Tablet and Smartphone Futures: Specialization

on September 30, 2014

As the markets for tablets and smartphones continue to mature and saturate, I believe we’re heading towards some important changes. Specifically, I think the time for mass market smartphones and tablets is rapidly nearing an end.

It’s not that we won’t have any big products, but post-iPhone 6, I think it’s going to be much harder for any vendors (including Apple) to create something that has enormous mass appeal.

The reasons for my thinking are pretty simple. As people have become more comfortable and familiar with smartphones (and tablets), they’ve started to realize the specific things they like and don’t like about certain models or certain types of devices, and they’re gravitating towards models that meet their personal needs.

Look at the debate over the iPhone 6 vs. the 6 Plus. Some people really want the bigger screen and some people really don’t. In fact, you could argue that the entire large smartphone (“phablet”) category is a great example of the specialization I’m referring to here. Depending on personal preferences and tastes, there are very strong supporters and detractors of the entire movement.[pullquote]I think the time for mass market smartphones and tablets is rapidly nearing an end.”[/pullquote]

In that light, I think the introduction of BlackBerry’s Passport phone last week actually makes a great deal of sense. The Passport is not something that an enormous number of people are going to want, but for the right market (mobile professionals who work for companies with strict security policies), it’s actually a pretty cool device. Similarly, for people who care more about looking at work documents on a phone than watching movies, the 4.5” square screen of the Passport works very nicely.

In the case of the Passport, it’s also important to remember that many people who still use BlackBerries carry two phones: a work phone and a personal phone. While that may not be an ideal situation for many people, it’s perfectly OK to many others. Again, in that light, the Passport is a great update of the work phone.

Moving forward, I expect we’re going to see a lot more specialization by other vendors to meet the needs of specific markets. As I’ve written about before, there’s a huge opportunity to create different types of smartphones for different age groups—15-year olds and 55-year olds don’t need (and probably don’t want) the same phone. I also expect to see a group of people who will steadfastly hold onto smaller size phones because of their easier portability and “pocketability” and expect some vendors to cater to those needs.

I believe the specialization trend will extend beyond phones to tablets as well. Of course there are the OS-based differences—just as there are for phones—but there’s also screen size preferences and other activity-based differences. The 9.7” iPad did a good job of introducing many people to the concept of a tablet, but honestly, is there anyone really that excited about another version of it?

That’s why I expect to see Apple introduce a larger 12” or so tablet, in addition to updated versions of their 9.7” products. A larger iPad isn’t likely to sell as well as the smaller models, but it will fill the needs of creative professionals and others who really want a larger screen size quite nicely. Similarly, that’s also why I find nVidia’s Shield gaming tablet to be an intriguing indicator of where the tablet market is headed. The Shield tablet is never going to sell anywhere close to the iPad or even generic Android tablets, but for the right audience, it’s a great product.

As appealing as the concept of more specialization may be, however, there’s a big challenge for hardware vendors: the larger the sales volume of a given device, the more you can reduce its costs and, conversely, the lower the volume, typically, the higher the cost. Smart designs will allow vendors to leverage similar components across multiple products, but it does place more difficult demands on their supply chains (and product designers).

Ultimately, technology products are likely to follow the path of other mass-produced goods, such as cars, appliances and even clothing. In all those markets (and many more), the ability to specifically target different types of consumers and then create products that match the unique needs/interests of those different consumers is what allows companies to thrive. Now, it’s time for technology companies to step up to those challenges and give us the breadth of product options that the market is hungry to see.