In the United States, people routinely mock extra-big smartphones that approach tablet-computer dimensions. Maybe it’s time to stop snickering. Demand for these odd-sized devices is growing so fast in Asia, Europe and Brazil that “phablets” worldwide in 2014 should outsell traditional smaller tablets, predicts Bob O’Donnell, the founder of Technalysis Research.
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“I thought phablets were ridiculous at first,” O’Donnell concedes. “How could you hold one to your ear to make a call? But over time, they grow on you.” For 2014, he predicts that 175 million phablets will be sold worldwide, versus a more modest 165 million sales of smaller tablets (screens measuring 8 inches or less on the diagonal.)
O’Donnell has been one of the tech sector’s leading industry analysts over the past 14 years, primarily in his previous role as head of personal computer, smartphone and tablet research at International Data Corp. He left IDC earlier this year to set up his own firm, Technalysis, in Foster City, Calif.
The bullish case for phablets starts in South Korea, O’Donnell says, where two thirds of all smartphones being sold are phablets. He defines phablets as any tablet/smartphone hybrid with a diagonal screen size of 5 inches or more. That’s become a favorite size for Korean companies such as Samsung (which sells the 5.38-inch Galaxy S4) and LG (which sells the 5.2-inch G2.)
Other markets with robust phablet demand include China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Brazil and Eastern Europe, O’Donnell says. Such products also are likely to sell well in Britain and Germany. The result: non-U.S. markets may lead the push toward phablets, while the United States lags behind. However, O’Donnell points out, if Apple introduces a larger phone/tablet hybrid either this spring or autumn, as is rumored, that would give the phablet trend a big boost.
The biggest phablets, such as Asus’s Fonepad, with a 7-inch screen, seem oversized even for athletes the size of Shaquille O’Neal. It’s more likely that the growth O’Donnell expects will happen chiefly in devices that barely cross his 5-inch barrier between regular smartphones and phablets. But as devices get bigger, consumers are using them in ways that minimize phablets’ supposed clunkiness. Thanks to Bluetooth and other wireless devices, O”Donnell says, it’s possible to handle a phablet call without looking silly.
What’s more, in many countries where wi-fi networks are patchy, consumers cherish the phablets’ ability to provide multiple ways of connecting to the Internet. Building in phone capability may add $30, $60 or more to a tablet’s price tag, but consumers find that quite bearable, even if they are motivated only by their need for reliable web access, rather than the chance to talk.
Even in the U.S., smartphones’ evolution toward phablet status may be farther along than users realize. Only 16% of users’ time on smartphone is spent in phone conversations , according to a March 2013 study that IDC conducted on behalf of Facebook. Far more time, in total, is spent on tablet (or phablet) activities such as email, web browsing, social media, maps and games.