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Determining the potential of the phablet

Last winter, I made the trip to Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. A few weeks earlier at CES, Samsung had introduced its first "phablet," which is a large phone or small tablet, depending on how you look at it. Unfortunately, I was too busy to meet with Samsung at CES to hear about its vision for phablets, so at MWC, I made a point of talking with representatives about why the company decided to make a "tweener," instead of focusing on smartphones or tablets individually.

The Samsung officials said that the first Galaxy Note, with its 5.3in screen, was created to break new ground in smartphones. It was really designed for the Asian market, where products like this are valued. There are many consumers in these regions who like a small tablet and are okay with it also being a smartphone, too. Much to our surprise, Samsung sold 10 million Galaxy Notes in 2012 and is on track to sell around 20 million in 2013.

At this year's CES, Huawei introduced the 6.1in Ascend Mate, which also targets Asian markets. Like Samsung's Galaxy Note 2, it will most likely end up in the European and US markets with at least one carrier sometime this spring. I got a chance to play with Huawei's phablet and was actually really impressed with its design. It is thin and sleek, and it works well as an actual tablet. While it is awkward to hold up to your ear to use as a phone, it would be a great device when paired to a Bluetooth headset.

In talking with various execs, it was pointed out to me that these phablets will most likely gain the greatest acceptance in emerging countries where people cannot afford to buy both a smartphone and a tablet. Indeed, these markets will be ideal for phablets if the prices come down and they are marketed as two-in-one devices.

There is another way to think about phablets that I believe is really important, though. We have been studying consumer usage models for decades and one thing that has really become clear is that people will have a lot of screens in their digital lives. Although their main screens will be their smartphone, tablet, notebook or PC, and TV, they could have a lot of other screens in the home or car that are connected to the Internet and their digital "stuff" in the cloud. And as we are learning, when it comes to our devices, screen sizes are highly personal; one size does not fit all.

In fact, the idea of forcing everyone to use the same smartphone screen size will become outdated very soon. It is true that people buy into platforms and ecosystems, but the screen size is often just as important to consumers when deciding which smartphone to purchase.

Although Apple has stayed consistent with the iPhone's screen size, its competitors have offered customers a wide array of sizes from which to choose. While 4.3in screens dominate the Android smartphone market today, there are some that are 4.7in, 5in, 5.3in, 5.5in, and even 6.1in, as we see with the Huawei Ascend phablet.

Interestingly, in some ways Apple has acknowledged the need for variations in screen size with the introduction of the iPad mini. In this case, demand for a smaller, more portable iPad drove Apple to jump into the compact tablet market. Currently, Apple says that it feels that the 4in screen on the iPhone 5 is perfect because most people prefer to use just one hand to operate their smartphones. But will that sentiment change?

Many users I've talked to, especially older ones with deteriorating eyesight, say that they really like the larger screens, and are starting to buy them in large numbers – thus the current increase in demand for large display smartphones. This also reinforces the fact that one size does not fit all.

Truth be told, the phablet form factor could simply be too large for the European or US market, where people want to carry their smartphones in their pocket or handbag. Also, the idea of carrying a smartphone and a tablet seems to be taking off in the Western world, even if it means people have to carry two devices. That could change over the next couple of years, though, as folks may decide they want to streamline their load.

Personally, I haven't cared much for phablets and have preferred a screen that lets me use my smartphone with one hand. Yet, when I was testing Huawei's Ascend Mate (pictured right), I could actually see myself using it more as a small tablet that also happened to have the capabilities of a phone. The notion of carrying just one device instead of a separate smartphone and small tablet is somewhat appealing to me.

It is probably too early in the life of phablets to predict their future, but I suspect that they will flush out this idea that one size does not fit all.

As people inevitably amass more screens in their digital lives, perhaps a phablet that reduces the amount of devices they have to carry around with them will be an attractive proposition.

Also, if phablets do catch on, especially in emerging markets, Apple may have to release an offering in this space, too. And that shouldn't be a problem; Apple is good at sitting back, watching markets develop, and then swooping in with a superior product.

When Samsung introduced the Galaxy Note, I thought it was a gimmicky design with little potential. But considering the fact that the company could sell as many as 20 million Galaxy Notes this year, and that there is potential demand in emerging markets, it seems phablets might turn out to be more than the flash-in-the-pan many of us thought they would be.