Are phablets truly the perfect form factor and if so are tablets just another fad?

November 12, 2012
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It used to be that you were living on the bleeding edge of technology if you owned a desktop computer that was connected to the internet. Then laptops started becoming popular, and while they proved useful for road warriors, they were a bit underpowered and expensive in the beginning, which made them impossible to use as your primary machine. Admittedly there was a short gap in history when all the cool kids had a desktop computer and a laptop, but today, thanks to the never ending march of progress, most people just own the latter.

Half a decade ago, the smartphone became the new “it” thing, and if you’re reading this site then chances are you have one. Smartphone penetration in the United States has now exceeded 50%, and this is also the case in many other developed markets. But then Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, and their message was that there was room in your life for a third device. One that wasn’t as small as a mobile phone, but also one that wasn’t as complicated to use as a laptop computer.

It’s a seductive message, one that I almost fell for, but the logical part of my brain made me say no and keep my wallet shut. I’ve since taken a wait and see approach on the whole tablet thing. You see, buying “stuff” is something I’m not a fan of, whether it be gadgets, kitchen appliances, or clothes. The less crap I own, the “lighter” I feel. Read Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

Putting existential philosophy aside for a second and returning back to technology, Samsung has always been company who I never really considered to be all that innovative. But during the summer of 2011 they released a product that made me question a lot of my beliefs about computing. That product was called the Galaxy Note. My initial response to that thing was complete denial. Who in their right mind would buy such an incredibly massive phone? But one by one, many of the journalists who I respect said there was something special about the Note that they couldn’t quite explain.

One year later, like clockwork, Samsung announced the Note’s successor. They decided it should have an even larger screen, measuring 5.5 inches diagonal. Did the internet make fun of it as much as they did the first Note? No, in fact the opposite happened. Again, many of the people who I talk to in the mobile industry said the new Note was easily the best smartphone on the market.

Which brings up a question: If people love a 5.5 inch smartphone, then what role, if any, do tablets have? Kevin Tofel, who writes for GigaOM, said in a podcast that after he purchased the Note II, he almost forgot that he even owned a Nexus 7. He also said that as much as he loves the new iPad mini, it still doesn’t go everywhere he goes, whereas the Note II fits in his pocket.

HTC is going to launch a 5 inch 1080p smartphone this year. Samsung’s next Galaxy S will probably also have a 5 inch 1080p panel. Many iPad mini reviews say the new 7.9 inch form factor is what the iPad should have been all along. So again, I have to ask myself, with the rising popularity of large phones, and Samsung’s massive success of the new Note, is Apple’s original message about the need for a device that sits between a phone and a laptop just plain wrong?

Will we look back at these years when we thought tablets were useful and laugh?

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