Phablets Are The New Normal

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As trends go, it’s been hard to miss this one: Smartphones are getting bigger. Much bigger. Samsung has been championing huge phones for well over a year, introducing its original 5.3-inch whopper — the Galaxy Note — in 2011, and firing out a 5.5-inch successor last year, going on to ship more than 5 million Galaxy Note IIs in the first two months. More recently CES was awash with whoppers – from Sony’s 5-incher to Huawei’s 6.1-inch beast (incidentally, screen size inflation also struck in the tablet space: witness this 20-incher). Even Apple hasn’t been able to stand firm against the ever-expanding waistlines of its rivals, adding half an inch to the iPhone 5’s pane last year, pushing it up from 3.5 to 4 inches.

But unlike many a flash-in-the-pan craze, the so-called phablet (phone-cum-tablet) phenomenon is, I would argue, here to stay — and I say this as a person with small hands who still uses a phone with a 3.5-inch screen because it’s the perfect size to fit into my palm. But this no longer feels normal, or, increasingly, entirely functional. The thing is, phones are getting bigger for a reason: what we use them for is changing. This is technology evolution in action.

Put simply, smartphones are turning into tablets. Being a slate to eye and interact with content is increasingly what phones are used for. Consider the meaning of the word tablet: a ‘flat surface for an inscription’. For inscription, read data, and the phablet phenomenon makes a lot more sense. Our fingers are at the helm of pocket computers, not pocket telephones – doing more and more digital stuff, be it shopping, social networking, browsing, gaming, messaging or streaming. (Meanwhile a quick glance at the PC market underlines that desktop dinosaurs continue to decline as mobile computing ramps up.)

The typical behaviour of a smartphone owner today involves a lot of eyeing and prodding at the screen, and a lot less holding the device blindly against an ear. But the swelling size of the smartphone is far more than an ergonomic consideration. Indeed, few people would argue larger phones with 5-plus- and even 6-plus-inch screens are generally easier to handle; they’re not – typically requiring both hands to get involved for tasks like typing. But any added awkwardness is outweighed by the benefits of having more glass to play with, which in turn increases the usefulness of the device in several ways, including:

  • For reading: by allowing more text to be displayed legibly on screen without zooming
  • For watching: by making video content more immersive/attractive to view
  • For interacting: by enabling other content (e.g. apps, games) to become richer as more complex types of interactions can be supported — such as split-screen viewing; use of a larger range of gestures/inputs, etc.

There is an upper limit for smartphone screen size. The mini tablet category starts at around 7 inches and that — along with physical hand-span size – puts something of a natural break on phone screen inflation. But there is still plenty of room for plenty of phones to gain a few inches. And while there is obviously a healthy market for bona fide tablets, too, smartphones have a mobile connectivity advantage over tablets since they have cellular network access as a given, versus the many tablets that are Wi-Fi-only (and buying a 4G/3G tablet means taking out a second mobile contract which not everyone will be keen to do). So that’s another reason why smartphones are being used as tablets: They are both in our pockets and almost certainly online.

The reason phones are bulking up in the screen department comes down to our addiction to consuming data, coupled with the ever-increasing richness of data services. Higher-speed mobile networks — built to ferry data from the get-go — are also making it possible to do more on the go. Streaming video content and socially-gaming on the fly is only going to get slicker and more commonplace as networks get more capable and capacious (carriers willing).

And as services get smarter they’re also taking up more of our time – so we’re spending more time gazing lovingly into screens, rather than talking to people on the phone. In any case, talking feels very 1.0 by comparison in this age of chronic multitasking. In many instances there is no need to talk verbally in real-time when you can message someone in a bewildering variety of sophisticated ways (as Alexia pointed out way back in 2010, the phone call is dead). Data is not a simple conduit like voice. It delivers a whole network of services in its own right, which can be sliced and diced further as we tap in and out of our own personal pick and mix of apps and services.

Another factor to consider when thinking about smartphone screen-size is that app design increasingly appears to be favouring gestures rather than buttons  – as this Gizmodo post on design trends astutely observes. Gestures are great but a by-product of having your fingers on the screen is that your digits obscure some of the content. So the more screen there is to swipe and prod, the richer your gesture-based interaction can comfortably be. Slap a second, e-ink screen on the back of a smartphone — as YotaPhone is aiming to — and our mobile pocket rockets can even become our e-readers. Device convergence makes sense when convenience is the driver.

Sure, if you look far enough into the future of mobile devices the recognisable slab phone form probably disappears entirely – or rather morphs into something that we wear, whether it’s glasses, or even a pair of smart contact lenses. But until then we have to make do with slabs – and the bigger the slab, the more data we can comfortably cram in and mash up in richer and more interesting ways. Who knows, bendy, flexible screens might even make phablets (comfortably) pocketable in the not too distant future.

Beyond pocketable slabs, the future of smartphones looks likely to be becoming a layer sitting atop our lives, rather than being a box we break away to poke and stroke — existing most obviously as digital data augmenting and overlaying the real-world physical stuff we interact with on a day to day basis. And the biggest, most high-definition screen in the world is the one we see through our eyes, the one that’s all around us. Compared to that canvas, today’s phablets really are laughably tiny.

So here’s to a future of expanding horizons. But before smartphones can disappear entirely, expect them to get bigger and harder to ignore. So is that a phablet in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?