Rumours that Nokia is working on a Windows tablet, to supplement its line of Windows Phone-based Lumia smartphones, have been doing the rounds for well over a year, with extra fuel poured on the speculative bonfire last year when Microsoft announced its own line of tablet hardware. Earlier this year, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop told an Australian newspaper it was looking closely at the tablet market — and thinking about “what the right way to participate would be and at what point in time”. Well, if a story in the FT is on the money, Nokia may have decided that a phablet — rather than a tablet — is what it needs right now. (And with Windows tablet sales failing to make a huge impression so far, who could blame it?)
Phablets, for those fortunate enough to have avoided this most distressing of tech portmanteaus, stands for phone+tablet(=phablet). Phablets are typically classed as smartphones with screens of 5 inches or more on the diagonal, which can therefore function as small tablets. Phablets with 6+ inch screens are not now too unusual, pushing the category within touching distance of the mini tablet segment where screens tend to start at 7 inches.
According to the FT, which cites people with knowledge of Nokia’s plans, the former worldwide number one mobile maker (whose crown was snatched by Samsung) is planning several high end smartphones this year — including “a device that can work as a phone and a tablet [aka a phablet]… similar in size but with more advanced specifications to Samsung’s popular Galaxy Note”. The forthcoming phablet is described as the most “innovative” of Nokia’s planned smartphone releases this year, but there is no detail on exactly what features that will translate into (beyond obviously a bigger screen). The largest screened Lumia to date is Nokia’s current flagship, the Lumia 920, which packs a 4.5 inch pane.
Should Nokia be looking to launch its own phablet, hardware alone is unlikely to be enough to compete with Samsung. The latter arguably created the category with its original Galaxy Note (launched in 2011), and since then it has expanded its phablet efforts on both hardware and software fronts, creating apps and an SDK for its S Pen stylus, plus other phablet-specific software such as a split screen view feature. It has also expanded its phablet portfolio, with the Note II and a freshly announcing new (likely cheaper) pair of devices, under a new brand: the Galaxy Mega.
Nokia will need to pour in similar feature-focused effort to ensure that any Lumia phablet is not just a big Windows Phone — but adds new functionality that make full use of the extra size. To date, with Lumia, Nokia has focused on the camera/imaging function for flagship devices, as well as differentiating via colourful hardware — so perhaps image editing software is one area where it could look to make a Lumia phablet stand out. (Especially as the Windows Phone platform still lacks the popular Instagram app.)
We reached out to Nokia for comment on the phablet rumour and a company spokesman said: “Nokia does not comment on market rumour or speculation.”
Other planned launches in Nokia’s pipeline this year are the previously rumoured ‘true PureView’ Lumia — which the FT’s sources say will have a 40 megapixel camera plus flash, and may get a July launch — and “a lighter and more advanced version” of the Lumia 920, presumably responding to complaints about the device’s weight. “Another lower priced version” of the 920 is also pegged for a fall launch. Rumours of an aluminium Lumia coming this year have surfaced before. Any ‘true PureView’ Windows Phone would be a considerably hefty creature — so offsetting such bulk by expanding the portfolio to offer lighter Lumia alternatives would make sense. Expanding the range of mid-range Lumias is something Nokia has been focusing on this year.
When TechCrunch spoke to Nokia’s Elop back in February 2012 we asked about phablets, and he told us it was an area of interest to Nokia, saying: “Tablets are an opportunity, and smartphones up to a certain size are an opportunity. We are looking closely [at the mid-size tablet market] and looking to see whether it will catch on.” Adding that while he personally liked the form factor of the Lumia 800 best because he can reach across the whole screen with his thumb “different things for different people in different markets” is its philosophy.
And when asked in a second interview, in February this year, about what innovation Nokia could bring to tablets Elop said: “We, obviously we’re looking at this market very closely. Like right now there’s a lot of shifting and things going on with all of us getting our first exposure to Windows 8, both from a PC perspective and a tablet perspective and we’re watching that very closely and based on what we’re learning there – and correctly answering the question you asked, what innovation [could you bring] because just a tablet by itself? Ok, so there’s many other tablets and so we have to make sure that in the same way with Lumia we said no we’re going to stand out, we have to make sure we’re thinking about that. So we’re watching that market – but haven’t announced a thing.”
Nokia has played in the tablet/phablet space before. Indeed, it was an early mover, unboxing its N800 Internet Tablet (which looks more like a phablet by today’s enormo-phone standards) back in 2007, years before the iPad burst onto the scene. But since transitioning from Symbian to Windows Phone, Nokia has concentrated its mobile efforts on phones exclusively.