A story posted on the CNET Web site for August 22 might have gone unnoticed – except that it shows that the tide is now flowing the other way when it comes to smartphones and tablets.
By “tide,” I mean market forces and analyst predictions. The former is showing a decided preference for ever-larger smartphone screens, while the latter is prematurely writing the epitaph for notebook and laptop computers.
When the first iPads burst onto the market, everyone had to have one. There was nothing like it, and what we know as a smartphone was still in the toddler stage, with small screens and limited ability to take photos and stream videos.
Indeed; as recently as two years ago, analysts were predicting that sales of desktop PCs would eventually fizzle out and notebook computers would follow in short order. To some extent, they were right – you can now buy high-powered notebooks for less than $500, a consequence of lowered demand and an oversupply of components, including LCD screens.
But analysts are often more wrong than right, and they definitely got it wrong with the future of larger smartphone screens. “No one will buy a phone with a 5-inch screen. And a 6-inch screen? That’s crazy!” they thundered.
Um, guys – The hottest category now for smartphones is that same 5-inch to 6-inch screen size category. Apple’s sold plenty of iPhone 6s, as has Samsung with their Galaxy 5 and 6. I upgraded from a Motorola Droid Razr Maxx (4.7” OLED screen) to a Galaxy 5 (5.5” OLED screen) last December, and love it. I rarely make calls with it, but I do text, take pictures, shoot video, use sports scores, and even read newspapers while having breakfast or when traveling.
The ever-larger size of smartphones, combined with a somewhat stagnant market for phone sales, has depressed the sales forecasts for tablets. According to the CNET article, “Sales of slate-style tablets are expected to fall 8 percent, according to a report from research firm Strategy Analytics. Sales in Apple’s iPad business, meanwhile, fell 18 percent year over year in its most recent quarter, the sixth consecutive quarterly decline.”
How fast things change. Back in early 2014, tablet sales were forecast to grow 18% by the end of the year. Now, we’re seeing the numbers run in reverse. And part of the problem is that people don’t turn over tablets as fast as they do phones – my wife still uses an iPad 2 from 2011, although the battery is starting to go.
I have a Barnes & Noble Nook HD that’s also vintage 2011 and hardly gets any use anymore, thanks to my new Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.4. Somewhere in a drawer, I have a Nook reader with “Glowlight” that crapped out about six months ago. (And my wife’s Nook Tablet, vintage 2010, still works just fine.)
So, where’s the growth in mobile computing devices? Looks like it’s now happening with so-called “2 in 1s;” devices that combine a detachable keyboard with a larger tablet screen. Microsoft’s Surface Pro is one example; Lenovo’s Yoga Pro is another. The CNET article says that sales of these devices are expected to grow by 5x this year over last, and new processors such as Intel’s Core M give them CPU speeds comparable to midrange laptops.
In terms of turnover, tablets are lasting 5 to 7 years. (Not good news for Apple, I suspect!) Smartphones are still driven by the length of service contracts, nominally 2 years. But Intel claims that buyers of 2-in-1s are turning over laptops and notebooks much more frequently – on average, 18 to 24 months.
We’ve also seen much sales of much larger tablet screens pick up. Samsung’s 10.4-inch Galaxy Tab is popular, and the CNET story mentions a rumor that Apple plans to unveil a 13-inch iPad Pro this fall. (No word on whether it will have a detachable keyboard, a feature that Apple has resisted for now.)
The demand for the Surface Pro product stands in stark contrast to its earlier failures at launch three years ago. (Wow, has it been THAT long?) At one point, the company had hundreds of thousands of unsold units sitting in warehouses, no doubt due to the public’s emphatic rejection of Windows 8 software.
Now, Surface Pros are a popular product, and can run special versions of Office software. With gradual acceptance of cloud-based storage as opposed to CD drives, these tablets are quite powerful, thin, and lightweight.
A move to larger screens on smartphones can’t continue indefinitely: The 6-inch Galaxy is about the largest phone size I can fit into a shirt or pants pocket, so we may be hitting a wall in that area (although I have heard of plans by one Chinese brand to come out with an 8-inch 4K smartphone!).
So if any device will be sacrificed on the CE altar, it will be mid-sized tablets – 7 to 9 inches – and that’s already happening, based on market numbers. As the owner of a still-running Toshiba 10.4” notebook with OS 7, I’m intrigued by the idea of replacing all of that weight with a same-size tablet and keyboard – and a higher-resolution display, too.
For AV connectivity, the market switch creates its own headaches. Micro HDMI? MHL? Lightning? In all likelihood, the interface of choice will become wireless, most likely using 5 GHz Wi-Fi channel bonding technology for more reliable video streaming. Or, we may see some early adopters of 60 GHz wireless links for “2-in-1s,” using the 802.11ad protocol or SiBEAM’s Snap wireless docking system.
Keep your eye on the new USB 3.0 Type-C connector. This could be a game-changer: Like Lightning, it is symmetrical and thus reversible. It can carry high-speed data (up to 10 Gb/s), DC power for charging, and in Alternate Mode, transport display signals like DisplayPort 1.3 (packet) and superMHL (TMDS).
It’s a good bet that as the market ramps up production of “2-in-1s,” they’ll include the Type-C interface and probably drop everything else except power connections. For that matter, Type-C is in a position to displace everything from Mini DisplayPort to HDMI as it is the closest thing we’ll have to a do-everything, universal I/O connector going forward.
As for picking winners and losers in the smartphone/tablet/notebook/laptop game, better leave that to the “experts.’ They’re just as confused as anyone else…
Posted by Pete Putman, August 26, 2015 11:23 AM
About Pete PutmanPeter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.
Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.