Why Giant Smartphones are Still the New Normal

Ascend MateMarch 2014: The New York Times reports this week that at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the giant smartphone trend is not only continuing, but accelerating. I was just in a meeting the other day with one of those monsters, and I could barely take my eyes off it it. Some kind of a Samsung with a screen well over 5 inches diagonally. By the time you add the heft of its aftermarket silicon rubber case, the thing was about the size and thickness of a 350 page paperback book .(But not the same weight as a book – that Samsung brick is going to really pull down one side of your coat – and forget about your jeans pocket.) Screen was pretty flashy-looking, though.

However, the press continues to miss the point on these things. As I pointed out a year ago, they are not taking off because they are better than phones or tablets, they are taking off because they are cheaper and easier than having to buy both. If you compare them to a tablet, the tablet is better for content consumption and productivity. If you compare them to a smaller phone, the phone is better for portability and, well, being a phone. So if you are willing to pay for and carry both, you’d be better served from a functionality standpoint.  But most people are not willing or able to buy, carry and maintain both.  So they are looking for a single device compromise – as I pointed out below a year ago, this is especially clear when you look at the demographics of initial phablet growth. And now the trend is continuing with a new demographic – the non-techy early mainstream. I called it just over a year ago, and I stand by my original thesis:

Jan 15, 2013: Until a very recent epiphany, I had been observing this trend of growing smartphone screen size with puzzlement. Android smartphones grew to 4 inches. 4.5 inches. 4.8 inches. Then Samsung releases the Galaxy Note at 5.3 inches. And now the Note 2 at 5.5 inches. And now Huawei has just released a a phone with a 6.1 inch screen (the Ascend Mate, pictured above).

Yet Apple was not wrong that good one-handed operation maxed out at a screen size of about 3.5 inches diagonal. And you definitely look a bit odd holding a tablet to your head. And these things are giant in your pocket, if they even fit. So what is driving this?

I confess, I was at a loss, but after reading some CES coverage, I think I have a theory. And the theory is based on the demographics of who is buying these things. You see, apparently the Samsung Note is a huge success (i) with kids and (ii) in the developing world. What do they have in common? Limited budgets. If you are forced to choose between a phone and a tablet, why not pick one device that is a compromise between the two?

Sounds pretty obvious, but think about it: you don’t have to buy two devices. You don’t have to purchase two data plans (one is bad enough), or settle for a wi-fi-only tablet without a connect-anywhere cellular radio. You only have one device to keep up to date. One device to buy apps for. One device to charge. One set of accessories and chargers. One device to carry. One device to keep updated. Plus you always have your tablet with you.

Is it a perfect solution? Absolutely not. These things make ridiculous phones. But voice is increasingly taking a back seat to messaging and video conferencing, and people increasingly use headsets for voice anyway. With a chassis this size, you can stuff a monster battery in for all-day battery life, even if you are texting and gaming all-day long. Nor do these franken-phones make great tablets when compared to a larger screen, but surely they are better than no tablet at all, whether because you cannot afford one or because you don’t want to lug a giant one around. And for serious viewing, they often act as a mere second screen or toss their picture onto a big screen using a wifi link, so the video aspect is less critical.

So it’s clear to me that these so-called “phablets” are here to stay. Cellphones gave way to feature phones, which gave way to smartphones. It now looks like the internet in your pocket is so compelling of a value proposition that smartphones are not so gradually becoming small tablets. It’s a brave new world. No idea how this will play out, but if I made laptops, I’d be pretty freaked.

Comments, questions or reactions to this post? Leave a note below and I will respond to your questions.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy: Instagram’s Turn for a Face-Palm, Something From Nothing – Bringing the Store to the Customer, What Publishers Just Don’t Get: Why Zite Wins, Magazine Meltdown – But is Radical Tablet Innovation the Cure?, Cloud-Enabled Business Models (Or Why iTunes Match Will Change Your Phone), AT&T Sucks Too, 10 Best Things About Apple’s iOS 5, Shooting Out The Lights: Google + Motorola Mobility, Android: Barely Controlled Chaos and Kludgy Results, Open: Good, But Not Easy, Steve Jobs: “These New Tablets Will Be DOA”, Platform Economics at Work.

Subscribe – To get an automatic feed of all future posts subscribe to the RSS feed here, or to receive them via email enter your address in the box in the upper right or go here and enter your email address in the box in the upper right. You can also follow me on Twitter @cmirabile and on Google+.

Speak Your Mind


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.