Communications vs. Computing?

This is just anecdotal, but it seems to me that smartphone users are starting to migrate into two main camps: communications vs. computing. I’ll admit I don’t have any rigorous data on this, just casual observation. But when you look at some recent devices, it gets me thinking that manufacturers are trying to find a way to bridge some gaps in how people are using mobile technology.

Tablets Changed Some Usage Patterns, But Not All

Using myself as a sample of 1 (yes, not a great idea statistically, I know), I can trace the point where I largely stopped using my iPhone as a general purpose mobile computing device to one event: getting my first iPad. Up until then, I was using my iPhone for more than just e-mail, phone calls and the occasional tweet. I used it to get news, play games, browse the web, review documents and other basic computing that didn’t require a bigger screen and a real keyboard. It was a pretty effective tool for a large number of computing tasks.

But then I got an iPad. Soon afterward, my use of the the iPhone changed. I no longer play games with it. I rarely use it to browse the web or look up information unless it is the only device I have available. I don’t read or review documents on it anymore. Basically, I use it for communications: phone, some e-mail, twitter and text messages. It is also useful for “data gathering”: pictures and video. Almost all of the more general-computing type tasks I did use it for are now done on an iPad or a MacBook Air.

But I know others that live on their smartphones for mobile computing, including several that also own iPads or other tablets. Their phone is in constant use for all manner of activities, not just basic communications. For them, their smartphone is truly a mobile computing platform. It isn’t just about communications, it is also about information, productivity and entertainment.

Bridging The Gap

What is reinforcing my observation is the rise of two categories of smartphones. One is the addition of “big smartphones” or “small tablets” like the Samsung Galaxy Note, and other phones that are near or have just passed the 5″ screen range. Likened to “talking into a piece of toast” by Walt Mossberg at All Things D:, the Note is quite large for a phone, but somewhat small as a tablet. Samsung insists it isn’t a tablet, but their marketing materials say otherwise. What it looks like is an attempt to try to bridge the phone-vs-tablet gap. The smartphone has allowed many people to ditch multiple devices, and consolidate them down into a single device. The tablet has added a new device to the inventory, increasing rather than decreasing the “device count”. It would seem to make logical sense that something between a tablet and a phone might make reducing the count possible again.

The other side, though, are the number of smaller smartphones that are starting to appear, like the Nokia Lumia phones. Their screens aren’t really big enough for extended use as web browsers or game machines, but as devices that are suitable to for simple e-mail, texts, Twitter and phone calls, they are just fine. I do admit there are times where I would be tempted to just go back to a Motorola Razr (in part because I find it a nicer “phone” than most smartphones are now, or have ever been), but I do need other features like e-mail, plus just enough web browsing, that it would be inconvenient.

While there is still plenty of choice in the “middle ground” of smartphones, I’m beginning to wonder if we are going to see more products that gravitate to either side. According to Samsung, the Note has done reasonably well, selling 5 million units in 5 months. Now this isn’t exactly huge, but it isn’t a number that can be overlooked. Clearly there is some demand for the device. What will be interesting to see is if those numbers increase over time. That would seem to say that there are a significant number of people that want a cross between a tablet and a phone. They’ll sacrifice some portability to get a better mobile computing experience but still stay with a single device.

What This Means To App Makers

What this means is that app makers need to consider more than just “phone” vs. “tablet” when looking at their anticipated user community. It isn’t enough to build an app just based on screen size. If the app will be geared toward communications and interaction, then focusing more on smartphones, particularly on ones with much smaller screens, might be the priority. That means recognizing that the user will be working with limited screen space, and that controls and touch targets need to still work even with less real estate. You will also have to recognize that presenting information could be a challenge, because there isn’t a lot of space to show things and still keep it a readable size. It might mean that a tablet version of the app may not make sense, because there will be few takers.

On the other hand, if the app is more a of a “general purpose computing” thing, then a focus on tablets (including semi-tablets like the Note) may be in order. That means you may have access to more screen real estate, and can be a little more generous when it comes to controls and the presentation of information. It may also mean, though, that your app won’t see much uptake on smartphones, simply because the user base isn’t likely to be interested.

But, you may find that your general purpose app is actually better suited to a smartphone audience. Depending on its usefulness, you may find that people want to use it on the go with a highly portable device. The result is that you may have to offer features that you thought were better suited to a tablet, but are actually more desirable on a smartphone.

Divergence Not Permanent?

If there truly is some kind of divergence, it may not be permanent. There was a similar gap in traditional PC computing, with the desktop vs. laptop. There were those that needed serious computing power and a substantial amount of screen real estate to get their job done. There were those that needed portability over power. Granted, there is still a segment of the PC community that needs lots of raw power (guilty!). But as notebooks became more powerful, offered better screens, more local storage and better battery life, the need for a desktop became less obvious. As notebook prices dropped, the economic argument changed. Now, notebooks outsell desktops, and the gap continues to grow. Personal computing has largely converged on the notebook PC for most people and organizations.

On the other hand, what we may see are smartphones that are more “phone” than portable computing device. Granted, a “phone” by itself is getting less and less useful. How people communicate has been evolving over the years. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see smaller and smaller devices that focus on communications (voice, social media, e-mail, etc) and recording (pictures, video, sound) and offer less capability for general purpose computing. I could even see a point where the “phone” is basically the communications component of a wirelessly connected mobile ecosystem, possibly centered on a range of situations (in your car, at work, in your home). The phone becomes the access point, but other devices become the interface.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how this all evolves. It will also be interesting to see how the dependent pieces of the puzzle, such as apps, evolve to adapt to the changing environment.

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