Windows Phone 'phablet' update opens door to tablets

Take the next step, analysts urge Microsoft: Put Windows Phone on small tablets

Microsoft's new update for Windows Phone 8 added support for larger phones and higher-resolution screens, a move analysts hoped would soon put the operating system onto small-sized tablets, a market Microsoft and its OEM partners have largely ignored.

Early Monday, Microsoft announced that Windows Phone 8 Update 3 -- like many from Redmond, a mouthful -- would roll out to current customers in the next several months. While Update 3 included several additions and enhancements, the one Microsoft chose to tout first was support for larger-sized Windows smartphones.

"The update paves the way for future Windows Phone devices with 5- and 6-inch touch screens," said Darren Laybourn, who leads the Windows Phone engineering team, in a blog post. Update 3 also supports 1080p displays with resolutions of 1920 x 1080 pixels, nearly a doubling of the current resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels.

Microsoft's update to Windows Phone came just a week before an Oct. 22 event slated by Nokia, where it's expected to unveil the new 6-in. Lumia 1520 -- a so-called "phablet" -- sporting a 1920-x-1080-pixel screen, the first for a Windows Phone device.

But while analysts acknowledged that Microsoft may gain some ground in smartphones by moving into the phablet market -- which currently accounts for about 20% of the total, and is particularly hot in China, South Korea and other Asian countries -- they saw more potential if Microsoft took a next step.

"Going to a bigger screen is important, not only for phablets ... but also because it paves the way to eliminate one of the stumbling blocks Microsoft has had in trying to impact the low end of the tablets market," said Jack Gold, analyst with J. Gold Associates.

That barrier, said Gold in an email interview Monday, was Windows 8, which he contended wasn't suitable for smaller -- and less expensive -- tablets.

"Windows Phone on a 'lite' tablet could compete with Android better than full Windows 8 because it is 'lighter' on resources and could be implemented at lower overall cost ... with a less costly bill of materials," Gold said.

Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies agreed. "If Microsoft wants to be serious about the 'slate' market ... tablets smaller than 8-in. ... they need to use Windows Phone for that product," said Bajarin. "That would start to take [Windows] towards a more consumption-style tablet."

Like Gold, Bajarin felt Windows 8 wasn't Microsoft's best option for smaller tablets, but Windows Phone was. "The use cases are completely different," he said of the two size categories, smaller and larger, with the former almost exclusively used to consume content, such as reading books and email, watching videos, viewing photographs. Only in larger sizes are tablets used for productivity tasks or creation content. "I've always thought that Microsoft should have used Windows Phone for smaller tablets," said Bajarin, citing "touch targets," the area of a screen that responds to a tap. "Touch targets should be different for touch-based devices 4-in., 5-in., 7-in. and 10-in.," he said. "It really takes smart and savvy developers to design appropriately-sized touch targets."

Bajarin's argument was that developers of Windows Phone apps have more experience designing apps with touch targets appropriate for smaller screens than those who create apps for the larger screens used by Windows 8 and its sibling, Windows RT.

That led him to another point: Microsoft has an opportunity to excite Windows Phone app developers by pushing the OS onto smaller-sized tablets.

"Microsoft needs a [range] of very specific devices that lets [Windows Phone] app developers take advantage of something more than a small screen," said Bajarin, applauding the move by Update 3 onto larger displays.

Microsoft regularly gets dinged for the small size of its app ecosystem on Windows Phone and Windows 8 when compared to the much larger inventories on Android and iOS. "It's not necessary that [Microsoft] have all the same apps, but what is is that developers take advantage of their platform in unique ways. If developers can do that, it offsets the negative," Bajarin added.

Engaging the developer base to make new apps, ones unique to Windows Phone, is one of Microsoft's challenges, Bajarin acknowledged. But he gave the company a better chance if it offered Windows Phone developers something to do besides create for screens 6-in. and smaller.

Not everyone thought like Gold and Bajarin.

"This will open the door for phablets and you can expect to see some announced very soon," said Ryan Reith of IDC in an email interview Monday. "Nokia is the obvious choice here as they are clearly the front runner pushing Windows Phone 8 forward. Technically, it could also now support 7-in. or greater but that isn't the strategy here."

Instead, said Reith, Microsoft will stick with its current -- and long-expressed -- strategy of dedicating Windows 8 and Windows RT, and their 8.1 successors, as the operating systems for tablets.

"We expect this to remain as is," said Reith. "Windows Phone and Windows will have to continue to show increased synergy in 2014 if they truly want to compete across all computing mediums."

So far, Microsoft has followed that strategy: It hasn't announced a smaller Surface tablet of its own -- although rumors that it will next year continue to accumulate -- and the few tablets of that size released by OEMs have been built around Windows 8, not Windows RT, as some had once expected. At the moment, in fact, Microsoft is the sole OEM using Windows RT. Dell, the last partner with a Windows RT tablet in its portfolio, said two weeks ago that it had no plan to refresh that line.

Reith stuck to his guns even though several long-time Windows watchers, including blogger Paul Thurrott, citing anonymous sources, have claimed that the next iteration of Windows Phone, code-named "Blue," likely officially dubbed Windows 8.1, and due out next year, will support screens up to 10-in.

In the shorter term, said Reith, Update 3 will give Microsoft the chance to continue growing its share of the smartphone OS market. "I am not sure Update 3 will have any consumer effect other than [as] the gateway to bringing 5-in., and possibly larger, Windows Phone 8 smartphones to market. This is the overlying consumer buying trend so in that sense it will have a positive effect."

According to IDC, Windows Phone powered 3.7% of the smartphones shipped in the second quarter, the most recent for which the research firm has released estimates. That was up from 3.1% in the same period the year prior.

"The smartphone market might be an Android and iOS race when it comes to market share but we have made it clear that we consider Windows Phone 8 the third platform and expect it to grow in the coming years," Reith said. "Not surpassing Android or iOS, but continuing to grow."

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags mobileMicrosoftNokiatabletswirelessNetworkingoperating systemssoftwareWindowshardware systemsMobile/Wireless

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?