Is a Google Phablet Next?

Samsung has done it with the Galaxy Note, LG jumped on board today with the Optimus Vu: will Google and Motorola phollow in their phablet phootsteps? We won't know how the Vu holds up until Mobile World Congress in a week's time, but already the phone/tablet hybrid segment is getting interesting. The lingering question is whether phablets are the standout form-factor of 2012 or merely a fad, and it could be Google and imminently-acquired Motorola Mobility that swing the decision one way or another.

Google has been quiet on pen control for Android devices, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been thinking about it. Android 4.0 already includes support for stylus input, natively recognizing multi-button pens, taps, tilt/distance, pressure and more. Everything, in fact, you'd need to create an art- and handwriting-capable Android phone or tablet.

"Android 4.0 includes full support for stylus input events, including tilt and distance axes, pressure, and related motion event properties. To help applications distinguish motion events from different sources, the platform adds distinct tool types for stylus, finger, mouse, and eraser. For improved input from multi-button pointing devices, the platform now provides distinct primary, secondary, and tertiary buttons, as well as back and forward buttons. Hover-enter and hover-exit events are also added, for improved navigation and accessibility. Developers can build on these new input features to add powerful interactions to their apps, such as precise drawing and gesturing, handwriting and shape recognition, improved mouse input, and others" Google Android 4.0 Highlights

Samsung and LG – both with devices currently running Android 2.3 Gingerbread, with custom pen support – are yet to confirm whether they'll be switching over to ICS' native stylus input system when the Galaxy Note and Optimus Vu make the leap to 4.0. But Google and its new hardware team at Motorola could easily put a Note/Vu rival together using native ICS code.

[aquote]It's possible that pens are a passing trend[/aquote]

It's possible that pens are a passing trend rather than something which will stick. Samsung and LG are known for being fiercely competitive with each other; where one goes, the other usually follows, even if that's in a direction the rest of the industry is less convinced by. The Galaxy Note is certainly a niche device, but LG obviously decided it was a niche worthy enough to wade into itself.

Still, the Optimus Vu presents a slightly different proposition: its display is squatter, wider than that of the Note, using a 4:3 aspect panel – like Apple's iPad – rather than the taller, narrower Samsung screen. In effect that means wider notepaper to write on, though it's also worth remembering that Samsung still squeezes in more horizontal pixels: the LG screen is 768 pixels wide, versus the Galaxy Note's 800. That'll have a – small – impact on how fine your handwritten text can be.

As for who else might follow the Korean companies, the phablet market is still very much uncertain. HTC has experimented with pen input itself, though on its tablets rather than smartphones. The HTC Flyer beat the Galaxy Note to market, but struggled thanks to less precise digital inking. Its meatier stylus also lacked a place to dock into the Flyer itself, too, something even Palm many years ago could've told you was essential. After all, if the pen is even slightly tricky to carry, you're unlikely to bother taking it with you. The HTC Jetstream, meanwhile, was priced out of contention, though there's talk of a Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet from Samsung next week.

Motorola has been arguably the least experimentative of all the major Android players – it has all-touch phones, QWERTY phones, and a couple of sizes of tablets – so far, a side-effect perhaps of its tightened focus after years of spreading its ambitions (and resources) too thin. With Google taking the reins, and access to the core Android engineering staff, that period of reticence could be over. A Google Nexus phablet might be too much out of left field for the company's traditional own-brand purposes, but – like the original XOOM, arguably positioned as a Nexus device in all but name – a Motorola phablet could well be used to showcase Android 4.x's native stylus skills and highlight its abilities over and above iOS.

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