Blurred Lines

The Growing Amalgamation of Device Categories

Surface 3 image

Walk along the streets of any city in India and you’ll likely see a few people talking into a tablet pressed against their ear.

These devices run Android, have a SIM slot or two, and are often the user’s primary or only computing device. They are phone, computer, camera, e-reader and entertainment device rolled into one.

Browse on the Indian e-commerce site Flipkart and it’s easy to find a dozen voice-enabled tablets. These are seven- and eight-inch Android devices used like smartphones but generally not counted that way. And making such tablets more laptop-like, Microsoft has just released its Office apps for Android, which can work with an external keyboard and mouse.

As functions overlap, the divisions between device categories are beginning to fade. The word “convergence”, which was thrown about so often a decade ago, has earned a revival. The visions of smartphones powerful enough to double as laptops have come to fruition. And now some computers are connected enough to double as phones. Product managers and industry analysts will have to begin thinking in broader terms. We’ve been using the term “continuum of screens” for some time, and now think of computing as a “continuum of experiences”.

Microsoft sells its popular Surface Pro 3 as a “tablet that can replace your laptop”. The company runs advertisements of the device out-computing and out-featuring an Apple MacBook Air. To the untrained eye, the Surface together with its swiftly detachable keyboard is a laptop running office apps, yet currently semantics rank it as a tablet.

And if categories have been assimilating already, the pace is about to pick up. Microsoft’s unified approach with Windows 10 is the greatest acknowledgment to date that a device’s definition will be determined by how it’s used by its owner at any particular time. Microsoft’s upcoming operating system will enable a new generation of products that will be even more difficult to classify (for our assessment of Windows 10, see here).

CCS Insight predicts that tablet sales will double during the next four years as enterprise use picks up, and more tablets are used as laptop replacements (see Worldwide Tablet Sales to Hit 540 Million Units in 2018). Device makers will sales in one category eat into those in another over the coming years as the capabilities of one product class bleeds into the next. In many ways, users are ahead of the curve, defining devices as they like. The category is in the hands of the holder.