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You've heard of the Smartphone and the Tablet-- now welcome the Phablet

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September 20, 2012

We've all heard of the smartphone and the tablet, and now we can welcome the Phablet. A bit larger than the average smartphone, but smaller than a tablet and equipped with a stylus, the hybrid phablet has emerged as a subset of the mobile device family.

Samsung recently unleashed mobile developers on stylus-driven applications. In April, the company invited app developers to build stylus-integrated apps using its 'S Pen' software development kit. Voting is still going on, but the top apps will receive $205,000 in cash and prizes.

To be sure, Samsung’s Galaxy Note, which entered the U.S. market earlier this year, is perhaps the best-known example. The Android-based device includes a 5.3-inch touch screen and a stylus, which Samsung calls the S Pen.

Also, LG’s Optimus Vu has rolled out a 5-inch Android device that’s equipped with a stylus, which launched in South Korea in March of this year.

And other mobile players are likely to follow suit, especially now that Samsung’s phablet sales have eclipsed the 5 million unit number.

Josh Flood, senior analyst with ABI Research, says he believes phablets compete with 6 to 8-inch tablets and premium smartphones.

In 2011, six to seven inch tablets accounted for about six percent of all tablet shipments, or about 3.7 million units. Flood expects the bulk of the tablet market to remain in the 9-inch-plus range until about 2017 or so.

So what type of buyer will want a phablet? “Many of the mobile handset vendors and wireless operators believe the initial typical user will be what they term feature chasers,” explains Flood. “Additionally, users who are less concerned about data consumption will be prime targets for phablets as well, as they desire a greater Web-browsing experience and better graphics from sites such as YouTube.”

The phablet’s stylus, coupled with the larger display, will provide the greatest flexibility for mobile app developers, according to industry watchers.

“The stylus is a very important thing that has finally come back to handheld mobile devices,” says Mike Newman, president of On the Go-WARE, a Los Angeles company that specializes in mobile app development, software training and recruitment.

Overall, styluses were widely used with mobile devices about 10 to 12 years ago, but the rise of the iPhone made them rapidly outdated, says Newman. He’d like to see the stylus stick around this time-- “It opens up a whole other realm of creativity you can have with your apps.”

A stylus gives mobile app developers more flexibility and adds an extra feature to look at, says Flood. “Application developers can now include an extra dimension in their apps, with pressure sensitivity as a key feature of the Samsung S Pen.”

For now, stylus-oriented applications are limited to drawing, sketching and note-taking, says Flood. He points to Graffiti, WritePad, 7notes, PhatPad and MyScript Memo as examples.

But the stylus presents plenty of opportunities for other app categories as well. For instance, Flood adds that gaming applications may start using the stylus substantially over the next three to six months.

In a simple football game, the pressure of the stylus could indicate the power of the quarterback’s pass, he notes.

And the stylus may have an even greater impact on the brain and puzzle segment of mobile gaming, says Flood. “The stylus will enable users to navigate puzzles and flick between solutions at a quicker and more stimulating pace.”

But when it comes to user interfaces, the opinions are very mixed. A stylus’ precision input could lead to richer apps and user interfaces, says Newman. While a desktop developer can integrate many controls into an application’s user interface, mobile applications tend to be dumbed down to aid with navigation and accommodate fingers.

But Flood doesn’t believe that the stylus will influence user interface design. “The majority of users will still prefer to use their fingers to operate their phones’ operating system,” he says.

The apps submitted covered a range of functions, from diagramming football plays to applying makeup. App developers should start from scratch when building apps for phablets, says Naga Hariharan, director of product management at Quickoffice, which makes mobile office-productivity software.

Don’t just throw a smartphone or tablet app on a phablet. Take the nuances of this new form factor into account and consider how users interact with this particular device, says Hariharan. How users accomplish a task such as highlighting text and moving it around a document will unfold a lot differently via finger touch versus the fine control of the S Pen.

“Create an application that is custom-fit for that device and you have a better chance of succeeding,” he says.

In other mobile news

HTC and China Merchants Bank have launched a new mobile payment wallet, enabling users of HTC Android smartphones to pay for items wirelessly by gently tapping their device. The technology is stored in a secure chip in the phone and is then available without approval of the wireless network operator.

The new wallet is available on three HTC models-- the Desire C, and two Chinese variants of the One X smartphone. All of those devices are powered by the Android operating system.

Regardless of their network operator, users can still take the phone into a bank branch, slap some cash on the counter and get it credited to the QuickPass application so they can pay merchants across China with the tap of their handset.

The wireless technology still requires a radio conforming to the N-Mark standard which is NFC (near-field communications) technology to authenticate the user. The location of, and control over, of that secure store has been heavily contested by companies who see long-term value in being the gatekeeper.

And this is something that AT&T and Verizon Wireless would love to have if they could find a way to do it. Banks have long favored some sort of removable memory card, beyond the control of both network operator and mobile handset manufacturer.

NFC Times, in its extensive coverage, points out that China Union Pay has a QuickPass application on a Micro-SD card, and that banks in the United States tried out the same thing in New York two years ago, with mixed results.

The so-called 'smart money' is now on wallets dropping into the SIMs as evidenced by operator consortiums including ISIS in the U.S., and Project Oscar in Europe, creating a standard SIM wallet working across many network operators.

However, Google is still persevering with its operator-independent Wallet, and now HTC is also following in its foot steps. The advantages are obvious-- there's no negotiating with network operators, no rent to pay on secure storage in the operator's SIM, and full control over the host of voucher and loyalty schemes which are generally expected to make NFC sustainable.

In announcing the deal, HTC was explicit in promising all of its many applications, once pay-by-tap has pushed NFC into user's pockets, and with HTC in overall control of the secure element.

In other mobile news

Visa is really happy with the outcome of this summer's games. As a major Olympics sponsor, Visa International used the London Olympic games in July to highlight its pay-by-tap technology, successfully doubling the number of contactless payments across the United Kingdom, while taking about 21 percent of all the transactions within the event.

In the two-and-a-half months leading up to the Olympic games, the number of contactless payments doubled, hitting six times 2011's total for the period of the games themselves, demonstrating that users will use NFC technology if they already know about it. And now they do.

To be sure, Visa isn't sharing the overall dollar value passed over its NFC connections, but at NFC World Congress, the credit card processor did reveal some comparisons and a few growth rates.

At the Olympic venues, about 20 percent of all payments under £20 were made with a contactless card. And about 82 percent of customers still slotted their card and entered their PIN in the traditional way, despite the surrounding advertising that they didn't have to.

Visa says that's pretty much in line with the proportion of cards equipped with NFC, denoted by the little radiating logo. The fact that payments at some venues hit 25 percent reveals just how popular NFC technology is.

The higher on-site transaction numbers demonstrate consumer enthusiasm for using the technology when it is made easily available.

In August, U.K.-based BarclayCard announced it was processing a million contactless payments a month, which would seem to agree with Visa's figures for a process with which users are getting more comfortable.

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Neither company breaks out the proportion of payments made using a phone or a sticker in the case of Barclaycard, but it's safe to assume that traditional cards make up the overwhelming majority.

Visa did say however that the 700 or so Samsung Galaxy SIII handsets it issued to athletes and journalists got heavy utilization rates, averaging fifteen transactions each, but the novelty and the pre-loaded credit probably accounted for most of that.

Then, if iPhone 5 sales are as huge as seems probable (the iPhone 5 has no NFC technology) smartphone adoption won't become massive, at least not yet.

Nevertheless, the credit card industry firmly believes that the only element preventing the use of contactless payments is the lack of familiarity with the process, which can be addressed through advertising.

Assuming they're right, the retailers will save money on cash handling and the customers can save time typing in their PINs. And, most importantly, the payment processors like Visa can start clawing back some of those savings in their transaction fees, which is the whole idea when it comes to credit card companies and banks.

In other mobile news

There's absolutely no concrete evidence that cell phones are causing any form of brain cancer, according to the latest research from Norway. However, and in stark contrast to numerous studies done in the recent past, the Norwegians aren't calling for more money to fund research either. The fact that cell phones don't cause cancer, or any other medial condition, isn't news-- this has been covered a million times since cell phones have been invented. But the latest study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health is almost unique in neglecting to call for additional research funding, though even then there's a note asking the government to maintain its commitments in the area.

So what gives you might ask? The research was commissioned by the Norwegian government and looked at various data from the multitude of numerous studies done abroad since the 1990s, but comes down to the basic principle that if phones were really dangerous, then illness rates would be increasing, which they aren't. They are in fact going down.

Not only is there no evidence of illness, but there's no mechanism by which illness can be induced. The very minor heating effect of radio waves needs much more power than is currently allowed (about 50 times more) and even microscopic effects haven't been seen to occur at anywhere near the levels permitted by international regulation.

So basically, all that we have is a bit of anecdotal evidence here and there and self-diagnosis of genuinely unpleasant ailments.

The report is particularly damning of hypersensitivity-- the ailment which sufferers claim makes it impossible to live near electromagnetic fields: "We have no grounds to say that the symptoms are imaginary," say the scientists, implying just that and explaining "An overall assessment of health and of possible adverse physical, psychological and social burdens, as well as the patient’s own motivation, is needed as a basis for medical treatment and other interventions."

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Source: Samsung.

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