Tablets, Phablets: Form Factors and the Influence on Developers

recent study from analytics firm Flurry, which follows movement on over one billion smartphones and tablets around the world on a monthly basis, gave some intriguing insights on which form factors are getting the most traction with consumers, especially in regards to app usage:

“According to a report from Flurry Analytics, smartphones around the size of Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone experience the most regular usage among users. Devices with screen sizes between 3.5-inches and 4.9-inches were found to account for 69% of data usage, compared to smaller smartphones such as BlackBerrys (BBRY) at 16% and larger screen handsets, commonly referred to as “phablets,” at 2% of usage. When the data was broken down further, it was discovered that phablets only account for 7% of data on all Android devices, compared to 70% from normal sized devices. The research firm suggests that larger-screened phones are a fad, however with more companies releasing devices with 5-inch or higher displays, usage could increase in the coming years.”  - “Phablets called a fad that will eventually succumb to iPhone-sized devices”, BGR.com

There are a wide variety of screen sizes and devices - over 200 device models as measured by active users in the Flurry analytics models – in use, anything from tiny smartphones to full-size tablets. Five groups emerged in this study:

  1. Small phones (e.g., most Blackberries), 3.5” or under screens
  2. Medium phones (e.g., iPhone), between 3.5” - 4.9” screens
  3. Phablets (e.g., Galaxy Note), 5.0” - 6.9” screens
  4. Small Tablets (e.g., Kindle Fire), 7.0” - 8.4” screens
  5. Full-size tablets (e.g., the iPad), 8.5” or greater screens

 

Looking at hardware form factors as far as tablets and smartphones, what are consumers really using? Just because there’s a lot of devices doesn’t necessarily trickle down to a good idea of how these form factors are actually being used in real life. For example, Flurry compared the device install base with the number of active users per app session. The smaller screens accounted for 16% of devices on the market; while a mere 7% are deemed “active devices”. For tablets, Flurry found that the opposite was actually true. Tablets didn’t grab as much market share as their smaller counterparts, but they command far greater active users and active sessions.

Diving in deeper to this study, we can see that smaller-screened devices such as the BlackBerry make up about 16% of active device models, while "phablets," 7 to 8.4-inch tablets, and 8.5-inch and above tablets made up 2, 6, and 7 percent of device models measured in these analytics.

Do people use more apps on tablets? “Use” being the operative word; other usage studies have shown that smartphone users tend to download something, use it once (maybe!) then disengage quickly. Tablet users tend to be more engaged with the content that they are consuming, and that coincides with what Flurry’s study found with app usage trends across form factors. The report seems to conclude that tablets and other medium-sized devices are where developers should be concentrating their resources the most, and not on phablets (smartphones with larger screens) or smaller-screened phones.

Usability

The sweet spot seems to be devices with 3.5-inch to 4.9-inch screens, such as Apple’s iPhone. Does that mean that larger screens on smartphones are on their way out? It’s way too early for that kind of speculation. Asking around, you’re going to get wildly differing reactions from different people; users like the larger screens on smartphones because of their mobility and portability, they can do everything that a tablet can do but they are also a phone, so you don’t need to carry two devices

While there are definitely some good takeaways in this report, it also seems to conflict with other industry analysts who have predicted great growth for the phablet:

“According to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, the monthly data traffic for every smartphone will rise fourfold between now and 2018 to 1,900 megabytes. The upshot is a market for phablets that will quadruple in value to $135 billion in three years, according to Barclays. Shipments of gadgets that are 5 inches or bigger in screen size will surge by nearly nine-fold to 228 million during the same period, though estimates vary because no one can agree on where smartphones stop and phablets start. "It makes sense that we're moving towards a time where we are served not by a computer or a netbook or a phone, but rather that we have these screens scattered around and available for us to play with," he said. "In a way the phablet is not a bulky phone but a very delicate computer." – Reuters.com, “Handset makers scurry to join the Year of the Phablet”

The kind of usage trends we’re seeing from consumers with larger screen mini-tablets or phablets is echoed in this brief anecdote:

“I purchased the Tab on a weekend at the local T-Mobile store and my family wanted to hit the mall afterwards. I either carried the device in hand or placed it in my back jeans pocket while cruising the mall for hours. As my wife or daughter stopped to browse for clothes, I quickly whipped out the small tablet to manage email, web-surf, and watch YouTube videos. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with the iPad for one simple reason: the iPad wouldn’t have come with me on a trip to the mall in the first place.” – GigaOm.com, “iPad Mini and Other Small Tablets Could Outsell Large Slates in 2013”

 What’s the focus?

Different apps are required for different platforms, operating systems, device models, different screen adaptations, aspect ratios, even different versions of the same platform. Developing apps for all these different platforms is (to say the least) a time-consuming process. Developers have to optimize apps for each device, taking the time to test everything so there aren’t problems down the road.  While it’s certainly fantastic that we have a wide variety of devices available to us as consumers, for developers, optimizing apps that will function on the majority of mobile devices on the market is becoming an increasingly more difficult task.

These periodic studies only underscore the need for cross-platform development tools and platforms that make it easier for developers to develop apps no matter what kind of form factor is gaining traction with consumers.  The plethora of devices available for consumers will only increase the demand for and use of cross-platform application development frameworks, which will certainly make life a little bit easier for developers.

Do you agree with the data presented in this study? Where do you think screens on smartphones and tablets are headed? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. 

 

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