As smartphones get bigger, could Android’s user base get smaller?

30 Comments

I’m on record for the past two years saying that larger screened smartphones are what many people want. I saw the light in late 2010 when I tried my first 7-inch tablet. Yes a tablet is very different from a phone, but I still see much convergence and opportunity here. What got me excited? The experience of a highly portable device with larger display made content consumption so much more enjoyable.

Huawei Ascend MateSince then we’ve seen flagship smartphones, mostly running Android, with displays first at 4-inches, quickly followed by 4.3 and 4.5-inches, now up to 5-inches and even beyond. You’d think that’s great if people want larger screens on their phones, and according to T-Mobile, 77 percent of their customers do. But can this growth in Android(s goog) flagship phone displays actually hurt the most used mobile phone platform? It already has lost at least one customer.

See you later, Android!

Sascha Segan at PC Mag is done with Android and screen sizes are the sole reason. After speaking with several phone manufacturers, the issue is one of “moar”, he says: Consumers in the U.S. and Canada equate value with phones packed with as many features and top hardware components as possible. We want more screen space, more functions, more of everything in our mobile devices. So based on the trend of larger screens, Segan isn’t likely to switch back to Android any time soon, if ever. As he put it:

“But the Android world has been seized by the tyranny of moar. To switch back, I need a decent one-handed phone. Like about 25 million other Americans and Canadians, I take public transportation to work, and I really like to play games standing up.”

I know Segan personally as we’re peers in our industry and often see each other at trade shows and launch events. Truth be told, we’re both smaller than average in size. And yet, while I understand his complaint, I’m actually fine with larger devices. Why the difference? I am, and always have been (even with the original iPhone), primarily a two-handed smartphone user.

Could others follow suit? It depends on how big phones get

Regardless, Segan makes an excellent point. In today’s market — and likely for some time — if you want a top o’ the line Android smartphone, you’ll either need hands sized like Andre the Giant (and pants pockets to match) or you’re going to use your handset with two hands in most circumstances. Who knows; small tablets might replace smartphones for many as our perceptions of portability evolve.

Droid X size vs iPhone 3GS

There’s an alternative of course: Android phones start getting too big for a large audience and consumers turn to smaller devices that run iOS(s aapl), Windows Phone(s msft) or BlackBerry 10(s bbry). Obviously, one person leaving Android due to flagship phone sizes isn’t even close to being a trend. Looking forward, however, this could become an issue if handset makers continue down this path.

And I see no reason why those who make phones will stop with the “bigger is better” approach to design. The top selling Android phones these days tend to be larger than average. Add in the fact that we now have high-resolution 1080p display panels, and there’s even more room for phone screens to grow.

After all, after a certain pixel density, there’s little benefit to cramming more pixels in a smaller screen. The new 1080p screens should still look just as good to most people on a 6- or 7-inch device as they do on the 4.7-inch HTC One or 5-inch Samsung Galaxy S 4. Maybe “moar” is better for now? If not though, opportunities for Android competitors could get as big as the screen on Android flagship phones.

30 Comments

hasegawamiki

Well, I for one think the same, don’t like huge screens, but there aaare some decent 4″ Android phones, like the SIII Mini and the S Advance from Samsung. Also, 4.3 might not be so bad, there you have the SII and the SIV Mini soon going to be released.

I think brands are kind of realizing how stupid this 4.5+” is, but they are just selling it as people buys them

onixxino

Sony’s Xperia Ray & Xperia SX SO-05D are alternatives to the iPhone in size. However, the newer model, the SX is quite expensive, and is better as an international phone (frequency bands) than domestically (with AT&T or T-Mobile).

forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1881803

Android_User

I had the same problem with trying to find a small but powerful Android phone because I didn’t want an iPhone (I prefer Android’s OS) and wasn’t prepared to have something I couldn’t fit in my hand/pocket. Literally the only choice seems to be the Motorola Razr I / Razr M.

I can’t believe there isn’t a market for this because a 4″ screen is more than enough especially if it’s hi-res. Also, you normally pay more for less with technology (e.g. thinner phones) so you could easily charge a premium for such a device.

Looking ahead, I’m worried that I won’t be able to find a replacement because all planned models are massive now! Think I’m going to have to build my own…

Tkanet

This whole form factor dilemna is related to the fact that we use smartphones for different “jobs”, each requiring different screen sizes and computing power.
when technology allows it, u will see per job devices but that can get re-assembled in into a bigger device, once the job is done.
Think of it as “transformers devices”

UnChosen

The problem with making a smaller phone with top end specs is how to get customer to buy it without expecting a huge discount due to size alone. The screen doesn’t contribute nearly as much to the cost of a phone compared to the inner components.

Its the same problem car makers faced where people expects to pay far less for a non-luxury sedan compared to a huge SUV…even though the cost of making smaller cars isn’t that much cheaper. So US car makers decided to churn out bigger and bigger vehicles until the high oil price forced them to stop.

No android manufacturers want to make smaller top end phones because they don’t want to risk eroding their margins…

I suspect we’ll have to wait for Google/Amazon to pull another Nexus 7/Kindle stunt to get smaller high spec phones.

Edgar Walkowsky

5.5″ seems to be the maximum size for a mobile phone with current screen technology. Perhaps future phones will have an origami 10-30″ screen and replace the PC! Later down the track they might project the image straight down your optic nerve. Look ma, no hands ;)

hundoman

Google Android will be done as an OS in another year or so as by then Samsung will have switched all of its smartphones and tablet computers over to their internally developed Tizen OS.

It is just a matter of time before Android is only on 3rd tier providers or smartphones and tablets.

Besides Android OS is a complete nightmare for Enterprise customers to deal with in the whole BYOD model.

tom

i can see big c=screens hurting android but in a different way. apple, microsoft and blackberry will see the trend of consumers buying bigger phones and adjust there product lines.

i have seen quite a few people switch from iphone to android lately solely for the bigger screens. they would switch back to apple if a larger iphone were released. give options to people wanting large phones and android will no longer dominate.

Frank A NYC

Samsung is following in the long tradition of German luxury car companies. You can have different lengths of our car sausage. Samsung is taking it to the next logical extreme. They now offer phones in lengths from 4″ to 6.3″ and even their 10″ tablet is available wil a cell radio in certains parts of the world. My guess is they are going with the Walmart plan, buy or in this case make, and sell in bulk.

cr0ft

I can recall a time when people said “3.5 inches of screen? That’s WAY TOO BIG.” Of course, that wasn’t really the case, it was just the perception at the time. 5 inches though? That genuinely is too big, because it leaves one-handed use behind. More importantly, it no longer means hauling the phone is a non-hassle. The iPhone is perfectly suited for one-handed use, and being a huge nerd I carry it in a belt holster. It’s so small, narrow and light I don’t even notice it’s there. The only times I handle it at all is if I need to check mail, play a game or call someone. If someone calls me, I just answer it via a headset and leave the phone where it is.

Sure, you can strap a 5-inch behemoth to your belt too, but it just gets ridiculous.

It’s far more sane to skip the half measure of a 5-inch phone and just get a 7 inch tablet, which is much better for active two-handed use. Perhaps even an 8-incher like the Galaxy Note 8. You can still slide that into a jacket pocket, just like a 5-inch “phablet” but you get much more utility out of it when you use it actively.

And you still have the small, light phone you can carry effortlessly and use with one hand.

Samsung & Co are indeed doing themselves a huge disservice by not offering a small and light phone with the full premium feature set and performance as well – with long battery life as well, please – for people who primarily need a phone. There are lots of them out there still.

Ross

I was contemplating switching from iPhone to Android, bought a lovely little Samsung low end phone to try out, liked it, went looking for a high end Android phone, and have stuck with Apple simply because I want a phone I can put in a pocket. I keep hoping that one of the Android makers will do the experiment of downsizing one model and seeing what happens; I would suspect the first high end Android phone with a Retina style display and size about the same or smaller than iPhone 4 will sell like crazy to people who are sick of phablets.

Olof

I completely agree. I’m myself contemplating switching to iPhone since I want high-end features without a huge screen. I’d prefer to stay with android, though, but I’m not sure how much longer I can wait as my current phone (android) really is ready for retirement.

Gavin Walker

The only thing I can think of is “How long will it take Apple to patent the 5 inch+ form factor”

cr0ft

Apple has publicly stated they don’t believe a two-handed phone makes sense. Frankly, I for one hope they stick to their guns, I’d much prefer for them to come out with an iPad Mini with a high-resolution screen and 4G on it. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if you could use it to make calls with too.

Steve Withers

I call “beat up”.

Android is sold on phones of all sizes. If you don’t want one with a big screen, buy one with a smaller screen. You still have far more choice than you’ll get with Apple or Windows.

cr0ft

Are there any really premium, top-of-the-line, Android phones in a sub 4-inch form factor? I’m not aware of any. The Nexus 4 is 4.7 inches and 4.7-5 is the norm in the luxury phone segment.

Sure, there are lots of cheap grade B phones, but that’s not what’s being discussed.

Kevin C. Tofel

Spot on. There are plenty of smaller Android phones, but they typically are lacking the same performance, features or functions of the larger devices.

richardmgarrett

I wonder too if what we’ve come to think of as the traditional smartphone form factor is going to disappear. In its place I’m intrigued with the possibility of combining a 7″ tablet with either a smart wristwatch and/or bluetooth headset. I never thought I would be one of those people that had a blinking blue light in their ear but having now used one for a few months I have discovered real value and utility. During the work day and since I am in front of a screen, I rarely look at my cell phone except for text messages. That is the place where a smartwatch could be practical. At night at home or about its the same thing except then am using a tablet. Of course with a 7″ tablet, the pocket problem is a real challenge.

thisismyname

As Jason said Android is about choice and will adapt to what the customer wants. If the late phones stop selling faster than smaller phones then they will shrink them again.

Marin Perez

I think it’s extrapolating one’s own experience and thinking it applies broadly. The 25 million who take public transportation is still a very small part of the U.S. market and if you look at somewhere like Korea, which has a larger percentage of public tran commuters, they’ve taken to the phablets.

As Jason said too, Android offers choice in form factor. If a strong market emerges for a smaller phone, Android manufacturers will make it.

hortron

Kevin,
I doubt you follow my rambling comments on gigaom, but as a completely engaged person with the new media landscape (since the 90s!), I resisted buying a smartphone until 3 weeks ago (primarily on cost, but also I thought my laptop at home and sitting in front of PCs at work negated the need for a smartphone).

But I digress. I’m a very long time apple fan and buyer, nearly 20 years. I have an ipod touch (my 3rd ipod) and my wife’s owned her iphone 4 since new.. When I finally bought my smartphone (Nexus 4), I was worried about its large size – especially because my dumb phone was candybar sized. I was struck by something immediately: Apple has kept their smart phones, phone size. My ipod and her iphone seemed so petite! There are a few small, non-low-end android phones out there but they are rare!

It’s a touch awkward holding the Nexus 4 for phone calls, but it’s thinness makes up for its width. And I use it 95% a day as a tablet, the 10 minutes I’m on the phone doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Like you I have small hands. How much bigger could the phone get and not push me away from using it as a phone? No clue. Not too much bigger. I think at some point you’d just carry an ear piece in your pocket, if the payback from a really large screen was enough. Still though – Apple could definitely use some competition in the premium and small size category.

Kindroid

Thank God the tyranny of one handed use is passing. Modern smartphones have the power, both in hardware and software, to do so much more than original iPhone of 2007. And much of the power is directed at the screen. Productivity, video viewing, photo sharing, gaming….all benefit from larger screen sizes. If one handed use is the most important attribute for you, by all means look for a smaller phone. There are smaller screen size Android phones available…or you can buy an iPhone.

rohit

r u kidding??? you can get an android phone with screen size as small as 2.8 inch… shifting to apple cause you don’t want to buy a large screen is most stupid thing i have ever read…

Brian Lee Godbey

where? where can you get an android phone that’s 2.8 inches? I will buy one right now if you prove it. Oh, a couple of conditions though… it needs to be 4glte and running android jelly bean.

Brian Lee Godbey

you know what, it doesnt even need to be running jelly bean. Find me a 2.8 or hell even a 3 inch android that works on 4g and I’ll buy it. It doesn’t exist. Oh and don’t bother posting up any over seas phones because most of them wont even run 3g. How do I know you may ask… I hate big phones and bought 2 unlocked phones in the hopes of having a smaller phone and neither worked on 4g or even 3g.

Anonymous

Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini has 2.5” screen,and has nothing really short of the big ones.

this guy

what you wrote was the stupidest thing i have ever read.

what if i wanted a dual/quad core with decent graphics, 4″ screen with a high density display, and LTE?

what’s that? nothing on android? stfu!!

Jason

Android is about choice…there are tons of 1 handed phones on the market. I dont see this hurting them. Even iphones have grown bigger. However, you are stuck with apples ideals of what you should be doing on your phone. With android you dont like the way something works or looks you can change it.

POtty ping

Iphone got bigger but it still fits easily on One hand.

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