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Will phones become the new tablets?

There's a certain narrative that says one of the reasons iPad sales have lagged is that users aren't upgrading because they're satisfied with they have. New features, form factors, and cool new software haven't really moved the needle. Will iPhone take that trajectory?

Today, I'm looking at the launch of the Samsung Galaxy 8 family, and, think hmmm. The new devices are beautiful and have new designs that solve the problem of how to create larger phone screens for smaller phone casings. There are some cool features as well. Bixby isn't as much a competitor to Siri as it is a new UI for interacting with the phone. There's also DeX; the ability to dock a G8 and, have it work with large screens for a pseudo-desktop experience. I was skeptical of how Microsoft's Continuity would work out but maybe Samsung's on to something more useful?

Good enough

Overall, they look like great devices that are differentiated from what's on the market today but... will anyone really care? I sometimes like to ask random people what they think about events like this. I did that with the Galaxy S8 and something interesting happened. Everyone I spoke with said, they didn't.

It's not that they weren't impressed. It was just that they were really happy with what they have, and in an era where users see the full price of phones, almost no one told me they would upgrade.

Granted that's all anecdotal, and, the plural of anecdote isn't data. But it was a pretty good sample. It told me that if people need a new phone they'll consider one, but they're not actively looking to upgrade. And that led me to ask about the next iPhone. The answer, if you're wondering, was the same.

It's also the same answer I've gotten about iPads in the past.

Returns, diminished

There's a certain point when, no matter how many horses you add for the journey from Minsk to Pinsk, you don't get there any faster. Likewise, at a certain point chrome bumpers and, tail fins stop selling cars.

I won't talk about an iPhone 8 or whatever we might or might not see from Apple in September. If Galaxy S8, a fantastic, drool-worthy phone, doesn't compel people to upgrade, I will wonder out loud what it might mean for Apple and iPhone-next.

Given the second law of Gartenberg's Three Laws of Consumer Electronics, it's hard to imagine that people might be suffering from smartphone fatigue. But I wonder, also out loud, if that's not exactly what might be happening?

Even if it is, that doesn't necessarily bode ill for Apple. Apple has gone through many product cycles. When it was clear the iPod had peaked, many said Apple was in trouble. Then came iPhone. So, even if there is a slowdown in iPhone demand, there's much more to Apple than iPhone.

Next bigger things

Few, if anyone, outside Apple knows what the next iPhone will look like. Perhaps we will see something that once again draws lines around city blocks, jams websites, and sends sales figures soaring.

Certainly, Apple's monster marketing and PR machines will do their part in generating excitement and buzz.

But we've already seen the tablet market level off. How does Apple — or Samsung for that matter — stop that from happening to phones?

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

13 Comments
  • I think that you are right in the medium to long term, but in the short term I think that the almost full-face screens on S8 and (hopefully) the iPhone 8 are a big enough deal to make people want to upgrade. I love the screen on my 6S+ but hate the size of the phone compared to the 4.7” model. Full-face screens meet the criteria of two of the most fundamental rules of consumer electronics: 1) bigger screens are better; and 2) smaller devices are better. It may be that people don’t think they want one now, but when they see how clunky their old phone looks next to a new full-face phone, then I think that may change.
  • With Continuum on Windows phones and now DeX for Samsung the need for a tablet at least in the home or office is greatly diminished. I wonder if Apple will ever join in with something similar? I use Continuum on my works Lumia 950xl much much more when I'm at home now instead of reaching for the the iPad or my Surface Pro2. Sent from the iMore App
  • I own the iPhone 7, perfect size phone. Also own The Samsung Galaxy S7, perfect size. Saying that being a sick bird I also own the iPhone SE with 64gb of internal storage. I even just upgraded to the 128gb SE, I just really enjoy the smaller phone when I'm out and just don't want to carry a big phone. The SE is just a beautiful design. Bottom line to me is phones are getting too **** big. Give me a high powered phone in the SE size & design. Sorry for the rant.
  • As performance gets closer to matching desktop performance the duty cycle for them extends and we start seeing the "Good Enough Effect". The Good Enough effect is something I've expected for a couple of years. People are starting to see their smartphone in exactly the same way that they see a Desktop PC, as a tool that they update when something goes wrong with it. I only replaced the iPhone 6 Plus for a 6S Plus when the carrier blamed the phone for a sudden signal loss, turned out to be the SIM Card, otherwise I wouldn't have updated to the iPhone 7 and don't desire to update to the iPhone 7S or 8 or whatever they want to call the it (personally I think that Apple will drop the number system and refer to them in the same way as the iMac and Macbooks by year and will call it "The iPhone", the "iPad" etc.
  • Reading comics and magazines on a phone sucks. I'll always need a tablet for that.
    My $300 note 12.2 pro works great for that.
  • I think Apple and Samsung both have a contingent of people who always want the newest thing and have the money to pay for that. They pretty much will buy it every year regardless. Some of those people on Samsungs side might waver to another Android brand like the Google Pixel or Pixel 2 if they think it's better but most likely will stay with Android.
    On the other side of the fence Apple really only has their few models to choose from and if you already have their phones your not likely to change. For most Apple would have to steal your dog to get you to change because even though Android and iOS are similar as ever the frustration normal people will have retaining their brain on how things should be done leads to quick returns back to the carrier.
    More and more normal people are keeping their devices longer. That is tablets (Still have 2013 nexus 7) phones, and even computers. The carrier 2 year deals have a smaller hold on many normal people than a few years ago and once they see that bill fall $30 or more a month per line they realize they don't need another phone so quickly. They are not wowed any longer. Phone cameras have been really good in the last few years. If this new screen from Samsung and a similar design by Apple doesn't get the upgrades then not much will.
  • Personally I wish they would have kept the same screen size in a smaller phone rather than increase the screen size in a similar sized phone. Maybe they were limited by the size of battery they had to put in? After moving to android a couple of years back to get a bigger screen, I am moving back to iOS when my current contract is up. I went in my local Apple store at the weekend and tried out the iPhone SE. God, how I miss that form factor for a phone. It fits great in the hand, can go comfortably in my jeans pockets and at the same time is a powerhouse. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Don't see myself upgrading my iPad until the current one dies. It doesn't do anything that my other devices cant do, even if doing those things is a compromise. Wanna sell more iPad Pros? Make the pencil free. Expose the file system. Give people real choices when it comes to document storage. I am a web and media developer. My last simple project required 77GB of storage. Where do i get that conveniently in iOS? And, where do I get a tool sophisticated enough for media creation that isn't
    dumbed down, missing features or not as advertised?
  • IMHO you need a truck, not a car.
  • If Apple really wants to destroy the market, they will push a 5.5" (+/-) screen into a form factor not much larger than the current iPhone 7. Everyone wants "big screens" but no one really wants "big phones." That's why I think the Galaxy S8 (rather than the S8+) has the better chance to succeed, despite the fact that the "largeness" of that screen is slightly an illusion. It is taller, but narrower as well, so it fits the hand very comfortably, but the total viewing area seems smaller overall than the "fat" iPhone 7+, with a screen that is 0.3" shorter on the diagonal.
  • You're correct, and the curves also have to be subtracted from Samsung's stated screen sizes, being included in their measurements, but not usable for viewing.
  • I will get a step further. I know apple like to tell everyone cloud storage is the future and we need to buy iPad and MacBook but is the the future in one device only. Maybe a screen at home with a docking station. I should be able to run all on one device. My iPhone has the power and that's what i want to see. One device does all. Music video and games.
  • Put iPhone quality camera systems in iPads and upgrade them on an annual basis and iPad sales will take off (particularly the 7.9 and 9.7 versions). Enable NFC in cellular iPads and you'll sell both iPads and Apple watches. Just stop gimping iPads to provide unnecessary protection to iPhone sales.