Why ‘Phablets’ are Gobbling up the Phone and Tablet Markets

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Huge cell phones are HUGE. And you’d better get used to them. Awkwardly named “phablets” — a sort of phone/tablet combo gadget, with a display at 5.5 inches or larger — are exploding in popularity.

Phablets claimed 21 percent of all U.S. smartphone sales during the first quarter of this year, nearly quadrupling their puny 6 percent share during the same period last year, according to the latest Kantar Worldpanel ComTech market share data.

A lot of this increased popularity is the result of Apple’s entry into the market, which always drags Apple fans into any new trend. But that doesn’t explain all of it. According to Kantar, Apple iPhone 6 Plus accounts for 44 percent of this segment.

Phablets may look comical, not unlike Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. A friend of mine who whipped out his Microsoft-powered 6-inch Nokia Lumia at dinner not long ago had us all doubled over in laughter. Yes, it fit in his pants pocket but it looked, well …

But, like Maxwell Smart’s phone, phablets only look weird when you hold them up to your ear to talk on them. Smart’s shoe looked perfectly fine on his foot, and phablets look great when you are reading web pages or watching movies with the thing on a table.

Phablets make sense, mainly because both phones and tablets don’t make sense any more. As I’m sure you know by now, the kids don’t make phone calls today. They text, they SnapChat. They Skype. But they don’t really need phones. Increasingly, firms are finding ways to offer phones with no calling plan. So who cares if a phablet looks stupid when held up to your ear? A laptop looks stupid held up to your ear, too.

On the other hand, tablets are in trouble, too. Tablet sales saw their first-ever decline in the last quarter of 2014, and even Apple’s tablets lost ground. Some of that drop can be attributed to product cycle, but the story is bigger than that.

Look around at any coffee shop. How many consumers do you see sitting there working on tablets? The things are awkward to hold for long periods, so they don’t qualify as hand-helds. They haven’t replaced laptops or cell phones. And consumers haven’t really warmed to having a third device in their lives that needs constant recharging and carrying. Tablets complicate. Phablets simplify.

The enormous growth of the overgrown phones leads to new questions. In December 2014, Netbiscuits predicted that phablet users would take up 25 percent of web traffic from smartphones by the early this year, according to John Oldshue at SaveOnPhone.com. We’ve seen web designers rush to shrink websites so they were usable on tiny 4-inch displays. Might we see another radical change in design, with screen space opened up again?

At any rate, get used to huge phones. In Asian markets, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, phablets have devoured 50 percent of the smartphone market, according to Flurry Analytics. Maybe it’s time to start looking for pants with larger pockets.

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