By Stephen Schenck | October 18, 2012 8:20 AM
Microsoft finds itself at the start of a new push into the mobile electronics sector, with both the arrival of Windows Phone 8 smartphones and Windows RT tablets just around the corner. While the combination of those two will expose Microsoft to some new customers, I can’t help but notice the lack of devices falling in the middle. Will we see Microsoft embrace the five-to-seven-inch range, where we find the so-called “phablets”? At least for the near future, I’ve got to argue that such a move sounds pretty unlikely.
Not In The Coming Months…
It’s no surprise that Microsoft has been slow to react to the changing face of mobile devices; Windows Phone handsets have lagged behind their competition in terms of hardware advancements and connectivity options, and Windows RT marks the first time Microsoft’s thrown itself head-first into the tablet sphere, rather than trying to force its existing products to fit that hole. As such, it’s not a company to rush into things, and phablets might still carry a good deal of uncertainty in its eyes.
After all, while we’ve seen how five-to-seven-inch devices like the Galaxy Note can be commercial successes, you can count the number of such success stories on one hand, and while new models like HTC’s Butterfly are on the horizon, the market is just warming-up to them. Considering how far behind its competition Microsoft is with smartphones and tablets, I can’t see it racing forward to a new slice of the market before it’s convinced that there’s something there worth pursuing; for now, conventional phones and tablets sound like its safest bets.
Of course, I can’t really talk about a Windows phablet without thinking about who might make such a device, and what it would run. I’ve been approaching this with the understanding that it would be a Microsoft-branded device, like the Surface tablets. Based on what we’ve heard recently about why Microsoft needs to concentrate on its own hardware sales, that seems like the sensible position to take, but could an OEM partner be the one to come forward with such a device?
Again, I have my doubts, and just why has a little to do with the platform issue. Even with new HD resolution support, Windows Phone 8 wasn’t presumably designed with screens this size in mind, and I imagine that such an implementation would struggle to look very comfortable in its own skin. At best, it would look like a super-sized smaller phone, and I don’t think that’s a desired outcome. As a result, I don’t expect any of the WP8 OEMs to come forward with such hardware.
What about Windows RT, though? Let’s ignore the issue of voice calls for a second and just think about tablet-like hardware. This actually sounds more likely, and considering how many companies seem interested in RT tablets, it’s not inconceivable that one might think about a mini-sized version. That could lead to something like a seven-inch RT tablet, but I don’t think we’ll see RT-based hardware push below that size.
…But Maybe Someday
So, what would need to happen for a Windows phablet to exist? It has to be Windows Phone-based, and that’s going to mean Microsoft putting some time into looking at how users will interact with the platform on a device this size. I can’t say exactly what it might focus on, but issues like stylus support spring to mind. Sure, there’s not a lot that I think would need to change, but I can’t imagine Microsoft not taking a good, long time to consider the impact of larger devices on platform usability.
Let’s say that Microsoft starts thinking about this niche, and works on Windows Phone 8.5 with such concerns in mind. What then? This might be our chance to see the fabled Microsoft-made Windows Phone arrive.
Coming to the game this late, Microsoft’s going to want to make an impression, and what better way than with hardware that totally stands aside from what’s currently available for the platform? Then it’s less a case of being tardy, and more one of taking its time to get something new done right. A year from now, we’ll have a better sense of the market’s taste for phablet-sized hardware, and the time might be right for Microsoft to finally release a model along these lines.
I don’t want to discount the possibility that we’ll ever see a Windows Phone phablet, but the the climate just doesn’t feel right at the moment for a five-to-seven-inch model. Give Microsoft some time to get comfortable with tablets, and its users time to acclimate themselves to using those Windows RT tablets alongside their WP8 smartphones, and I can see it finally taking steps to fill the gap between them another year or two down the line.