While there is chatter that Microsoft will be allowing its smartphone partners to scale up with the next build of Windows Phone, Microsoft really should be thinking about scaling down its Windows 8 platform to fit smaller phablet-sized screens. With Windows 8.1, the company is now allowing tablet-makers to create smaller 7- and 8-inch slates, like Acer’s recently unveiled W3 tablet at Computex, but such a size reduction poses too many compromises without enough gains for the form factor. Instead, an even smaller 5- or 6-inch phablet may present even more compromises, but the upsides for consumers would be plentiful, including the ultra mobile PC form factor, having one device that when docked can span phone and desktop PC, and having the full power of Windows in your pocket.
The UMPC Evolved
A 5-inch Windows device? That sounds familiar. In fact, a few years ago, Microsoft and its hardware partners were championing the idea as UMPCs, or ultra-mobile PCs. At the time, the technology wasn’t there, the costs were too high, and the project never took off with consumers.
For starters, in classic desktop mode, everything was too small and the use of the device often called for a resistive stylus that registers pressure for input on the display. Processing technology wasn’t up to par and the devices were battery hogs, ran hot, and were slow. Moreover, Windows didn’t have the tiles-based UI for finger-friendly operation that Windows 8 ships with today, so the user experience on the Windows side wasn’t up to snuff either. On top of that, displays at the time were capped at a paltry WVGA resolution, meaning you’re not getting a high resolution experience.
Today, Intel’s new Atom processors are providing the computing equivalent of a 2010-era MacBook Air and are more power conservative. Screens on the 5-inch form factor are now at 1080p HD, which is in excess of most Windows devices on the market, and Windows now is optimized to be more touch-friendly.
Most of the negative things that plagued the UMPC have been resolved thanks to the evolution of technology in recent years.
A Market Dominated by Samsung
And while there are devices in the market at the 5-inch or even pushing the 6-inch form factor, the phablet market is largely unchallenged with Samsung the clear winner. Thanks to the Wacom-powered S Pen digitizer, the Samsung Galaxy Note experience lends to both a lean back consumption experience as well as a lean forward content creation experience.
And despite Samsung’s dominance, there are still things that Android doesn’t do well and Microsoft could excel. For one, the Android experience on a phablet is largely still an Android experience catered for a smartphone display that’s blown up and stretched out. It’s what the Android experience used to be on a tablet. Users cannot force apps to load in tablet mode to take advantage of the extra screen real estate or a higher resolution display.
For example, with the CNN app, the experience on a tablet is more elegant and takes up the display nicely with columns for content. On my Galaxy Note 2, the app runs like a smartphone app, which is just a blown up app that’s stretched out and doesn’t make use of the screen space all that well.