The Device Dream Team: Large Smartphones and Thin Notebooks

Like many aspects of the tech business, the world of devices is driven by a number of simultaneous, but sometimes conflicting, trends. For years, much of the focus in devices was centered on which device would “win”. Somehow, the idea became widespread that, in order for one device to win, others had to lose. As a result, we saw things like PCs being pitted against tablets in battles for the top device. But then, as smartphones started getting more powerful and endowed with larger screens, they became the one device to rule them all.

Several years into these battles, it’s obvious they were a fundamentally flawed way of looking at the world and understanding how the industry has evolved. Instead, it’s increasingly important to look at different combinations of devices and figure out which types of devices work well in tandem.

From that perspective, it seems abundantly clear the most compelling set of devices for many individuals is a large screen, touch-enabled smartphone and a thin, lightweight 12-13” screen notebook (preferably with touch as well). Whether in a business environment or for personal usage, this combination seems to be the “dream team” of devices, offering access to virtually any type of application, information or experience in virtually any environment. From real time social media and media consumption of all sorts, to document creation, information access, data analysis, messaging—it’s hard to imagine what you can’t do with these two devices.[pullquote]The most compelling set of devices for many individuals is a large screen, touch-enabled smartphone and a thin, lightweight 12-13” screen notebook, preferably with touch as well.” [/pullquote]

Much of these results are due to the individual capabilities of each of the devices but, in conjunction with a data tethering package on your smartphone, you can also use the two together as a very effective package. Most notably, you can use your notebook in any environment you’d want, without the expense and hassle of paying for an extra modem and an extra data plan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve enabled the personal hotspot feature on a smartphone to get access to email or a web site on my notebook. Conversely, there are often times I discover things first on my smartphone but want to access information in more detail on a larger screen on my notebook. And yes, believe it or not, there are still a reasonable number of web sites out there that only work to their full ability on a PC.

When tablets first hit the market, there were many who somehow thought one device was in fact going to offer the best of both worlds—the mobility and connectivity of a smartphone with the large screen of a notebook. As time has gone on, however, it’s become clear this view of the tablet did not come to pass. Tablets certainly have their roles, but they haven’t been able to take on that idealized vision of the single device, or even the primary device.

As the results from yesterday’s amazing Apple quarterly earnings clearly illustrated, large smartphones like the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are driving enormous changes in the market and it’s PCs (or in Apple’s case, Macs) that are maintaining a key role as well. Tablets like the iPad, on the other hand, are now suffering through a tough decline. In fact, the rate of iPad’s sales decline is now on the increase. While Tim Cook remains optimistic for a turn-around, eight straight quarters of decline is pretty hard to ignore, and even he acknowledged the cannibalization of iPad sales by both larger iPhones and thinner Macs. Of course, in Apple’s case, that’s not really a terrible thing, as they generally make better profits on iPhones and Macs than they do iPads anyway.

Longer term, I still believe there are fundamental challenges facing the tablet market. However, given the potential benefits larger smartphones and thinner notebooks working in tandem can bring to many people, I’m still reasonably optimistic about the PC market’s future. Clearly, it will suffer through some declines in the short term but, by being seen, understood, and positioned as part of a device “dream team,” I think there are better opportunities than many currently believe.

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.

40 thoughts on “The Device Dream Team: Large Smartphones and Thin Notebooks”

  1. I fully agree with your dream team setup, except I’d like a 12-13″ tablet able to morph into a full-fledged laptop (with a keyboard dock and meaningful power, storage and I/O) instead of a straight up laptop. Sadly, that leaves out… everyone: Apple won’t do MacOS in a tablet, Android won’t run desktop software, and Windows/Metro is not yet a usable ecosystem.

    MS seem to be the ones with the better chance of making that happen, unless Apple relinquish their stance on hybrids, mobile apps fully obsolete desktop apps, or connectivity really becomes ubiquitous, allowing good remoting to a desktop PC at all times.

    The one realistic way to achieve that right now seems to be to run Android in a VM on a Windows convertible. Rather kludgy ?

    1. FYI, I almost called the dream a large smartphone and a 2-in-1 device because that really can give you everything you need. However, I do think a lot of new thin notebooks, like the Dell XPS13, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 and the new MacBook are pretty compelling on their own. To your point, there isn’t a single company that offers both these options (at least here in the US), so it’s likely to be a multi-vendor, multi-OS solution. Now, honestly, I don’t think that’s a terrible ideas either as it keeps you exposed to multiple “worlds” so to speak. In fact, again, this is a topic I also thought about discussing but ran out of time and space….

      1. Well, MS might have taken a step towards solving the app gap yesterday, not in the best way, but in the most realistic way for sure. We’ll see if devs take them up on it, and if the resulting apps are up to par.

  2. “it seems abundantly clear that the most compelling set of devices for
    many individuals is a large-screen, touch-enabled smartphone and a thin,
    lightweight 12-13” screen notebook (preferably with touch as well).”

    What is your the basis for this claim? I don’t necessarily doubt it, but if it’s “abundantly clear”, there should be supporting evidence.

    1. I based that on my own observations and analysis of where things are right now. Didn’t mean to imply that there are no other options, but for many people, these two are the most compelling tandem.

  3. I have to say that your dream team (except I had a regular Macbook Pro) played out for me recently, particularly the part where I tethered my laptop to my phone when I spent a month in a location with exceptionally bad wifi. I still had my tablet with me, but I only pay for data in a pinch.

    But I think you leave out the tablet from the equation too easily. I know you are bullish on PCs and not so much on tablets. I think tablets are finding their own use case and the reason they are not growing is two parts. They have a much longer upgrade cycle than PCs, even as PC upgrade cycles lengthen. They have a longer upgrade cycle because, from my limited view, layman observation, what they are used for most is fairly lightweight. And I don’t think large smartphones are necessarily eating at potential tablet uses.

    For instance, from my observations on public transportation in several major cities, tablets are used mostly for reading, smartphones (large and small) mostly for games and music. I think it is an safe estimate of about 90% each way. Both see about equal usage for video.

    I think this gives Jobs initial framing of the iPad even more weight, that the tablet exists between the smartphone and laptop, not a replacement for either.

    Joe

    1. I agree that tablets still have a role (and mentioned so briefly in the column), but it is a much more lightweight usage generally speaking, as you point out. Given how thin and lightweight a lot new notebooks have become, they’ve become more compelling than ever…

  4. Desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, watch. The typical user will pick two, some three. As far as Apple is concerned, cannibalization shouldn’t be an issue. Make the most compelling device in each category, and users will choose what they need. This is pretty much exactly what Tim Cook said last night when asked about the iPad market.

    In the US, lack of competition among (or regulation of) carriers remains an impediment to mobile adoption:

    “…in conjunction with a data tethering package on your smartphone, you can also use the two together as a very effective package.”

    As far as I know, tethering on most carriers is still a $20/month up-charge. Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong. At that price, people already committed to mobile lifestyles will pay; but $240/year is a significant cost for many. It more than doubles the ownership cost of even a nice laptop, for example. And I always hear people talk about ubiquitous wifi, but in my experience wifi access is often terrible. There is a lot of improvement still needed here.

    1. Tethering charges were very expensive for a while, but things have improved dramatically and now there’s little or no charge to use personal hotspot capabilities and that does make a big difference.

  5. Wait until the “keyboard first” generation is older and the “touch first” generation is doing most of the buying. I could see their preferred devices changing to phone and tablet, or even watch and tablet.

    That’s why I think it is important for Apple to continue to develop the iPad. The adoption rate from day 1 for iPad is still higher than for iPhone. What is slowing down sales is that, for most people, iPads last longer than iPhones. A 4 year old iPad 2 is a much more satisfying machine now than a 4 year old iPhone 3g was in 2012.

    1. “What is slowing down sales is that, for most people, iPads last longer than iPhones.”

      I keep hearing that but I’m not completely convinced, at least not yet. If that were true, Mac sales wouldn’t be as strong as they are.

      1. I guess that depends on two things, how many people are new to Macs and what Macs are being used for compared to iPads. For the general consumer market, there just doesn’t seem a need to upgrade as often for what they are used for. I’m still using my iPad 2. I bought my family, each their own iPad Minis so they will leave my iPad alone.

        Joe

      2. We’ve got six iPad 2s, bought in 2011. They’re still great, running the latest software, no need to upgrade. I would guess there are a lot of reasons why Mac sales are strong. You can’t discount the iPad upgrade cycle just because the Mac is selling well. iPads last a long time.

        I expect we might upgrade in 2016, that would be five years of good use. A larger screen iPad might spur me to upgrade sooner. We use the iPads for all sorts of things, we homeschool and the iPads are the primary PCs for my kids. I use mine for business use (it replaced my MacBook). My wife would be the lightest iPad user, but we’re all doing a lot more than browsing/email/gaming and we’re using the iPads heavily time-wise.

        1. You case illustrates a very important point that is often missed. That is, tablets and PCs are often used in very different contexts and usage is not necessarily interchangeable.

          As early as 2013, Chitika showed that tablets are mostly used during leisure hours while PC are used during work hours. That would certainly be true in your case where only 1 iPad is being used for business while the remaining 5 are used for other tasks.

          https://chitika.com/browsing-activity-by-hour

          Therefore, any cannibalisation of iPad sales from Mac sales is likely to be confined to only a minor segment of iPad usage segments, the business segment.

          I would like to see more data on how iPads are being used, and for what tasks. At least, of the 3 iPads that we have in our house, 100% are used for leisure. None will be cannibalised by MacBooks.

          1. “That would certainly be true in your case where only 1 iPad is being used for business while the remaining 5 are used for other tasks.”

            I’m the only business owner in my household, and the sole income earner. That’s the only reason 1 out of 6 iPads are used for business. My kids use their iPads as their PCs, both for homeschooling and all kinds of creative work. Tim Cook isn’t lying when he says he can do 80 percent or more of his business work on an iPad. They are very capable devices, and it is obvious the capabilities will only grow. I can’t stress enough how great the touch interaction is.

          2. I’m sorry if my comment gave the impression that I was saying “iPads are not good for serious work”. That was not my intention.

            The point that I want to make is that iPad usage overlaps with PCs in the way illustrated in the following Venn diagram (I just took a generic diagram off Wikipedia so excuse me if it’s hard to understand). iPad usage surely overlaps with PC usage, but a large proportion is unique to iPad. The iPad is expanding our usage of computers by lowering the barrier to entry for kids and seniors, and also by allowing some creative tasks that were not realistically convenient on a PC (like drawing and music annotation). The iPad also makes it much more convenient to access the Internet or read ebooks from your sofa or bed. This is illustrated by the portion of the Venn diagram that doesn’t overlap.

            http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/06/Venn-diagram-AB.svg/250px-Venn-diagram-AB.svg.png

            The Chitika data shows us just how large the segment that doesn’t overlap with PC usage is, and this is what I see in your household’s usage as well. Using the words “work hours” and “leisure hours” is an arbitrary decision on Chitika’s part, and I don’t necessarily agree with it.

            If your PC usage lies mainly in the overlapping portion in the Venn diagram, then of course you will have not trouble using it at work. I agree with that 100%. My point is that the portion that is unique to iPad is probably much larger than what the iPad naysayers think.

          3. I’m sorry if my comment gave the impression that I was saying “iPads are not good for serious work”. That was not my intention.

            The point that I want to make is that iPad usage overlaps with PCs in the way illustrated in the following Venn diagram. iPad usage surely overlaps with PC usage (portion D), but a large proportion is unique to iPad. The iPad is expanding our usage of computers by lowering the barrier to entry for kids and seniors, and also by allowing some creative tasks that were not realistically convenient on a PC (like drawing and music annotation). The iPad also makes it much more convenient to access the Internet or read ebooks from your sofa or bed. This is illustrated by the portion of the Venn diagram that doesn’t overlap (portion B).

            The Chitika data shows us just how large this segment (B) is, and this is what I see in your household’s usage also. Using the words “work hours” and “leisure hours” is an arbitrary decision on Chitika’s part, and I don’t necessarily agree with it.

            If your work usage lies mainly in the overlapping portion in the Venn diagram (D), then of course you will have not trouble using iPads at work. I agree with that 100%. My point is that the portion that is unique to iPad (B) is probably much larger than what the iPad naysayers think.

            Of course, to get the total picture, you have to add smartphones to the diagram and see what you can read from usage data. It would probably be interesting to add wearables in here as well.

          4. I understand now. I think we agree. I certainly find in my own use the iPad is superior to a PC in many ways. Same with my kids, there are many tasks they simply could not do with a desktop or laptop PC.

            I’m very interested in what Apple will do with a larger screen iPad. The combination of iPad and keyboard case is great. When I have to use my MacBook it feels old fashioned, I want to touch the screen.

          1. We do tons of creation and ‘real work’ on the iPads. But we do all have good keyboard cases. I think that’s a must.

          2. I realize I didn’t answer the typing speed question. My kids do sometimes type on the screen keyboard, but obviously when they’re doing a lot of writing they use their keyboard cases. They’re very quick on the screen, but faster with the physical keyboard.

            I’m very interested in what Apple might do with an iPad Pro. The combination of touchscreen iOS and the keyboard case is really great to work with, it’s very natural. I do most of my writing and editing this way on my iPad (with a hardware keyboard case), it somehow feels more connected, like I’m ‘closer to the metal’, it’s hard to explain. I would much rather write on my iPad than on my iMac or MacBook, it is more enjoyable.

      3. Mac sales may be benefiting from Windows switchers more than iPad sales are benefiting from Android tablet switchers.

    2. My 12 yr old and 8 yr old boys are definitely in the “touch first” generation that you label. However, they are also in need and wanting of the “keyboard”. I am not sure if they are going through a weening process, or just use the device they feel like using.

      For example, at times my older child will use his Macbook Air for typing, or just browsing and texting. I believe his real usage and need is multitasking. However, when he is real productive and puts the ‘nose to the grindstone’, I see him using the iPad and iMac together. For instance, he put together a 30 minute video using the iPad for cutting and blocking for audio and the iMac for testing his work and watching film editing tutorials.

      My 8 year old watches Netflix on the iPad, but rather watch YouTube on the iMac. I don’t get it?

      Anyway, I am not sure what the preferred device is, because it’s always different and to me it seems driven by mood and place.

      1. It’s interesting to hear what kids are doing today with multiple computers.

        I think that “touch first” developers will also make a difference, not just users. A developer from the “touch first” generation may write tablet or phone apps that a developer today wouldn’t bother to, because today’s developer grew up doing everything on a laptop.

  6. Based on yesterday’s conference call, it looks like iPad’s (or the tablet’s) place will be relegated to enterprise / vertical markets while the general consumer market will belong to think notebooks, large phones, and now wearables.

    1. That would presume that new sales is representative of the installed base. What we know is that the installed base of tablets is vastly consumer oriented with enterprises only starting to ramp up mainstream procurement. As Tim said, iPad usage rates are through the roof so no one is putting down their tablets. They are just not replacing them as frequently as they are with phones. Given that new consumers are still getting into the iPad user game, it is not helpful to suggest that iPad will be relegated anywhere. Almost all new sales are incremental to the iPad installed base. Only the iPad 1 is not on ios8 and even this works fine for less demanding users.

      1. “Given that new consumers are still getting into the iPad user game, it is not helpful to suggest that iPad will be relegated anywhere.”

        TC, in yesterday’s conference call, mentioned that 40% to 70% of iPad sales went to new users. Problem is, is that even though that represents a high percentage, it’s a high percentage of a device that has had at least five straight quarters of YoY of declining sales. So in terms of absolute numbers, every quarter there are less and less new iPad users.

        With the amount of emphasis TC puts on iPad enterprise use, I just think Apple is aiming for the enterprise to fuel iPad growth.

  7. Although I agree with you in my personal computing experience, I think that trying to define the ultimate combination is not only futile, but also, if you are in charge of a product portfolio, very dangerous.

    Regarding futility, the ultimate combination really depends on what your computing needs are. My kids are, for example, very happy to be tablet only, and I see no reason to exclude them from the discussion.

    Regarding danger in portfolio management, consider where Microsoft failed with Windows 8. They failed because they bet all their money on the tablet experience. They prioritised a tablet UI and let their PC users suffer. They made a calculated bet that tablets would quickly dominate computing, and lost.

    On the other hand, Apple deferred judgement. They simply made the best UI for each respective platform. And by doing this, they hedged their bets perfectly.

    The takeaway is, even if your visionary founder lays out a vision for future computing, be it Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, don’t bet your company on it. Just continue creating the best products that you can for each category.

    1. 100% agree, this is the author’s dream team, certainly not every customer segment. This is a case where Apple is providing a wide array of choices to consumers, and depending on budgets and preferences will decide the mix that suits them. Tablets are certainly not going to sell to everyone but they have a valuable and important spot for many customer segments.

      1. To be fair, there are a lot of people who do a lot of traveling for work. Even with a Thunderbolt Matrox dock, unplugging and replugging can still be cumbersome (which is why I use my tablet when just running down the hall for meetings). And once I throw my iPad in my case with my Macbook Pro, weight quickly becomes an issue again. Not anywhere close to when I used to carry a personal laptop AND a work laptop AND a portable printer in one case, but still noticeable. So, even with a tablet I can see how Bob’s dream team is a dream likely shared by many.

        Joe

    2. Indeed. Even something as straightforward as size elicits strong reactions, be it for phones or tablets. Adding niceties like power, screen format, ports… I think the author might be overgeneralizing his (and his readership’s: adult male professionals) preferences.

      I think MS’s failure is a bit more complicated than that:
      – the interface was indeed new and jarring, which is an issue in and of itself
      – it was also somewhat lacking (discoverability, consistency, …) as are all Mobile UIs, but it was not a Mobile UI, it was a Universal UI that replaced something users had mastered over decades.
      – there were no apps for it, not even all OS tools, not even MS apps, and the few available were bad.
      – marketing/PR: Win8 got thrown out with the bathwater, whereas it was the best Windows to date, and getting rid of Metro was a ClassicShell install (2 minutes) away.
      I don’t think their bet was that tablets would take over; I think it was they could inflict a little pain on their xtop users to make them slide naturally into their new, same-UI, phone and tablet offerings. The reasoning was: piss off our customers so they’ll buy more from us. Winning logic !

      As you must know by now, I think Metro is a very good UI, certainly superior to iOS (icons ?) and at least easier than Android (widgets) on mobile; all have about the same discoverability issues. Even on the desktop, the handful of tweaks they made in 8.1 (a “close” button !) were almost enough if starting from scratch, though a Start Menu is required indeed because user habits. It’s missing some functionality, but that’s unrelated to ergonomics, and iOS and Android do too; and, above all, it’s missing apps. The OS and ecosystem have issues, the UI is brilliant, both for Mobile and Desktop.

      What’s interesting is I think Apple is having similar issues: the iPad is stunted by it Mobile-only interface and ecosystem. Both Android and Windows, work well in Mobile and Desk/Lap-top (mouse, standard ports/peripherals, UI…) scenarios. iOS doesn’t. Running a phone interface on a larger screen is even worse than what MS and Android are doing.

      1. Great comment.

        I think it was they could inflict a little pain on their xtop users to make them slide naturally into their new, same-UI, phone and tablet offerings. The reasoning was: piss off our customers so they’ll buy more from us. Winning logic !

        Yes, I’ve stated on multiple occasions that pissing off current customers has been a winning logic for Apple. The trouble I have with Windows 8 however is that discoverability is really bad if you come from a Windows XP background, and especially if you don’t have a touch screen. I really miss the start menu, and no, the start button isn’t really a good replacement. Windows 10 does look promising however.

        I haven’t used Metro on mobile (they don’t sell Windows Phone in Japan!!) so I have no experience. I do expect though that it is at least decent, and the reviews have been positive. As a mobile UI, I agree that Metro is probably very good. Whether it’s better than Android or iOS, I can’t say. It could certainly be the case.

        When I say that Microsoft bet too heavily on tablets and sacrificed the desktop experience, I don’t specifically mean that Metro is a bad desktop UI. The fact is however, it was a very unfamiliar UI for Windows XP/7 users, and they hated it. More importantly, Microsoft did not have a backup plan. It took them years to get to Windows 10, which in my impression, makes Metro much more familiar for Windows 7 users.

        1.
        They bet on the wrong horse.
        2.
        They bet too much. They put all their Windows users into the bet.
        3.
        They failed to quickly fix it, possibly due to the lack of a backup plan.

        Apple does bet on the wrong horse from time to time and they do piss off users. However, the transition tends to be more gradual, and they fix issues along the way.

        As for Apple, sure they are having issues. Their strategy of individually creating the best products instead of marching for a unification strategy makes cross-device development difficult. I’m sure that they are aware of this because they are taking steps in their development tools towards a more screen-size independent model. The same could actually be said of the very old Objective-C language. Apple was gradually improving it but still its ancient roots could not be hidden. And then, Apple released the Swift language. Apple will have legacy issues in the future, stemming from their decision to optimise for each screen size, but it seems that they know how to rectify these problems before they blow up.

  8. I almost agree with you Bob. But, I do take a tablet with me (either my SurfaceRT or NVIDIA Shield Tablet) when I fly for two purposes:
    1. I almost always have to fly economy and when the person in front of me reclines, it’s really hard to use a 13+in. laptop. even on my lap! With the tablet I can still run Office or watch a movie.
    2. I like to have a backup to my laptop in case I run out of battery or something bad happens to it (a little belt and suspenders).

    It’s a little bit of insurance for ~2 extra pounds. I have a backpack that has a laptop slot and a tablet slot to makes it easy to have both.

  9. Reading a book on my iPhone 6 would have me soon driving my head through the wall in frustration. Thanks goodness, my iPad had a screen large enough to legibly display a page of text. But I’m almost 50 so who cares what my needs are.

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