Phablets—aka Pocket Computers—Drive New World Order

I’m writing this week’s column from the comfort of my hotel room in Shenzhen, China where I just witnessed first hand the evolutionary wave that has begun to take over the world of smart connected devices — phablets are king. Everywhere I turned in one of the many buildings stuffed full of electronics products and components for which this very large (~10.5 million) and surprisingly affluent[1] city is famous, I found more evidence.

It wasn’t just the large screen dominated selection of legitimate and knock off phones offered by hundreds of different small vendors, it was also the comparative scarcity of tablets—especially the 7” varieties which this region is famous for producing. Don’t get me wrong, they were still there—as well as lots of tablet component parts—but nowhere near the level of mobile phones. In fact, in my tours of several buildings, I’d put it even lower than the amount of PCs and related components.

The final form of evidence came in the form of the iPhone 6, which is poised to bring a whole new level of legitimacy and interest in the large screen smartphone market. As I expected, I saw a whole range of vendors offering iPhone 6 cases for sale—theoretically sized to match up with the leaked specs for the device.

But what caught me off guard were all the vendors actually offering iPhone 6 phones—or at least what they claimed were iPhone 6s. Having done a bit more digging, I’m now pretty convinced they were Goophone’s i6 knockoffs. Still, when one booth worker pulled a roughly 4.7” screen-based device out from behind their glass case and turned it on and I watched what certainly looked like iOS booting up, I have to admit I started to wonder. (Unfortunately, I only got to look at it for a few seconds, but I did notice an OS version of 7.1.4 on the About screen, which suggests a jailbroken version of the OS.)[pullquote]What caught me off guard in Shenzhen were all the vendors offering iPhone 6 phones—or at least what they claimed were iPhone 6s, several weeks before its introduction.”[/pullquote]

Regardless of the device’s authenticity (and again—very unlikely to be the real McCoy), seeing an Apple-looking device of that size (as well as even larger), lined up against the other large screen smartphone competitors reinforced the fact a large screen iPhone is likely to be a monstrous hit for Apple here in China and probably in many other places around the world.

Tie that together with the research I wrote about a few weeks ago (see ”Hot Items for the Holidays: Large Phones, Notebooks and Smart TVs”) which clearly showed strong pent up demand for larger smartphones among consumers around the world and, well, you don’t have a guarantee, but it sure makes the odds increase.

On top of that, we’ve got reported numbers of increasing PC sales and flat to declining tablets sales through the first half of the year and several supply chain-related news tidbits suggesting those trends should last at least through the end of the calendar year.

The end result? I think it will lead to some fairly dramatic shifts in the devices markets as we have known them. I’ll talk more about this next week when I unveil the updated TECHnalysis Research forecasts on PCs, tablets and smartphones, but the gist of it is pretty easy to guess: big smartphones will move the balance of power to themselves and away from smaller smartphones and smaller tablets. In the process, they’ll actually end up helping boost the PC market, as both consumers and enterprise buyers start to recognize the potential synergies of combining a large smartphone and a touch-equipped, but clamshell-focused notebook.

Looks to me like we’re in for some important changes over the next few years….


[1] I spotted two Rolls Royces in 30 minutes, not to mention Porsches, Jaguars and Maseratis, as well as lots of Audis, Mercedes and BMWs….

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

198 thoughts on “Phablets—aka Pocket Computers—Drive New World Order”

  1. Great to know that there are a lot of nice cars rolling about in Shenzhen. With the impact they’re having on the worldwide tech world, I have to say they deserve it.

    1. Wonder what the Chinese Communist Party feels about the growing prosperity of the masses. A large, well-fed, and educated middle class eventually demands the dignity that only liberty and democracy can provide. Are the CCP willing to cede such rights peacefully or is there a lot of strife in China’s future? They won’t be the first authoritarian government laid low by the high tech revolution but they’ll certainly be the biggest.

      1. I have a feeling that most people in Shenzhen are too busy to get caught up in politics.
        It’s an interesting issue, although I see it from a different angle.

        1. I have no doubt that the people in Shenzhen today are too busy to worry about politics. Even assuming the Chinese middle class continues to get more affluent, it wouldn’t be this generation that will demand greater freedom. That’s one, maybe two generations away, but it will come. It’s human nature. As more and more Chinese travel overseas and see their counterparts in Korea, Japan and the West, the more they will think “Why not us? We’re just as wealthy and smart as them? Why should we be treated like children by our government?”

  2. Apple is timing a larger screen iPhone very well. Phablets are just now becoming a significant enough percentage of the market to matter, especially in China (which if memory serves will soon be a bigger market for Apple than the US).

      1. Now you’re speaking for hundreds of millions of people? Your anger is disappointing. Try adding to the conversation instead of keeping score and taking cheap shots.

        1. a) I was agreeing with you.
          b) I don’t know about millions of people. I know about what I read in articles and comment sections.
          c) It’s an integrity issue. For those that have done so, you can’t ridicule on one hand and like on the other. Say what you want about me, I ALWAYS give my reasons.

          1. A few clickbait articles and a few comments in no way translates to “the Apple base were the first to ridicule them”. You were taking a cheap shot, plain and simple.

            An integrity issue? You have none. You complain endlessly about Apple’s closed and regulated systems *while* you make use of many closed and regulated systems in your daily life. We’ve been over this in depth, I have no desire to have that conversation again. I heard you the first thousand times, “Apple bad!”, I get it, we all get it.

          2. It was a cheap fact, not a cheap shot. I suppose I could consider Macworld and it’s commenters as the “Apple base” (don’t even get me started on Macdailynews). So yes, those that ridiculed (not you per se), and now are salivating for a larger iPhone do indeed have an integrity issue.

            As for your opinion of me, I respect that. That’s your prerogative.

      2. I don’t know who ridiculed them (except as click-bait articles) but let’s be honest, the phablet looks hilarious when used as a phone.

        I think to a large degree phablets are a direct result of Apple making the smartphone _and_ tablet as popular as they are. I have a hard time imagining what the phablet would be today if iPhone and iPad had not become reality. Maybe a quarter width netbook, clamshell and all? Maybe with a folding keyboard like the old Palm keyboards or maybe whichever laptop it was that had the keyboard foldout to the sides when opened.


        1. I think a thoughtfully designed larger screen iPhone will work quite well. But the thoughtful design part is the key. A larger screen just to have a larger screen doesn’t necessarily make sense. See Gruber’s recent article about the screen size math, he makes the point well.

          1. I think it is kind of funny that the iPad came about because Apple/Jobs saw a gap between smartphone and notebook and wanted something to fill that gap. Now people see a gap between smartphone and tablet and think that should be filled. Then there is MS and Intel who think there is a gap between tablet and notebook.

            To me it is all like thinking there is a gap between bicycle and scooter. Larger smartphones, Okay. But phablets? Unless you are Shaq or Lebron (or my nieces and nephew on my wife’s side)…


          2. Wasn’t there just more data about phablet sales (one of the Bens I think), and other than China as the exception, phablets are not a huge part of the market, and maybe never will be (I’m sure I’m remembering a few details incorrectly). It seems actual sales data tells us under 5 inches will rule the day. A 4.7 inch iPhone with an edge to edge screen (or close to it) should be a great device.

            But I can also see the use case for a larger screen iPhone (the rumored 5.5 inch), as long as it can fit in the large pocket of my work pants. Still, that size is not going to be what most people buy. Phablets have been massively overhyped, I would guess because Apple doesn’t sell one (yet) so it makes for good clickbait.

          3. That 5″-7-ish” smartphone size is the fad, imho. I am not a fan of the 4″-5″ size, either, but they are not as awkward. It may sell well and a lot of people may make a good bit of money from it, maybe even Apple. But then a lot of people bought and made money from pet rocks, too. (I know, I know. Hyperbole talking, but it is just how I see it).

            Of course only time will tell if this segment really has legs, or if reason will prevail. One reason I think they continue to fail in the US is that the smartphone is immediately tied to a carrier. No one _really_ wants a phablet as a phone, so if they got a phablet, they would still get a phone of some sort or otherwise mitigate the need to use the phablet as a phone. But that would require two devices tied to a carrier. Tech-enthusiaists notwithstanding, most people don’t want to double up their already expensive voice/data plan from the carriers. I don’t know exactly how the rest of the world functions, but it seems they most often at least get the choice to buy these devices unencumbered by carriers if they want. Or, as TP often cites, this is a two or even three-in-one purchase for financial reasons. I suppose if I could only afford a PC or a smartphone or a tablet, why not a phablet?


          4. I agree, the 5 to 7 inch size isn’t going to be a large part of the market. I’m interested to see how Apple approaches the 4.7 inch size. If the screen is closer to the edge and the device is thinner, it may not feel all that different in your hand from the current iPhone. Might be a sweet spot in terms of device size.

          5. I think it really depends on each user. I’ve been getting as large as possible since forever (4.3″ HTC HD2, then 5.3″ Samsung Galaxy Note, then 6″ Huawei ascend Mate, now 7″ Huawei X1, and I still regret passing on Samsung’s 7″ Amoled Galaxy tab+phone 2 yrs ago, but that one was horrendously overpriced). I’m in the minority, nut lot of people did follow the same path, once it was socially more acceptable and once they started to realize that a smartphone is mostly a computer, not mostly a phone.

            “Phone” use is about 1% of my smartphone usage, and the fashion police have been laughing at me since HD2 days (4.3″ ??? Ridiculous !!), which kinda puts things in perspective. Even one-handed use isn’t that prevalent, with voice commands and a headset… I’m looking forward to when someone will “invent” a 1/4-circular keyboard at the bottom corner though (you heard it here first).

            My 7″ phone is to a 4″ phone what a 26″ monitor is to a 14″ monitor: about 3.3x more screen real estate. I’d never go back to 4″ just like I’d never go back to 14″. 7″ is quite a handful though, 6″ was a lot more silngle-hand friendly. I’ll shoot for 6.5″ next year ^^

            With a larger phone, a lot of stuff becomes a lot more pleasant (more widgets, videos, reading, even typing…) or even plain possible (editing pictures, editing office docs, with a BT keyboard). And the extra screen can hide a larger battery (though that’s mainly a design choice based on thinness); a 2.5-days phone is a godsend.

    1. How about “large phone”. A good proportion of phones will be large, if trends are correct. Once they seem normal sized their won’t be the need of some special term for them.

      1. Not a bad start. But I think, as the article topic implies, the “phone” part is quickly becoming the least important (but not deprecated) feature. Maybe, taking inspiration from the title, it could be P’uter?


        1. The phone part is definitely becoming less important. As a family of four, we share 450 minutes per month and still accrue rollover minutes. In less than 3 years we have accumulated over 3000 minutes.

          1. I agree with both of you, “phone” is an app that will eventually run over IP on all tablet sizes and computer forms (as Skype does). But I suspect the term “phone” is already well on its way to meaning “hand sized tablet”.

            When new objects are invented, new names are created in the vacuum. But when objects evolve, their old names usually just change their meaning, to the consternation of older generations.

  3. i know android OEM’s are really worried now. I think next year’s android phones are going to look more like stock android and just about every phone will come out late summer

  4. I have noticed more and more people talking on their smartphones using earbud headphones with a microphone in the cord. As this becomes common knowledge and common practice, the size of the screen compared to the size of the head becomes less and less important.

    I keep my phone in my pocket, so the pocket size is a limit. Someone who carries their phone in a bag can use something bigger than me.

    Using both hands vs. one hand to hold and operate the device could be another limit that is important to people. I see most people holding with one hand and operating with the other, so I think that limit is no longer important.

    Whether or people use the voice function or not, having a wireless data connection from a carrier seems to be an important requirement for a day to day personal smartphone/computer. The carriers will still be involved, and they will still figure out a way to make money as people use voice less often.

  5. “combining a large smartphone and a touch-equipped, but clamshell-focused notebook.”

    The viability of touch-equipped notebooks has yet to be proven. Microsoft has been pushing hard on them, but the market doesn’t appear to be very interested. I’ve yet to see a compelling use case for a touchscreen on a clamshell device that already has a keyboard and trackpad. (Hybrid laptops that are convertible to tablets are a different matter, but they sure haven’t been setting the market on fire yet, either.)

    1. Touch enabled notebooks are a strange thing. I think it is inevitable, but I don’t think it will ever be a selling point. I’ve seen many times when people, myself included, inadvertently reached out to the notebook screen to scroll or select something. We always laugh and correct ourselves. But it happens and should be addressed. I agree it will never be compelling, per se. It will just organically make sense.


    2. I think Apple’s Many-in-1 approach with the iPad is the right way to go. The iPad in a good keyboard case is a wonderful device. But it’s important to note that the keyboard is a hardware accessory that adds functionality, and there are many different hardware accessories for the iPad.

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