Even though the term "phablet" draws a lot of snarky remarks, some workplace executives have lately come to appreciate large-screen smartphones. And at least one who should know even believes that smartphones with a display that's 5.5-in. or larger (like the new iPhone 6 Plus or the Galaxy Note 4) could replace PCs in a few years.
"The PC as we know it will disappear in three to five years," said Eric Reed, the CTO at GE Capital, in an interview. "We'll still have that PC functionality, but the form factor will change."
Reed heads up a team that oversees the mobile needs and desires of 50,000 GE workers and millions of GE customers, so he's given his prediction a lot of consideration. His duties have included working with different internal groups on pilot programs using the latest smartphones and tablets and he's even helped rule out a few devices in the process.
"We've seen that mobility is changing the enterprise.... We saw this originally with the introduction of the iPhone and now, tablets, but it's a shock for the enterprise how quickly they've been adopted and made their way into the ecosystem," Reed said.
"Longer term, what industry is wresting with is the right form factor, whether it's a phablet or not. But that's the direction things will go," he said. "If you marry the portability of a device with a ubiquitous connection via 4G wireless or Wi-Fi, then the three devices workers carry today -- tablet, smartphone and laptop -- are all going to morph into a single device."
That single device will still need "enough screen real estate to be usable on the go, and with plenty of horsepower," he said. That, he added, means something in the 5.5 inches or larger category -- what IDC and other analyst firms call phablets because they're phones that approach the size of small tablets.
And, that device will need to work seamlessly with a docking station that includes a keyboard and mouse and a large monitor for work on spreadsheets and other detailed, involved tasks, Reed said.
Behind that docked phablet configuration will be all kinds of software (and enterprise apps) that work both when the phablet is on its own or docked and possibly even across different operating systems. That, he conceded, will be the hard part.
Mobile apps for enterprise are key
Microsoft's recent decision to move Microsoft Office to the Apple iPad is an indication that vendors see the need for technology flexibility, Reed said.
"Moving Office to the iPad was a huge inflection moment for the industry," he said. So was last week's announcement that Walt Disney Studios will allow Disney movies to run on Android devices, as well as on earlier-available iOS devices, through the Disney Movies Anywhere app. That shows an unusual evolution of content on any platform, Reed said.
"We're seeing a lot more collaboration from people in industry who have been rivals," he said. "In order for this [convergence to a phablet form factor] to work, the old barriers have to break down...."
Reed has been working as an engineer at GE in various roles for 24 years, first on the industrial side and later on the financial services side. He's seen a lot, and recalls a number of devices that were designed to allow smartphones to be docked and used as tablets or 2-in-1's or laptops. Asus, Motorola and even the defunct Palm have tried different ideas through the years, but they never caught on.
The main difficulty is that software vendors or enterprises who build their own apps need to adapt their software to run on a platform that allows docking of a phablet, or many different phablets on different OSes, with other components.
Wireless Bluetooth is one way connections between phablets and components can be made, but it's not necessarily the best or only way.
"I'm seeing a lot more people carrying phablets around and the drive behind that is just that we love to consume content and it's easier to do so on a bigger screen," he said. "People want to do more and are tired of scrolling on a small device, while a tablet won't fit into a pocket or purse. I'm seeing a lot more people carrying phablets, because you still make a phone call on it."