Take a look at Apple’s iPhone. Other than incremental updates and improvements, an iPhone is basically just like any other iPhone. Apple has it easy in that it doesn’t have to compete with any other manufacturer. Unfortunately, that also limits the options Apple can offer. Many will claim this is a weakness, others will claim it’s a strength. Truth be told, it’s probably a bit of both. But what of the other players in the game? Windows Phones come in a variety of configurations, but the wildcard is Android. Devices powered by Android can come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, in particular smartphones and tablets. Other than their screen sizes, are they really all that different? Or are phablets unimaginative ways that OEMs are differentiating their products from everyone else?
For the purpose of this article, “hardware” is the set of components that goes into a device including the processor, GPU, amounts of RAM and storage space, battery, and screen technology and resolution. We’re not necessarily talking about the size of the device in this section, we’ll save that for later on.
Generally speaking, the hardware that drives our mobile devices doesn’t vary much between smartphone, phablet, and tablet. Of course, as time progresses, the technology under the hood progresses as well. That’s to be expected, but when looking at a given OEM’s current line-up, the “Holy Trinity” of components (CPU, GPU, and RAM) isn’t very dissimilar. Though there are peripheral differences such as the inclusion or omission of a stylus, fingerprint scanner, quality and resolution of the camera, battery capacity, and other minutia. It’s not easy to differentiate one product from another when you’re taking about GHz, mega-flops, and why one type of RAM is somehow “better” than another.
Then there is the screen, which moves us right into form-factor.
The size of the device, the positioning of its buttons, the quality and resolution of its screen — all these fall into the category of “form-factor”. Form-factor, put simply, is the physical size and shape of the device, but it goes into so much more than what its definition implies. Form-factor is arguably the most important “component” in any piece of consumer electronics. Why? It’s that un-quantifiable je ne sais quoi that Pocketnow reviewers sum up as “it feels good in the hand”, or something along those lines. It’s hard to say why something feels good and functions well as a piece of tangible equipment, it just does — or it doesn’t.
When talking about the mobile devices we carry with us from day to day, it’s the form-factor that most interests us. We have to use our devices, interact with them. Hold them. Touch them. The have to “fit” each of us, individually, otherwise they just feel odd and uncomfortable. Here it’s very much the screen size that sets each device off from its siblings and its competitors — and rightly so. It’s what we focus all our attention and efforts into, once that device is our-of-pocket and held in-hand.
But something just isn’t right when it comes to the proverbial hand-off from physical form-factor, to the user-experience of the software which powers our devices.
Software is where the battles should be fought. There is a difference between a smartphone and a tablet. The way in which we interact with both is different. One is up close and personal, held in one hand and operated with the other. The other is more distant, held with two hands (or none at all), and operated with both. Phablets are somewhere in between, but we haven’t even figured out how to get tablet UI’s “right”, and we’re already introducing a third?
Tablets should have windowed experiences where the user is able to work between multiple apps at once, not simply swapping between them, but actually, physically involved in each of them simultaneously. Not every app requires this (games and other programs that are immersive and deserving of all your attention, for example), but many — dare I say “most”? — do. We simply do not have this missing piece today — on any platform.
Fighting the wrong battle
We’re distracted by size. Screen size. Device size. None of it matters — not yet anyway, at least it shouldn’t matter. The battle should be focused on software, and fixing the user experience that is currently a one-size-fits-all approach, with the smartphone being the universal solution for everything. It’s not. Nor should it be. But that’s what we’re stuck with.
Is competing on size really that unimaginative? Isn’t there a big advantage to a bigger screen? The answer to both is sadly yes. However, until we have an ecosystem that takes advantage of utilizing those bigger screens in a manner that makes phablets and tablets more than just big smartphones, we’re fighting the wrong battle.