The Post-Tablet Era

on January 14, 2014

Coming off what will undoubtedly be the best quarter that tablet sales have ever seen, you might wonder if I’m a bit crazy calling 2014 the potential start of the post-tablet era, but hear me out. In truth, 2014 could be the start of the post-device era. [pullquote]the number of total smart connected devices being sold continues to grow at a faster rate than the population[/pullquote]

As the ongoing record attendance figures for last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES to the rest of us) demonstrate, people’s love affair with gadgets continues to grow. So, how, you must be thinking, could I possibly make such a ridiculous assertion? Ironically, in abundance, there is often indifference. Or, to put it another way, the more devices we all “collect” and use, the less each one actually matters. No matter which brand, operating system or device type you prefer and no matter how you choose to draw the boundaries between all of these different things, there’s one fact that no one can ignore: the number of total smart connected devices being sold continues to grow at a faster rate than the population. That means the total number of devices owned (and presumably used) per person is growing—and rapidly.

Plus, even a quick glance at the market share—either by brand, by operating system or any other metric you prefer—will show you that the numbers are not growing equally across these different breaks. This implies a wider variety of combinations that people end up owning. Now, admittedly, this last point is a bit tougher to prove, but common sense will tell you that as more devices from more brands become available, the likelihood that people will end up with a diversity of different brands and operating systems grows. But, it’s more than just common sense. Research projects I have worked on over the years show definitively that while there are certainly strong correlations between the brand and/or OS of your smartphone and your tablet, for example, the two are not always identical—even among iPhone or iPad owners.

Another factor to consider is that the number of hours in a day is not increasing (despite our often intense desire for it to be so), so it’s not difficult to imagine that people are spreading their available time across their various devices. Again, research backs up this intuition and shows that while there certainly has been shifting of time between devices—from TVs to PCs and from PCs to tablets, for example—there is no uniformity amongst time spent with devices. Some people spend more time with PCs, for example, some with tablets, some with smartphones and so on. What everyone is still doing is, however, is using those devices—whatever particular combination they may own—to get things done, whether that be pure entertainment, pure productivity, pure information or, more likely, an interesting combination of them all.

This focus on activities—as opposed to the devices upon which you do them—brings me back to my original assertion. While there is absolutely no question that tablets have had (and will continue to have) a monumental impact on the device market, I would argue they have had an even more profound impact on how certain types of “computing” are done. The simple, touch-based interface has enabled the creation of an entirely new set of application genres and allowed smart intelligence to be brought into situations and environments that would never have allowed “traditional” computing devices to enter.

However, I would argue that this new form of computing isn’t directly tied to the tablet form factor and screen size and therefore the tablet device, as it’s commonly defined. Instead, it has more to do with the resolution of the screen and the connectivity of the device. In this regard, the new kid in town—“the phablet”—has some clear advantages over many tablets. First, the smaller screen sizes of phablets (5’’-7” in my view) actually make the devices more portable than tablets, without sacrificing resolution. Plus, by definition, a phablet is a phone—meaning it has a built-in 3G/4G modem. At best, a third of tablets ship with these radios built-in, but given the enormous amount of connectivity-dependent applications, this 100% radio attach for phablets is a huge advantage, especially when you are not within an available WiFi hotspot. Finally, in most cases (at least in the US), phablets are subsidized by the telco carriers, meaning the actual out-of-pocket purchase cost for the phablet is almost always lower than a tablet.

As I’ve discussed before, too many people get caught up with the notion that the phablet is a ridiculously large smartphone to hold up to your ear—this completely misses the point. As with a tablet (or for that matter, almost any size smart phone), a phablet is a mobile, portable computing device being used to achieve what it is that people want to get done. And for a lot of people—it’s just a better value than a tablet. So, while I’m not certainly not going to predict the demise of tablets, I do think that a lot more “tablet computing” will get done on phablets this year and that will have a profound impact on how the device market evolves in 2014.