Hot, Flat, And Widescreen: The Rise Of The Minitabs

The past three days have brought us a trio of interesting “tabs:” the Samsung Note, the 7.7 Gal Tab, and (bear with me) the new, flatter iPhone. Sadly, two of those may not make it to the US of A (and one can’t even be shown in Germany), but it’s clear that there’s a trend. Wait a few months and we’ll see more new 5- to 7-inch tablets/phones on the market than, I’d wager, 10-inch tablets. But why the shrink? Who is clamoring for a flatter, bigger “minitab” about the size of a phone but just a hair bigger?

First, this trend is not new. It began with the HTC HD2 (and, going back further, with a few recent Archos tablets) and many Android phones have gone the “flat and big” route, creating phones that are more in line with widescreen media players than what we currently call candybar style.

Hardware designers run in packs. A few years ago, the hardware designers at LG, Samsung, and Apple all went for something they called piano black. Everything was piano black – phones, cameras, TVs, DVD players. You had some splashes of “color” in the trade dress, but glossy plastic a la iPhone 3G was all the rage.

The same thing is happening here – the running of the herd – but for a few interesting reasons. First, the 10-inch tablet market is tapped. There is nowhere to go. To build another one is folly and to many consumers to buy anything other than an iPad is moral failure.

Gadgets hold totemic significance and their shape is important to manufacturers. Shape allows for a level of differentiation that is immediately apparent to the consumer and allows the manufacturer to hide any number of sins. Chip speeds are stagnant and the physical limitations of a compact device are forcing manufacturers to rethink the size and shape of their devices.

Consumers, too, are looking for something new. The 10-inch tablet is boring and, more important (at least according to Apple) a patent violation. What better way to keep tab-like gadgets in the pipeline than to smoosh them down?

Additionally, big touchscreens are still hard to come by. With everyone focusing on glass that maxes at 10 inches and larger, manufacturers can reduce costs by hunting down smaller pieces.

In the end, the next tablet is the next tablet. There is a certain fickleness to hardware size and it’s based on fashion, manufacturing ability, and some designer’s whim. Whether we buy these things as they get bigger (or smaller) is a matter of taste and quality. Manufacturers are trying to figure us out while reducing costs and, for a while, we’re going to be saddled with some truly pocket-straining devices until the next technology comes along to replace this one.