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Here’s why tablets (yes, tablets!) will replace the smartphone

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I’m sure to get the “you’re off your rocker” commentary on this one, but I make a living by looking ahead in the world of mobile technology. And what I see now is a trend that I have watched build for nearly half a dozen years. Thanks to the pace of mobile-network expansion, new audio and video technologies, the expansion of Wi-Fi, and more-capable hardware that runs longer on a single charge, I expect the tablet to begin replacing the smartphone within the next half a dozen years. There, I said it.

Hopefully you’re either done laughing at me or you’ve refrained from the “no way, you idiot!” comment and are still reading. Cool. Now I get a chance to explain my thoughts so we can have a useful conversation on the topic. We can agree to disagree, but there are a few reasons I see this happening.

Our dependence on mobile media consumption is growing

This won’t surprise anyone, but now that traditional video — think movies and TV shows in addition to YouTube(s goog) content and the Olympic Games — is more readily accessible on mobile devices, screen size and video quality become more important. Why watch the content on a small, low-resolution screen when you can watch it on a high-definition screen that’s still easily portable? There’s just no point in doing so, nor is it likely to be preferred.

I believe this reason has already been driving the desire for larger smartphone screens, not the need for more components in the devices nor bigger batteries, although that’s a nice side benefit. People want to have a not only mobile but also immersive experience. Don’t take just my opinion on that: See T-Mobile’s recent survey showing that 77 percent of the respondents want larger smartphones. And I may be reaching on this, but I’m not surprised that Amazon(s amzn) rolled out its Instant Video app for the iPad before bringing it to the smaller screens of the iPhone and iPod touch.

Voice on a tablet isn’t as bad as you’d think

I know this because I’ve done it. I took my Galaxy Tab 3G with a data-only SIM card and used it as my primary phone for a few months and later did the same with my Galaxy Nexus phone. To do this, I had to set up Google Voice and Skype(s msft) forwarding, but in the future it won’t be a difficult prospect. In fact, the original Galaxy Tab actually has cellular voice capabilities, but the U.S. carriers stripped it out. In Europe, I know several people who used the Tab as their main phone.

Sure, you’re not going to hold up the tablet to your ear. I have done that before just for fun and I deserved to be laughed at. Not because it looked stupid, however, but because I wasn’t taking advantage of simple options such as the speakerphone, wired headphones or Bluetooth headsets. These solutions have been around on phones for years, and guess what? They still work. Additionally, our use of video chat continues to grow, which brings me back to the immersive experience: Why see just a small, low-res picture of who you’re chatting with when you can see a larger, high-res video?

One more related aspect: Voice calling has moved far beyond the traditional phone. As Nimbuzz hitting 100 million users this week shows, we want communications to come to us, regardless of the device we use. These days I make and receive more phone calls from my computer than I do from my phone. Google Voice routes the calls to where I’m working and the device I’m working on, and I simply take the calls from my Mac, PC or Chromebook. When not working, those calls can be routed through any number of VoIP services to other phones or my tablets. The same applies to video. Thinking of the phone as the central method for communication is like thinking today’s living room is the central place to consume entertainment content.

The user interface is moving beyond pocketable screens

Look at how voice interaction is starting to become part of our digital world. We’re in the early stages — from an end-user consumer view, that is — of speaking to our devices and having them follow our commands or look up information. This trend is going to pick up steam, and I’ve even gone on record that audio-control platforms such as Siri could become the invisible interface of the future. Instead of different visual platforms, icons to tap and pages to navigate, the common denominator can be speech.

It’s actually happening today in automobiles, and that’s a key example. Why? Because although we shouldn’t be using our smartphones or our tablets while driving, cars are using the apps and connectivity of these devices for in-car entertainment, directions, social networking and more. All of a sudden, the screen size matters less because we’re not looking at the screen. So we won’t need a smaller device to tote when driving or doing other activities.

Tablets can do the same things as smartphones, only better

I always turn to my tablet before my smartphone if possible. Why? The tablet experience is simply better for browsing, apps, email and nearly everything else I can think of. Much like we’re shifting computer tasks to mobile apps on devices, our smartphone activities can easily shift over to tablets for this reason. My podcast co-host Matt Miller noted this in a post illustrating what smartphone activities he has migrated over to the Nexus 7 tablet, and I suspect that list will grow in the future.

In fact, I can’t think of a single digital activity that’s better on a smartphone than on a tablet. You could reasonably argue that voice calling is, but my suspicion is that most who say that haven’t yet tried to use a tablet for such communication. But GPS navigation? Web browsing? Gaming? Reading? With few exceptions — say, capturing photos or video — I think most will say these are better on tablets. And they are activities that are likely to improve even more; the tablet market is in a far earlier stage of its maturity than smartphones are.

Naysayers are still judging based on today’s use cases, not tomorrow’s

So the obvious main retort to my thought process is surely going to be, “But you can’t put a tablet in your pocket! Who’s going to carry a tablet everywhere?” And my answers are, “So what?” and “You will, and if you don’t your kids will.” Simply put, we can’t think about today’s constraint of needing to put a mobile device in a pocket. We only put phones in our pockets when we’re not using them. Guess what? We’re using them more and more, which means they’re in our pockets less and less. Another observation? I’ve read comment after comment of people saying “I take it everywhere” after buying a 7-inch or comparably sized tablet, even if they were never interested in the form factor before. And on a nontechnical note, I remember carrying the old DayTimer paper organizers; think of a personal digital assistant that wasn’t digital at all. It couldn’t fit in a pocket and yet it went everywhere.

Think about tomorrow’s world: As the demand for apps, the mobile web and cloud-stored data increase — something that’s already skyrocketing — we will be connected more and more in the future. Will we be constantly staring a mobile device? Probably not, as we’ll still need to walk around without bumping into things or getting run over, but that’s what Google’s Project Glass is all about: Staying connected while on the go. My point is that in the future, we will surely be relying on our mobile devices more than we do today. And just five years ago, the “take everywhere” device for most people was a laptop. Now we’re gaining laptop-like features on tablets that are easier to carry around and last all day on a single charge.

So when will this happen for you?

It’s possible you have read this far and still think I’m whacked. No problem; I don’t take it personally. My goal is to consider the future, get the conversation started, and have you help me consider this possibility. And this isn’t about the iPad versus the Nexus 7 or any other tablets on the market. Buy what you want and use it how it best suits you. But I urge you to see what I think is the writing on the wall. It may not be our current generation that can get past the pocketability of a phone, but I suspect it will be the next one at the latest. After all, you couldn’t pocket the first phones either, and look how that turned out. And if you need another example, just look at how well the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note is selling alongside rumors of an even larger follow-up product.

How will we know when the tablet begins to replace the phone? I’ll be keeping any eye on the sales of both devices. Once tablet sales approach those of smartphones, we’ll see the inflection point of change. I give it five years.

152 Responses to “Here’s why tablets (yes, tablets!) will replace the smartphone”

  1. This won’t happen. People don’t and never will want to have to carry a Bluetooth or pair of headphones just to talk to someone. It’s too cumbersome. God forbid you can fin the Bluetooth or headphones. You will have to walk around talking on speaker phone all day.

    When I want to make a quick call, I want to be able to jus pick up my cell phone and make a call, not have to plug in headphones then dial.

    What I think tablets could replace is home phones, not cell phones.

  2. After getting my n7, if I was able to have a lte flip phone with basic app capabilities (g+, instagram, email, maybe a small video chat) and use my tablet for the rest, that I’d be happy…

  3. Himanshu Khanna

    I do see your point. However, you cant fit a tablet in your dress pants (even if you are able to, its not pretty convenient). Coupled with the fact that bluetooth headphones are not “Sexy” and expensive, the adoption rate will suffer. The only way I see this happening is with solutions like the PadPhone from ASUS. Imagine if Samsung comes up with a screen with inbuilt phone dock which is compatible with Galaxy S, II and III, it will fly off the shelves. All you would have to do is buy the dock, use it as a tablet when you can, and use as a phone when you cant.

  4. I’ve read the comments and a lot of people keep talking about the size issue of tablets. Call me ‘whacked’ but the answer is a fashion piece, a shoulder holster for tablets that allows you to slide in and remove with ease.

    Google glasses and holographic displays are fantastic, but what do you do in the meantime—you use a tablet for video, audio and the occasional call.

  5. You’re arguments are good, but you’re forgetting the 800 lb gorilla in the room – capped data plans. Carriers still only offer these tied together to voice and smartphone usage habits, and not tablet (and larger) device applications. Remember AT&T’s argument of how 2GB/month was acceptable for smartphones? You’ll be pushing more than that with a larger HD display and a quad-core processor eating through your data feed.

    You could of course rightly argue that a 10-20GB shared plan being sold today is good enough for a tablet. But you will either be looking at using a tablet with 3G/4G built-in to do that (expensive and rare for a 7 inch) or tote a smartphone around to tether.

    And then there’s the third option – use a 3G/4G tablet with a basic $20 Nokia with prepaid voice. I’ve thought of going that route myself, and might try it once I find a 7″ tablet that does what I need.

    • Luscious, if you ever need a job reference for a pro-consumer network operator lobbyist position, just ping me. ;) Anyway, data plans continue to evolve, changing more than most people realize. Over the long term, that will continue to happen and we’ll be moving to more efficient wireless networks. Will carriers still cap or “overcharge” us? Perhaps, but that same constraint will apply to smartphones as well as tablets.

  6. Nep Cruz

    I think you nailed it. The time will come when tablets will take over activities where smartphones are now king.

    I remember the time when a smartphone with 2.5 inch screen was great (this is the time when it was the biggest) then they came out with screens of varying sizes. When iphone came out, the ballgame changed.

    When some manufacturers came out with a 4 inch display, I though it was ridiculously big. Who would want to hold that over his ears when speaking with someone? But when I began using one, it grew on me pretty quick. Now, even a smartphone with a 4.3 inch display does not cut it anymore.

    We want bigger display. That’s the concensus among people that I know. The table is it. A lot of people here have already switch to Samsung tablet to do what they normally do with their phones e.g. Surf, sms, calls etc. (Samsung tablets here in our country have full phone functionality).

    We might see your prediction come to pass sooner that we all think, And who knows, somebody might invent a folding tablet so some people can fit it in their pocket.

  7. This is exactly what will happen and it will be made standard by the younger generation. My kids never go anywhere without the iPad; in fact my daughter was commenting that she would like to have a tablet as her “go to” device in place of a smartphone.

    You aren’t whacked out, congrats on a prescient column.

  8. Thanks for a thought provoking article but I would like to counter tour points if I may. Firstly, we need to ask ourselves what the differences are between a smart phone and a tablet. For this discussion you focused on form factor amongst other variables so lets stick with this to answer this question. whilst I agree things will change in the future e.g. Google glass, wearable and foldable technology your premise that a “tablet” will replace a smart phone whilst we still have what we traditionally call smart phone and tablet form factors is in my opinion not correct. You call mobility/pocketability a constraint. It is a benefit and a major one at that. You only considered it a constraint because you wish to propose the replacement of one device with another. You also discuss that we can’t use previous use cases to measure future ones but your article is peperred with them. The filofax not being pocketable is now a constraint that has been passed by and people value thus benefit and are not likely to carry a device around as much if this value is not there. So the Galaxy note even at 5.6 inches will be popular not because we are moving to tablets but because it provides an awesome viewing experience whilst still being pocketable.

    • Great thoughts, thanks for sharing. You mention a 5.6-inch Galaxy Note will be popular (and I would agree), but not a tablet. So, what’s the biggest sized phone (or smallest tablet) that would still be appealing to people? No right answer here, just curious to your opinion. Thx!

  9. “Simply put, we can’t think about today’s constraint of needing to put a mobile device in a pocket.”

    Yes We Can!

    Resistance against objects that don’t fit in our pockets isn’t today’s constraint; it has a long, long history.

    Try this experiment:

    Go to Google Street View in an area with a good deal of foot traffic (Northern California or the Lower East Side don’t count) and count up who does and who is and who isn’t lugging around a bag or large object with them.

    After looking around myself, I would conclude that the tablet could, some day, largely replace the phone for women, but never for men. Suits who are still tied to briefcases, students with backpacks, and hipsters who love something strapped across their shoulders will have that option. But the rest of the man part of mankind is clinging to the unencumbered life, and the horrible inadequacy of smartphones isn’t about to change that.

    • Fair point! I still think the more we rely on web services and apps, the more we’ll have a device in our hands (or on our wrist / eyes / etc….) which means less time in the pocket. We’ll have to wait and see – thanks!

  10. Robert Horvitz

    Kevin, I suspect you are right but you didn’t mention one crucial aspect of the tablet vs smartphone choice:

    Most people want WiFI ONLY tablets.

    These outsell dual-mode tablets by a very wide margin, and cellular-only tablets are disappearing from the marketplace altogether.

    If tablets replace smartphones, can Wi-Fi replace cellular?

    • Great point, Robert! Let’s think about why folks prefer Wi-Fi only tablets though: I think the top reason is that they don’t want yet another data plan or huge monthly bill. If the tablet (one with 3G/4G) replaces the smartphone, however, that monthly bill stays the same due to the replacement. We’ll have to watch and see how the shared data plans and such play into this. Thx!

    • I agree and have a Wi-Fi only tablet now while using my EVO 4G phone as a hotspot. No need for two data plans. The phone is always with me because it’s small and fits in my pocket. The tablet is only with me outside of the house if I might need it.

  11. keninca

    You make a lot of good points, but as much as I like my tablets, I don’t want to carry them everywhere. I do put my phones in pockets when I am not using them (or on the console of a car), and that’s not possible with a tablet. However, the tablets will be used a lot more, I just don’t see them obsoleting smartphones.

    And when holographic projectors are available, they will be put inside smartphones the size of a stack of credit cards, and they will obsolete tablets.

    • Holographic projectors? Bah! I say we just teleport to someone’s location to speak with them. ;) Seriously, I’ve been challenged with the whole “carrying the tablet” thing, but once I got past that, it provided a far more enjoyable everyday experience for the tasks I need to do. Of course, during my 425 day running streak, I carried a phone in my hand on every run (including 4 half marathons), so I’m pretty tolerant of carrying my devices around. I agree most people aren’t today.

  12. There may be a shift towards increased tablet use (replacing the Smartphone), but the simple fact that a Smartphone fits (EASILY) into a pocket, will keep them around for a long, long time.

  13. Gregg Borodaty

    I disagree that tablets replace smartphones based upon today’s technology. For example, who wants to be lugging around a tablet while at a baseball game or out at a bar/nightclub. The smartphone form factor fills a very important niche. I’ve had many conversations with people who say they use their tablet at home all the time (instead of their smartphone), but it never leaves the house.

    However, the points you raise are all spot on, and technology that is either in development, such as flexible displays or Google glasses that other commenters pointed out, or technology that we haven’t yet imagined will allow us to enjoy the tablet benefits in both form factors. That day can’t get here fast enough for me!

    • True, most due opt for smartphone, not tablet, when leaving the house. Part of that reason is the lugging around factor you mention while the other is lack of voice support; people can’t be unreachable in this day!

  14. Actually, I expect that the tablet, the laptop, and the smartphone will all be supplanted by some future evolution of the Google Glass concept. A pair of normal looking glasses that incorporates a heads up display capable of projecting a large HD quality video in your field of view, and a MS Kinect type of sensor to read your hand motions and allow you to interact with the application or content floating invisibly in front of you. Couple that with voice response, wireless connectivity, voice communications, and all of the things we use smartphones for today. For video conferencing, perhaps the glasses connect to a wireless camera in your wristwatch that you hold up Dick Tracy style. All of your data lives in the cloud, and 4G and wifi facilitate your access to it everywhere. People don’t want bigger screens, people want bigger images and bigger movies. And you can do that with a tiny screen placed close to the eye that weighs next to nothing and vanishes when you aren’t using it.

    I think in the future our data access device will be tiny and seamlessly integrated into our lives, It will be something you wear rather than something you carry around.

    The only reason cell phones are everywhere today is that the technology improved from something that had to be carried in a 10lb shoulder bag or installed in a car, to something smaller than a candy bar that slips into your pocket. If people could make a phone call by simply telling their sunglasses to call their friend, they’d never carry a phone again.

  15. Nicholas

    I don’t make many calls admittedly, and as I was testing out the Dell Streak (Thank goodness they are out of the mobile business!) I considered the same trends.

    I now disagree that tablets are better. More is better. The device I want to carry is better. That does come down to the best 4 inch screen available, personally. And, when my wallet wraps around the device it is better yet.

    The Streak was lost in a cab, because it didn’t quite fit well in my pocket. We will have large devices, and small devices, and devices that fit just right. A personal network hub is likewise out of my thinking. Everything will be connected, which is why services are so critical.

  16. While I generally agree with the premise of the article and the general idea, I think this won’t really happen in the literal sense, but in a more subtle way.

    Tablets will pick up more of the use cases that appeared first around the modern smartphone, but they can’t replace all of them.

    Any time we want to go somewhere without carrying a bag (e.g. party, exercise), the smartphone will tag along in a pocket and the tablet will stay home.

    Voice calls are not supported pretty much all tablets and that will remain a deal breaker for most people until mobile broadband will allow IP video calls to replace voice.

    And finally, voice calls and taking pictures with a tablet are not going to look cool any time soon.

    • Good points on the carrying of different devices George. The voice/video over data future isn’t that far away, however, in my opinion; of course, it’s highly dependent on the rollout of true, IP-based 4G networks.

  17. Jeff Lomax

    I think you make some great points, but I can’t get past the required ‘form factor’ required for carrying the thing around and putting the thing away. Could we, instead, be looking at a future where the device is iphone sized, but virtual keyboards and displays could project and provide the info and interaction you’ve described?

    • Could happen as you suggest, Jeff. One small digital device as a “hub” that expands beyond the display for input and output. Those solutions typically require flat surfaces and such, which limit their use everywhere, so until that issue is resolved, I don’t see widespread adoption.

  18. Hi to everybody…I’m not english so excuse me for my grammar mistakes. I want to know some websites that talk about technology(PC,Mac,Tablet,Smartphones,Hardaware)…thank you for who will help me :)

  19. Jack N Fran Farrell

    iPhones are just small tablets. Right sized (mini) iPads are the first real Apple tablet.

    Mountain Lion is a good copy of the first system, Android 4.0, with built in cloud support. By October, Apple should be positioning a very light and almost mobile thin-client laptop to replace both Macs and iPads.

  20. Nashib Qadri

    Kevin, I agree whole heartedly with some of the points you make and seriously considered a tablet + 3G but decided against it for portability reasons. I have both and I can tell you that I really don’ think the tablet is as portable as the phone and for that one reason alone, people will be comfortable with both devices.

    The apps that will win in the market are the one that will give you a seamless cross-device experience and that will let people continue their multi-device existence.

    And for the record, you may be whacked, but I don’t think so .

    • Totally understand your decision, Nashib. It’s true a pocketable device is “more portable” than one that’s carried in the hand, but I’ve found it doesn’t take long to get used to carrying a small slate all the time. And for the record: thank you. (But even *I* think I’m a little whacked!) :)

  21. Jack N Fran Farrell

    Exactly right. Handheld devices with enough pixels to compare with 3×5″ and 5×8″ Kodak photo-prints are the wave of the future. Knowledgeable uses of voice, facial, photo, book, PDF and at least 34 other forms of digital data will be stored, co-edited and laughed over in business and social setting.

    • maspiers

      The screen size of the Note is almost the same as a 3×5 photo, so we’re almost there.
      And with a TTS mic/headphone set supplied, you don’t need bluetooth to use it without having to hold it up to your ear.
      Two things stopped me getting a larger tablet: portability and availability of ones with 3G

  22. If this is a legit scenario, then the first 1/4″ thick, 7-8 inch diagonal tablet that folds in half and can be used as a phone from your pocket, will be the winner. Bluetooth will have to improve.

    Of course, there is still the Google glass paradigm.

  23. Mcbeese

    Another reason why you may be right is that synchronous voice communication is becoming a smaller percentage of our overall communication activity. That trend will cause the ideal form factor for our mobile devices to shift.

    However, I don’t ever see myself – or most people – lugging a tablet around when they’re at the store, in bars, etc.. Difficult to predict how things will change.

  24. Matthew Phillips

    I agree tablets are the convergence point of the future. However, I think you might have missed one large factor in their future rise in popularity: that is flexible displays. The pocketability issue disolves if you can roll-up your tablet and store it. After that, the only limiting factor on size and portability is weight.

  25. John S. Wilson

    I don’t think this will happen for a bunch of reasons, but here are two.

    1) They serve different purposes, and people are OK with that.

    2) Bluetooth headsets still are not very popular. Majority of people I know still don’t use them even if they own them.

    • Christina

      I don’t know where you live but in CA you have to use bluetooth…plus when your career is hrs on the rd dealing with traffic it’s the norm..having spent a professional career in Telecommunications I guarantee an all-in-one device is our present and future…Japan is already there.

  26. michael hershfield

    Totally agree. Ironic that if you sit back & think about it, the tablet just works all the way around from an intuitive perspective. The apps & overall experience is just better on a tablet.

    Put headphones on & the cumbersome factor of a tablet as a phone vanishes.

    Samsung appears to be juggling two brand wars.

    1) Poistioning the Galaxy 3 as “the” IPhone alternative, out of its stable of phones.

    2) Introducing the hybrid Note as the future of mobile communications.

    These are major efforts & not easy. There are complex consumer perceptions to deal with on both fronts.

    Interesting that in such a high tech world, the answer (tablet), is such a clearly no-brainer solution when the dust settles down the road.