Until around 2014, small tablets, slate PCs ranging from seven to 10-inches, were all the rage. The iPad mini and a host of Android tablets from various manufacturers ruled this space. Consumers looking for portability, affordability and enough screen real estate for comfortable web surfing, media consumption, gaming and more, found mini tablets appealing. Larger tablets were capable devices, of course, but for many people, they were too big and too expensive.
Mini tablets fit into a small bag or even a large pocket. They also offer the same personal computing benefits larger devices do. Sadly, though small Windows tablets like the seven-inch HP Stream made it to the market, Microsoft never had a first-party offering in that product category.
The Surface Mini, which was scheduled to debut in late 2014, was canceled by Microsoft because it didn't offer enough to differentiate it from the competition. Microsoft may have dodged a bullet by avoiding the mini tablet space at that time. Smartphones were getting bigger and better and less discernable from mini tablets.
Large smartphones shrink the need for mini tablets
In 2011, Samsung planted the seeds for the trend toward large-screen smartphones with the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note. This was a time when the 4.7-inch, and aptly named for the time, HTC Titan was a huge phone. In December of that year, Samsung announced one million Notes had been sold. Despite early criticisms of large phones, the trend caught on, along with the term "phablet."
Concurrent with a market attempt to popularize mini tablets, Android smartphones, Windows phones and eventually iPhones adopted dimensions that settled in the five- to six-inch range.
The always-connected and always-present nature of these large tablet-shaped telephony-enabled devices made them appealing alternatives to the small tablets that had just begun carving out a market position. Many people argue that smartphones killed the small tablet market. I say smartphones became small tablets. And now the smartphone market, dominated by iOS and Android, is over a billion devices strong.
PC specs on a 'tablet'
Shopping for a PC historically entailed considering a host of particular specifications. Processor speed, RAM, storage capacity, expandability, port options, and display type and quality (laptop or monitor) are some of those specs. Shopping for a phone historically entailed primarily considering call quality and network reliability. Feature phones maintained that particular focus. The advent of the consumer-focused smartphone in 2007 with the iPhone changed that. Smartphone buying decisions have become analogous to how we process buying and selling PCs.
Call quality and telephony concerns are now a given that's not at the forefront of most of our minds as we shop for smartphones. Like any other app, reliable and quality telephony is a basic expectation.
For the tech-savvy, processor speeds, RAM, expandable memory, display quality, and other PC specs fuel their smartphone searches. The less tech-savvy trust sales associates who push how PC-like specs will help them. A high-end display enhances content consumption, a powerful processor and memory improve gameplay and app usage, vast storage provides plenty of space for content, and other traditional PC selling points are promoted to smartphone buyers.
The way we use smartphones, where phone usage falls below PC tasks, and how they're bought and sold, reveals these tablet-shaped devices didn't kill mini tablet PCs; they became them.
The market hasn't acknowledged shift
Due to the industry's still recognizing a distinction between smartphones and tablets, many see this claim as an exercise in semantics. Still, actual smartphone usage parallels mini tablet usage, and smartphone manufacturers purposefully design phones to accommodate those usage patterns. Larger and more advanced display technology and other specs to accommodate web surfing, messaging, gaming, media consumption and more, as we see from Apple, Samsung and others, are evidence of this.
So though "tablet" still means a non-smartphone device positioned as a distinct category to most people and the market, that may eventually change. We're just 10 years into the smartphone-initiated mobile personal computing age. Our attention is continuously drawn to the next iteration of some new device. Consequently, most people don't exercise the opportunity to view the shifts in personal computing from a vantage point that provides a broader perspective.
If the masses took a broader view of the mini tablet and smartphone markets, they'd likely see that in actuality, not semantics, nor hyperbole, most of us are using mini tablet computers.
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Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!