Orr: Previous experiences push shoppers to tablet, phablet or smartphone

Jeff Orr ABI

Jeff Orr

Between the handset and ultra-portable notebook PC form-factors lies the realm of mobile computing. First explored commercially in 2007 with ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) and handheld mobile internet devices (MIDs), mobile computing merges the battery-powered versatility of handsets with the processing power and application versatility found in traditional PC systems. Today, the mobile computing market is most often associated with the emergence and rapid success of tablets.

From one side of the device continuum reign handheld wearable computing devices and mobile phones. On the other side, traditional clamshell portable PCs share market space with tablets.  Have these two worlds finally collided with the arrival of large smartphones known as phablets?

Apple gained early market traction with its iPad tablets offering a display (measured diagonally like an HDTV screen) of nearly 10 inches. As Android-powered tablets garnered commercial acceptance, many were distinguished by their use of a smaller, 7" display. The 7" tablet opportunity is being driven by affordability (compared to the 10"-class tablets) and the ability to use devices in more mobile use cases where it is easier to both store and carry. In late 2012, Apple joined the 7"-class tablet race with its 7.9" iPad mini. Now in its third calendar quarter of availability, the iPad mini is increasingly sought after by those who were considering the larger and more costly iPad model, as reflected in Apple's financial results.

The phablet--a class of smartphones with displays ranging from 4.6" to 6.5"--is smaller than the 7"-class tablet while retaining the ability to hold the device to one's ear to make or take a cellular voice call.  In 2012, initial phablet models included handsets from HTC, LG, Samsung and Sony with more vendors jumping in this year such as Huawei. Samsung has even tipped that it will launch a series of phablets under the dedicated Galaxy Mega brand.

How does one decide which device is right for them? Start by examining the similarities and differences between phablets and tablets. As previously noted, display size is a significant difference. Clothing manufacturers have started increasing the size of some pockets to accommodate the growing smartphone; though don't expect to put a tablet of any size in one.

Phablets are large smartphones, and as such, they have cellular voice support. In contrast, tablets do not include cellular voice calling capabilities. Tablet owners may be able to use a VoIP application, such as Skype, for voice calls to other telephone numbers. As a result, even the 6" phablets are designed for holding the device to one's ear to initiate or receive a voice call.

Another difference between the two device types is, in most cases, the operating system software.  While Google offers Android for both tablet and phablet platforms, it is unique amongst OS vendors. Microsoft offers its Windows Phone OS for handsets and Windows 8 and Windows RT for tablets depending on the processor architecture. Apple includes its iOS software for both the iPhone and iPad, though the company has yet to introduce a phablet-class product. One caveat to the Microsoft offering is that all tablets must have a 10" or larger display.

In response to the smaller tablet opportunity, Microsoft is rumored to be working on opening up logo certification requirements for the Windows OS to permit smaller tablets from device OEMs.  With the recent market shift away from 10"-class devices toward 7"-class, Microsoft had relegated its device partners to the high-end of the market. While business users are expected to gravitate toward the larger display size for the most tablet workspace possible, there are applications where a smaller Windows device would be welcomed. Wait staff and personnel in the hospitality industry, for example, would be more likely to carry around a device for an entire shift that could be held in one hand and engaged using a second hand.

ABI Research finds most audiences rely on previous experiences to aide in device purchase decisions. If one has an existing PC and is considering whether to upgrade or try out a new device form-factor, the convenience of the tablet may result in experiments with either the 7 or 10" varieties. On the other hand, if it's time for a new smartphone, a larger screen model may be just the thing for engaging with the device more frequently and for longer durations. A head-to-head choice between a phablet and a tablet may not arise if these are how most audiences determine what to buy next.

Ultimately, it is hard to make a poor decision today given the range of device choices, the plethora of applications available, and the feverishly competitive vendor ecosystem. The toughest decision will be when to jump in and see what mobile computing devices can do for you.

Jeff Orr is Sr. Practice Director of Devices, Applications & Content for ABI. Orr manages the analyst resources for mobile devices, applications and content research at ABI Research. As an individual contributor to ABI Research's mobile devices team, he focuses on media tablets, ultrabooks, netbooks, and eReader devices. He also leads research into markets for 3G/4G modems and mobile hotspot routers. For more information: Media Tablets & eReaders