Phablets, those handheld mobile devices with displays that are larger than the typical smartphone yet smaller than a tablet, offer lots of promise for enterprise workers. But so far, they are being adopted slowly by businesses.
That could change, though, as phablets such as the big-screen Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and the Galaxy Note Edge, the Apple iPhone 6 Plus, Google Nexus 6, Nokia Lumia 1320 and the LG G Flex 2 continue to add features that could entice more enterprise users to take a closer look at them.
The latest phablets include displays that range from 5.5- to 6.1-inches in size, which gives app developers more space to place controls and interactive features.
Among the enterprise-focused features of some of the latest phablets are things like split-screen capabilities for viewing two apps at a time and larger screen real estate, which is welcome for working on a document or presentation that can’t be done on a smaller smartphone.
Samsung’s Note line of phablets also includes a separate stylus that allows users to hand-write notes that can be captured into documents and emails, as well as built-in enterprise data containerization features to protect corporate data.
The Galaxy Note was one of the first true phablets back when it was introduced in 2011 and has since been followed by a steady procession of similar larger devices, which are still smaller and more portable than tablets. Apple’s scaled up iPhone 6 and 6 Plus smartphones debuted in September 2014, partly as a response to the larger mobile handsets that were already attracting attention in the marketplace from enterprise users as well as consumers.
Several analysts, users and business decision-makers interviewed by eWEEK said that the jury is still out on whether phablets will be widely adopted in the enterprise but that they are watching the issue closely.
Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told eWEEK that because businesses typically move more slowly than consumers in adopting new technologies, enterprises aren’t adopting phablets at a high rate, but there are signs that could be changing.
“Enterprise adoption of smartphones, beyond the BlackBerry, was driven initially by [bring-your-own-device] adoption trends,” said King. “Phablet sales are following similar trends so there’s a likelihood that enterprises will connect the dots in recognizing that larger devices will make it easier for workers to do some tasks that weren’t effectively supportable on standard-size phones.”
That higher phablet adoption in the enterprise “will be driven by specific industry needs and applications,” said King. “In the case of the iPhone, Apple’s partnership with IBM is the thing to watch since IBM is working very hard on its own line of industry-specific apps for the devices and to engage developers in similar efforts.”
King said he believes that built-in styluses, which are included in Samsung’s Note models, could really help drive phablets in the workplace because of their extra utility. He has been using a larger Nexus 6 phablet lately, which replaced a smaller Nexus 5 smartphone, and he said he immediately noticed a “greater ease of use between the smaller phone and the larger phone just from that small increase in size,” he said.
Phablets Show Promise, but Lack of Special Apps Slows Enterprise Use
“Everything I am hearing about the iPhone 6 Plus is that there’s quite a bit of evidence out there that the larger screens are a big hit with consumers and business users,” he said.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst of The Enderle Group, told eWEEK that bigger screens do turn out to be better for business users, as evidenced by his own experiences with his Nokia 1520 Windows phone, which has a 6-inch display.
“You don’t go back once you use a bigger screen,” he said. “Once you get used to the extra screen real estate, it’s really hard to go back to a smaller screen. I’ll open up attachments on it, and when you bring up the keyboard, it doesn’t obliterate the screen. You still have a lot of screen left to see other things. If I leave my tablet behind and want to read on my phone, that makes a huge difference. It’s just a ton more useful for me.”
The phablet market is still developing for business users, said Enderle. “Actually, I think as people realize that small tablet apps work better on these big phones and they can leave the extra device at home, they’ll more aggressively move to this form factor,” he said.
There will be converts even among those who have initially disparaged phablets, Enderle said. “It kind of amazes me when I see someone who has made fun of folks with phablets use one for a while. They generally become enamored with the device. It is almost a religious experience.”
Another analyst, Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, however, said he’s not seeing phablets making a big dent in enterprise use or adoption at this point.
“They’re not getting much traction in the enterprise,” Bajarin told eWEEK. In the past several years, many companies thought they could replace fully-featured laptops for mobile enterprise workers with tablets, but they often learned that tablets couldn’t replace laptops in terms of productivity, he said.
Businesses see phablets in a similar way—that they could potentially supplement laptops but not be a primary device for workers, he said. “This is why we are seeing strong laptop sales in the enterprise again.”
Bajarin said his company’s research doesn’t show phablets helping business workers with one of their key tasks—creating needed content—which is a big shortcoming. “The evolution of the phablet has been more focused on the fact that as you get a larger screen, it’s still a smartphone.”
Franz Fruehwald, CIO for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, agreed, saying that only a small number of the 1,800 employees his department supports are using phablets as their work devices. Instead, the most popular mobile devices being used by the Archdiocese’ employees are Apple iPad and Microsoft Surface tablets because they can be more easily used for spreadsheets, memo writing and more, he said.
“We do not have as large a footprint in the phablet marketplace,” said Fruehwald. “What we’re finding is that if people are really doing work … and they want to be mobile, they’re getting a Surface Pro.”
Phablets Show Promise, but Lack of Special Apps Slows Enterprise Use
Now they “want all the features that come along with a desktop or a laptop without the weight and still have the portability,” Fruehwald said.
How the Right Apps Could Change the Phablet Landscape
Jeetu Patel, general manager of EMC Syncplicity, the enterprise file synchronization and sharing division of EMC, told eWEEK that he hears the naysayers when it comes to phablet adoption in businesses, but he’s convinced that will change once apps catch up to the promise of the devices and their larger screens.
To Patel, the biggest potential game-changer that could help drive phablet use in the enterprise in the future is the promise of custom apps built specifically to take advantage of a phablet’s extra display size by adding buttons and other features that can’t be included in the same apps for smaller smartphones.
“On more and more of these phablets, the apps on them will look different and will allow apps to be designed for them and their larger screens,” he said. “That could completely change how you can interact with the app.”
“I think people haven’t seen the full potential of the apps yet on the iPhone 6 Plus because the apps haven’t been optimized. In the next 6 to 10 months, I think you’ll see more apps designed specifically for the iPhone 6 Plus.”
The redesigned apps for the larger screens mean that the “hot zones,” or areas of an app that allow users to take advantage of built-in features, “completely change the app on a screen as a device is larger,” said Patel. The larger screens of phablets can’t properly display applications built for the smaller smartphone screen to enable users to perform multiple tasks at once. This issue needs to be fixed to help drive phablet adoption, he said.
Patel added that he believes phablets will complement tablets but not replace them in the enterprise. “A phablet does bring a lot of other possibilities that didn’t exist in the past,” he said. “For everyone from front-line workers like wait staffs in a restaurant to knowledge workers,” the use of phablets will increase as soon as apps appear that meet specific business needs, he said.
“The possibilities are limitless because of the additional real estate,” he said. “I believe 100 percent that enterprises will adopt these. As more of these apps start coming out, you’ll see more and more of these apps get distributed.”
Amrith Kumar, founder and CTO of database as a service vendor Tesora, said that no one device can do everything for every user. But since phablets can allow many business users to do much more than they can on a smaller smartphone, they will deliver business benefits.
Phablets will shine in particular business niches, such as trade show promotions, sales and even the upcoming 2016 presidential election campaign in the United States, Kumar said. He foresees armies of election campaign workers using phablets to go door-to-door to collect data for polls and election canvassing.
“I think phablets are going to change the way people are going to do data collection,” said Kumar. “Whether for inventory in a store or wherever, you can have a wrist-mounted phablet easier than you can have a wrist-mounted tablet,” he said. The larger screen allows users to do things “that you could never do with a smartphone.”