'Phablet,' the word we love to hate

Apple may have entered the category with the iPhone 6 Plus, but it certainly won't use the portmanteau

iPhone 6 / iPhone 6 Plus

Phablet [fab-lit]: Noun. A mobile device that combines the features of a smartphone and a tablet computer and is larger than a typical smartphone but not as large as a typical small tablet -- Dictionary.com

It's a word that people love to hate but continue to use. With Apple's late arrival to the category with the iPhone 6 Plus, it's sure to skyrocket in usage, if not in popularity, even though Apple, like most smartphone companies that play in the large-screen space, shuns the portmanteau word.

Instead, Apple went with the marketing tagline of, "Bigger than bigger," whatever that's supposed to mean.

Blame technology reporters. Blame technology analysts. They're the ones who coined phablet and who continue to use it. Reporters love to concoct new terms, catchy or not -- witness another portmanteau, "prosumer," from the 1980s -- and analysts need terminology to categorize and classify.

"We as a species have a need to classify everything," said Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "The thing was not really a minivan, but it 'crosses over' from the category, so we called it a 'crossover.'

Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a former editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, has traced the word to Dan Warren of GSMA, a U.K.-based association of mobile operators, and its first use online in June 2010 to Ian Scales of TelecomTV.

In a column last week (subscription required), Zimmer said the rise in the word was concurrent with the increase in sales of smartphones with larger screens, and noted that the term was often derided. For example, in 2012, "phablet" tied with "YOLO" (You Only Live Once) for "Least Likely to Succeed" in a vote by the American Dialect Society. (Zimmer is chairman of the New Words Committee of the organization.)

If everyone hates "phablet" why do they continue to use it? And what would be its replacement? Computerworld asked those questions of several industry analysts who cover mobile,and hoped to find a gem that could send the neologism to the same graveyard as "infobahn" and "tweeple."

"I think the word 'phablet' is a terrible word," said Van Baker of Gartner. "I told my wife it was a phablet and she assumed that meant a fat tablet. I don't know of any connotations around the word that are positive so the industry would be better off without it. I guess they are just big phones or phones with tablet features."

Baker admitted defeat. "I don't know what to call them," he said.

"The negative reaction stems from both the word itself and the fact that [it's] used to describe what's basically a smartphone at the larger end of the size range," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. "We don't call small smartphones or medium-sized smartphones something different, so why have a different word for the biggest ones?"

Others echoed Dawson.

" 'Phablet' is an unfortunate choice. Prepending the 'F' sound to a word has come to mean 'fake' or 'faux,' " said Charles Golvin, founder of Abelian Research and a former Forrester analyst. "Like fuzzy boots that aren't actually made from Australian sheep's wool: fUggs. Or a knockoff [Cartier Tank] watch: fartier."

To Golvin, the portmanteau was superfluous. "We don't need no stinking new category name," Golvin said. "People use these devices just like they use the smaller devices that are labeled ['smartphone'], people's behavior makes it clear that these larger devices function as smartphones, so that's what the market should call these devices."

But Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies pointed out that for all its flaws and derogatory connotations, "phablet" wasn't going anywhere. "The problem is that 'phablet' has gotten into the collective tech vocabulary, and even if Apple does not use it, a lot of people already know what that term means," Bajarin said. "Media are lost for an alternative term and will continue to use it to describe smartphones over five inches."

"The thing is, 'phablet' properly identifies what this type of device is," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst with IDC. "I prefer to refer to them as 'large screen smartphones,' but that does not exactly roll off the tongue. Until we come up with a better word, we are stuck with 'phablet.' "

Maybe, maybe not, said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business for Kantar WorldPanel Comtech.

"As smartphones get larger, I am not sure a name is needed, in the same way we did not call a 4.7-in. something different than a 3.5-in. something," said Milanesi. "Terms that try to marry two things are not usually successful, as it could be seen as a compromise, as is the case with '2-in-1' computing," she added, referring to another term that has surfaced lately to describe hybrid devices that combine characteristics of both a tablet and a personal computer laptop.

Milanesi even saw some value in 'phablet,' at least originally. "I think the term was created to make the larger devices stand out, and give consumers [an idea that] they were getting two for one," she said.

"It sounds pretentious," said Miller. "But it is what it is. It's not a phone, it's not a tablet. It's a compromise."

While none of the nine analysts wanted to salvage the word and all detested it to one degree or another, they had few alternatives to offer.

Verizon order for the iPhone 6 Plus

Verizon currently claims it cannot deliver a new iPhone 6 Plus until Oct. 28, more than two weeks later than the Apple online store's longest lag between ordering and shipping.

Llamas, tongue in cheek, suggest flipping the portmanteau, suggesting "tablone" as a replacement.

Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, went one better. "Never liked 'phablet,' it's just a big phone," said Rubin. "The best I can come up [as a substitute] is 'Callossus.' "

Bajarin said he has used the word "tabphone" a few times. "I was surprised how many people instantly knew what I was talking about," he said.

A few others had experimented with substitutes, but to no avail. "I originally had come up with "megaphone" as in "mega-phone," but that doesn't really work," admitted Bob O'Donnell, chief analyst at Technalysis Research. "I also have used 'pocket computer' but that's a bit too old school."

"I've been known to use 'tweener,' " acknowledged Miller.

Some have surrendered to the portmanteau, putting it in quotation marks or simply avoided it, sticking instead to longer, more specific phrasing. "I tend to either use the word 'phablet' in quotes or talk about phones over a particular size," said Dawson, who said part of his problem with "phablet" was the sketchy definition. "Some pretty mainstream phones, like the Galaxy S5, are creeping up into territory that might once have been considered a phablet."

"I've fallen back to large-screen smartphone because everyone know what that is," O'Donnell said.

While an alternative may never replace "phablet," there's a good chance the label will simply die out, overtaken by technology, several of the experts contended.

"If we think about these slabs of connected computing glass, the only distinction between the two categories other than size is whether or not they make traditional circuit-switched phone calls, as in 'dial a number,' " Golvin said. "As carriers migrate to packet-switched voice it seems likely that this distinction, too, will fall by the wayside."

No one was saying that Apple will dump the "Phone" from "iPhone" any time soon, but the trend, the analysts argued, was clear: Lines would blur.

"The only thing that I disagree with is [that Zimmer's piece] seems to imply that the word 'phablet' is here to stay," said Baker of Gartner. "I don't think that is true. Once we get to VoLTE, all calls will be digital, and you will be able to use any phone or any tablet to make phone calls so the term will become obsolete by definition. The labels of 'phone' and 'tablet' will also become less relevant over time, but they are too established to disappear quickly."

Apple, in fact, is pushing VoLTE, or "voice-over-LTE," in the newest iPhones, which allows the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus to make voice calls through any Internet connection, most likely a Wi-Fi network. Customers' mobile carriers must support VoLTE for them to sidestep the circuit-switched 3G network.

"Smartphones really are not phones anymore, that's a misnomer," O'Donnell said. "According to my research, people only talk on these devices 10.6% of the time and, if you're younger, even less than that."

But the best comment about "phablet" wasn't about the word at all. "Isn't language fun?" Baker asked.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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