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Asia is leading us to a 'phablet' revolution

Column The Far East’s love for giant phones is a sign of what’s to come
Fri Jun 14 2013, 16:53
Lee Bell column portrait

IT WAS ONCE a common perception that Asia leads the global technology race, and that developments and innovations we see in countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, including the latest consoles, chips and computing devices, for example, inspire the Western world as it follows closely behind.

I guess that's changing now, with the US battling for supremacy as the technology frontrunner with firms like Apple, Microsoft and Intel arrayed against Asian brands such as Sony, Samsung and HTC. No one can say for sure which region is the biggest contributor to the world of electronics gadgetry, but one thing is certain, Asia's role in electronics technology development still has a big influence on the Western world.

I just spent the last three weeks seven time zones ahead of London in Asia where I witnessed this first hand, attending the thirty-third Computex trade show, Asia's annual computer conference in Taiwan's capital of Taipei.

Submerging myself in the tropical cultures of the Far East, I also stopped in the city recognised as "the centre of Asia", Hong Kong, as well as the city best known for its role in the electronics industry, Tokyo, Japan.

As always, Computex was teeming with thousands of information technology companies that sponsor, exhibit and use the show as a platform to launch new and exciting products. And this year was bigger and better than ever before. In 2013 Computex played host to a battle of the chip giants, with Intel and AMD both staking their claims to the burgeoning mobile market with some high profile announcements, such as Intel's fourth generation Haswell chips and the AMD's upcoming Kaveri APUs, respectively.

But outside the bustling walls of Taipei's expansive exhibition halls, I was able to get a sense of how technology is integrated and thus impacts the cities and their respective dwellers. High above street level in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taipei, infinite skylines extend with lustrous LED-lighted billboards advertising the biggest Asian technology brands and products. Panasonic, Sony, Fujitsu, Canon, Hitachi, and Samsung, to name a few, dominate the vista, emphasising how technology companies take precedence and are prominent influences in these Asian cities.

And it's not hard to see why technology takes a front seat in the lives of people that work in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taipei, and in the businesses that they work for. For starters, these cities' recent histories and cultures are deeply integrated with computer technology. Taipei, for example, has been at the centre of computer technology innovation and components manufacturing for decades.

Whether it's because of the history of these cities, or their drive to lead innovation and a competitive economy, my time in Asia taught me that people there are simply more accustomed to and at ease with technology in everyday life than the rest of the world. I observed this in many ways, one of which was the sheer number of travellers on both Hong Kong's and Taipei's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Tokyo's rail systems using what we've come to call "phablets".

Though "phablet" might be a much quicker way of saying "a hybrid phone and tablet device", and such a shortcut is needed at Computex when many such gadgets are on show, we were dismayed at how popular these kind of devices, along with this ridiculous word, are in this part of the world.

While whizzing around on both Taipei, Tokyo and Hong Kong's rail network for example - and shuffling between the public crammed into carriages - it quickly became apparent how devoted residents are to huge-sized smartphones powered by Google's mobile operating system, Android.

We'd have to say that about 90 percent of users we saw prodding screens on smartphone devices while travelling on the train, walking through shopping malls or just on the streets in general were using either Samsung, Sony or HTC handsets. This was especially most predominant in Hong Kong and Taipei and the Samsung Galaxy Note was perhaps the most popular smartphone I glimpsed during my time there. Tokyo had a more prevalent iPhone user base, but all in all, it seemed that the mantra in the Far East was, "the bigger the better."

School kids, young professionals, and even older generations seemed happy to hold giant 5in plus smartphones in their hands, many of whom were either watching videos or web browsing, not that I was being nosey. Interestingly, I didn't notice many notebooks or laptops being used in public places.

Taiwanese technology companies Acer and Asus must know their own people well, as both used Computex to launch their newest smartphone tablet hybrid devices, Asus' FonePad Note and Acer's Liquid S1 phone tablet devices proved to be some of the most popular products at the show.

Interestingly, Microsoft and Intel both delivered keynotes during Computex to tout the future of touchscreen displays in notebooks and the ubiquity of two-in-one hybrid ultrabooks. But perhaps that suggests that large US corporations haven't yet caught on to the idea that Asia is more about mobile. Local companies Acer and Asus seem to understand their market well, though, with the launch of their respective "phablet" devices at Computex.

Though the word and the theory are definitely not for everyone, "phablets" were not only just popular theme at Computex, providing journalists with plenty of comedy as we held them up beside our heads and laughed, but they also seemed to be the mobile devices of choice for the general Asian population.

This ubiquity of larger handsets, or phablets, I think is an indicator of the way the world smartphone industry is going. Before long, phablets will be go-to devices, as people look for the benefits of a tablet's larger screen size but the functionality and mobility of a smartphone, a one-for-all device that meets the needs for both.

Just like how people said touchscreen keyboards would never catch on, or how many initially turned up their noses to the idea of the iPad, most people now are generally snubbing phablets. But just you watch, give it a few years and I believe a 5in handset will be the standard handset for most smartphone users, especially not if but when Apple adds a phablet phone to its lineup of idevices. µ


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