computers toward a more "work-on-the-go" environment, as well as in schools and post-secondary institutions.
Cutting computer ties
He also sees the device as the next step in an evolving high-tech world where people ultimately won't be attached to one particular computer.
"It's another step on the movement towards a more liberated computing space or a more ubiquitous computing environment, effectively where you're not coupling the individual to a single machine. You're coupling them to a kind of computing space."
Quigley can't imagine a lot of people will want to hold a phablet up to their head to make a phone call, but the idea of having the device in a backpack and using a hands-free kit to make a call seems more likely.
When it comes to adoption of technology, "it's always disconcerting until it becomes the norm," says Quigley, noting how his mother-in-law uses her tablet to take photos, mainly because it has a large screen and she can easily see it.
"I'm sure the first people who were using mobile phones in a social setting found that it was unusual for them," too.
- The majority of phablets run on Google's Android, but there are devices that run on other operating systems.Jan 21, 2014 10:47 AM ET