On Phablets and Other Observations

Traveling a lot lately, which means I’ve had time to sit and observe people in airports. In today’s world, this is a great research opportunity for mobile devices. I’m a huge fan of anecdotal evidence, and I like to watch users in the wild to see what devices they use.

Numbers can tell you a lot about the rise of the phablet, you know phone + tablet. I liked that term better when I thought it was phab, as in phat for fab. Something about phablet in that sense suggested a blinged-out device, all sparkly and trimmed in 14K gold; related, the rise of phablets in Asia led me to this assumption.

Why? Gold iPhone.

Generally speaking, phablet is a phone whose screen is larger than five and smaller than seven inches, e.g. Galaxy Note, which could be said to have created this segment. I remember the negative reviews when the Note debuted; I remember thinking “that will never sell.”

Win some, lose some, am I right?


Image from Wikimedia

Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more phablets, and they’re growing popularity leads me to wonder why.

Beyond the allure of big screen, I’m not sure why people want such a big device. While in an airport, I got an interesting clue; I saw a person talking on a phablet, which looked comically uncomfortable until she went to the shoulder-chin cradle.

Physiologically, that makes sense. Holding any phone up to your ear for a prolonged period of time tires out the arm, which is why this plastic doodad exists. I think it’s called a telephone shoulder rest or something.


Wonder what future people will think we used this to do?

While the telephone shoulder rest has gone the way of the audio cassette tape and floppy diskette, the problem persists. Sure, headphones work, but sometimes, it’s just faster to put the phone up to your ear and go, assuming you even make phone calls.

In this instance, the phablet creates a bigger object to squeeze between your chin and shoulder.

Otherwise, I really don’t have a good understanding about the popularity of phablets. Do you?

Here are some other random observations from my recent time in airports.

  • I saw a netbook, and I’m still shocked.
  • The Blackberry diehards are disappearing. Used to be common to see them in airports, but not anymore, which can’t be good for RIM, erm Blackberry.
  • On the whole, people love cases for their devices, and surprisingly, at least to me, cases seem to be more for self expression than device protection.
  • I sat across from two 20-somethings for a good long time. Even though they buried their faces into their phones, the content on each device created a social interaction, like reverse sharing. Facebook and Twitter were created to share IRL activity online, but in a twist, online activity is creating IRL interactions. This is weird, but interesting, to me.
  • I saw a dude reading a newspaper on his iPad. It looked like a digital copy, probably pdf, of the print edition. I have no idea what to think of this; it boggles my mind.

Care to chime in or add your strange device observations? Your anecdote research is welcome here.

Find the comments.




  1. Decades ago, Mad magazine had some illustrations of how people would evolve into modern technology. The one that sticks in my head was this housewife yakking on the phone while stirring a pot, then she hangs up and her ear is totally flat (and shaped like Spock’s, this was before Star Trek).

    The paper I subscribe to and read on the train has a PDF edition like you describe – IIRC, it’s an extra trivial amount like $1 per month or something. I’m seriously considering buying some device instead of my next renewal. In other words, they’re shooting themselves in the foot with their damn paywall, why pay on the tubes? Well, I may be a minority of one with the “instead.” What’s been stopping me? Train wifi doesn’t do pix, I’m too cheap to pay for that much data over cell. So it would have to be an extra task to load things up while I’m rushing around to leave for the train. Maybe things will change.

    I’ve been seeing fewer people watch movies on the train, though perhaps more use earbuds so I don’t notice as much.

    I also see the IRL activity among my 17yo and his friends, sometimes over Skype. Even though I’ve worked in tech since 1980, I can’t help feeling the gap between his generation and mine is bigger than between mine and my Depression-era parents.

  2. @joel: Did you see some paper was going to give subscribers an Android tablet to read the paper on the go? Seemed odd, still does.

    Kids these days, get off my lawn, etc.

  3. I regularly read my hometown “papers” and a couple of magazines on my iPad. It’s even more convenient when traveling than it is at home since the iPad automatically downloads new issues directly into the app when I’m online and I can read them later offline – in the airport or even on the plane.

    They’re generally not PDFs, at least in the case of the larger news organizations. But yes, most Newspapers and magazines make their app look identical to the print edition. And yes, that is just plain stupid. But that’s because they actually see that as a positive – the Boston Globe describes their app in iTunes as “The ePaper is a full replica edition, including every article, and page as it appeared in print, including the Sunday Comics. ” (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-boston-globe-epaper/id511127322?mt=8). Stupid, but understandable given their world view.

    The other problem is that nearly all of the apps I’ve seen from newspapers and magazines are mediocre at best – zooming, panning, sharing articles, “clipping” or bookmarking articles, etc. They’re all slow, clunky, unintuitive, crash prone or some combination. Two notable exceptions are the NY Times (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nytimes-for-ipad/id357066198?mt=8) and Bloomberg Business Week (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/bloomberg-businessweek+/id421216878?mt=8) which keep the idea of sections but toss out the paper layout in favor of something more sensible for tablet consumption.

    They’re still not as good as something like Feedly. But it’s a start.

    But yeah, reading a newspaper or magazine on an iPad while sitting at the airport makes complete sense to me. Because I do it. And it’s great.

  4. Interesting. I was amazed (OK, I wasn’t) to see people lining up in the rain out Apple stores in San Francisco to get gold iPhones (5S) a couple of weeks ago. But then, pink (5C) does it for me, unlikely to ever need to join a line for that.

    I spend a lot of time on planes too, it can be very telling when the lights go down and you stroll back up the aisle from the rest room and see the glowing lights of tablets everywhere. Lots of games and videos being watched. Dont see much ‘work’ being done – the laptops come out for that.

    If you’ve ever traveled long distance with a kid you can really value the entertainment value of the iPad too. Worth the investment for kids.

    Definitely a blingin’ thing going on with cases for tablets too from what I can see. Nothing terribly outrageous tho- no Nicki Minaj iOS7 crazy colors style stuff, tends to be more taste and expense.

    Yet, there’s the whole requirement of having to take the iPad out of the case and put it in a tray for the X-ray machine (worldwide, not a TSA thing). Pardon me, but one of the original attractions for the device for travelers was that was not needed. What happened?! It hasn’t deterred users thankfully.

    Even airport vendors are getting in on the tablets act – Peets at SFO (South West gates) has a guy taking advance orders from the line by using a tablet from passengers who have their heads down in their own tablets. Gotta be a business case somewhere to cut out the middle man.

  5. @therealcmj: Reading makes sense to me. What didn’t really was the reproduction of the print edition. I didn’t get a good look, but it looked like it might have been an image, which would really blow my mind.

    I suppose I can see the utility of a familiar interface for tablet readers. Consistency is good, but to your point, the designer in me wishes these apps would leverage the platform better.

    There’s probably some shop that offers a quick hack for news outlets that don’t have the budgets of the NYT and Bloomberg.

  6. @Ultan: I agree the glow of screens in an airplane at night is interesting and telling, and you’re right about work being relegated to laptops.

    It’s a much different world now that the days of in-flight movies.

    And yes, +1 for entertaining children on airplanes, must have.

    Interesting point about international travel and tablet cases, had not heard that.

    The coffee advance order is genius. Someone call Noel; that experience would greatly benefit from commerce over BLE.

  7. @joel: Looks like The Financial Times gave away a Nexus 7 to new subscribers. The Times offered a discounted N7 to its new subs around the same time.

    I can’t seem to find the US one though. I recall it being a local rag somewhere, and this was before the N7. Need to do some deep web digging.

    Ah the irony, local newspapers outsourced to China.

  8. The reason they want tablets out of the bag for the X Ray machine is because of the cases, not the tablet themselves. I heard it directly from a security chap at Heathrow, apparently they found one of those iPad covers made of plastic explosives.

    Regarding large phones, I was at a party (There is a point to this, not just showing off that I go to parties) and several people said their large phone has meant they now hardly ever use a tablet anymore, it is just big enough to cover 90% of their surfing needs.

  9. @David: I suspected as much. You go to parties. Lucky man. Re. large phones, seems about right. It’s a slightly smaller, more functional tablet. Although I’d guess, those tablets go to kids or to other home-bound uses.

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