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Smart Phones vs Tablets: how the electronics sector is changing

01/10/13 Adam Walker Director

The gap between mobile phones and tablets is narrowing, with more and more phones filled with features that make them more like handheld computers than simple call making and receiving devices.

According to recent data compiled by Gartner, an analyst, stated that worldwide mobile phone sales from April-June 2013 were 435m of which 225m sold in that period were smart phones. For the first time in history, smart phone sales outstripped those of feature phones, which are not equipped with many of the applications (apps) people use from day-to-day. But just as quickly as smart phone use is overtaking that of feature phones - 9 million iPhones were sold in the opening weekend of the 5S and 5C - so could our iPhones and Galaxy S4s be shortly replaced by tablets or the phablet?

High-end tablets such as the iPad sell well, with Apple CEO Tim Cook saying this month that tablets will outsell PCs within two years and analysts IDC expecting tablet shipments to surpass desktop PCs in 2013, and portable PCs in 2014.

And once the PC market has been eclipsed by tablets, it only remains for phones and tablets to compete for people’s attention. This year IDC said it expects the tablet market to reach “a new high” of 190 million shipment units, with year-on-year growth of 48.7%. While the smartphone market is expected to grow 27.2% to 918.5 million units.

With the two devices moving towards each other, with higher-powered, larger-screen smart phones offering more flexibility in terms of apps, and apps such as Skype and FaceTime turning tablets into communication devices.

Indeed, a new breed of device – the phablet, an oversized phone – is gaining in popularity. These devices, coupling large, game-friendly screens with mobile phone features such as the ability to make and receive calls, are becoming many consumers’ choice. Apple’s latest iPhones were criticised for their small screen size, demonstrating that people want large screened devices. T-Mobile surveyed its customers last year, with three-quarters demanding bigger screens.

Analysts now believe that tablets may replace phones long term, which will have a huge impact on the electronics sector. The drive for faster 64bit Microprocessors, bigger OLED screens and greater memory , possibly as much a 4GB will be more in demand – and will have to fit – these part-phone, part-tablet devices. Overall size, mechanical design, processing power and battery life will have to find a happy medium.

The A7 chip inside the iPhone 5s may be a 64 bit CPU in a 32-bit mobile world, but the A7 is not just for today’s mobile user, but will lie in wait for the moment when its features are needed. Right now many of the capabilities of the new chipset are not being exploited fully beyond the power efficiency gains that the A7 will bring to the iPhone 5s, and the option to address 4 GB of RAM in a later handset. As the hardware specs of smart phone devices move up, as 4 GB of RAM becomes the norm in smartphones, the likes of iOS and Andriod operating systems will start to take advantage of the 64-bit CPUs.

Software engineers will also be called upon to create a mix of software and Apps for these new devices that suit the needs of a hybrid device. One interesting area, pointed out by some commentators on the use of a virtual machine running in the CPU hardware for 32 bit computers. In theory the pairing of iOS 7 and the A7 will make porting between iOS and Mac OSX relatively easy.

The architecture of 64-bit apps on OSX has a huge amount of similarity to 64-bit iOS, which at the very least will allow a significant common code base between the two platforms.

This could mean that Apple could be in a position to unify iOS and Mac OSX in the long-term. Not just the look and feel, not just the shared notification, or cloud services, but the whole thing; one platform that runs across the desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone portfolio.

The consumer electronics sector is in flux, with two competing devices cannibalising the other’s feature sets. Which will win out, and when, remains to be seen. But until then, electronics professionals should be flexible and aware of the latest market developments to improve their employability.