Why are phones continuing to get bigger? (Hint: Think post-PC)

HTC One Max size comparison

It wasn’t that long ago when a 4-inch phone was considered big. These days, however, 5-inch handsets are approaching the norm for many and most the latest and greatest pieces of mobile hardware have even larger screens, with some crossing the 6-inch mark. Considering the first “phablet” — Samsung’s original Galaxy Note — arrived in 2011 and created a class of phones that has often been ridiculed, what’s causing handset makers to create more large smartphones now?

The signs were there a few years ago

There are a few reasons for this change; I’ve touched upon them before and throughout the large-screened phone movement. In August of 2012, I boldly proclaimed that tablets will replace smartphones. I understandably caught a fair amount of grief and skepticism back then, but this current trend is exactly what I was thinking: Larger screened devices in the form of small tablets — or big phones, if you prefer — would become the norm. What was the first, main driver for that thought? More mobile content consumption.

Mobile content consumption is on the rise; according to Ericsson’s November 2013 mobility report (PDF), mobile video already accounts for roughly 35 percent of all mobile data, compared to 10 percent of data used for web browsing on mobile devices. That figure is poised to keep growing as well: By 2019, mobile video will use up half of all mobile data.

ericsson mobility report video 2013

Data traffic aside, watching video on a mobile device is generally a better experience on a larger, but still portable display. Obviously screen resolution has much to do with this as well. All things being equal, however, I’d rather watch TV shows, movies, and other videos on a 5-inch phone compared to one with a 4-inch screen.

How big are these phones getting?

When you think of tablets, you likely picture a device with at least a 7-inch display although this can range all the way up to 10.1-inches or so. Maybe even 12.2-inches if Samsung has a say. Clearly, many of these sizes are a bit big for carrying everywhere; that’s where the smartphone comes in because you can generally tote it in a pocket. Therein lies the dilemma between screen size and portability. So “shrinking down” a tablet hasn’t been the approach.

Galaxy Mega

Building up the size of a smartphone, however, is viable, and that’s exactly what’s been going on, first with the Galaxy Note, followed by its successors and a number of other comparable devices to hit this market. Here are a literal handful of examples:

  • 5.2-inch LG G2
  • 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3
  • 5.9-inch HTC One Max
  • 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega
  • 6.44-inch Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Each of these smartphones offers the tablet-like experience of a large screened device, yet they all also include cellular voice capabilities. So they get the phone features that a smartphone offers and also provide a larger, more immersive screen to use apps, just like a tablet.

Getting more done without the traditional PC

There’s more to the growth of larger phones than the content-consumption trend and addition of voice communications however. Look at PC sales falling as tablet sales continue to rise. This is the “post-PC” effect in action and as both hardware and mobile apps continue to improve, our handsets are becoming more capable than ever. Effectively, the tablet has shown the way for handsets to become even more powerful computers.

Think back to 2008 for a second; that’s the year the iPhone gained its App Store and the floodgates opened to eventually hundreds of thousands of mobile app titles. The first batch of software was enough to create a new app economy as it added more things we could actually do with our phones. App stores on other platforms offered similar opportunities.

apple-store-online-feature

Now consider what you can actually do on a phone from 2013 as compared to that 2008 iPhone — or any other handset from that year. Everyone’s usage pattern is different, of course, but I’m betting you’ll realize you can do so much more today on the handset. Gaming is a perfect example if you look at what mobile games looked like five years ago as compared to now. Check Infinity Blade 3, Asphalt 8 or even the port of Star Wars: KOTOR for some examples.

Infinity Blade6

Part of that comes from the added hardware capabilities: faster mobile broadband, vastly improved cameras and new low-powered sensors. The other part comes from more mature mobile apps and cloud services.

As a result, this will push even more people away from traditional PCs, or at the very least, reduce their reliance upon them. The main difference here is that smartphones and tablets are more like consumer electronics, while computers simply aren’t. Legacy computing still includes aspects such as daily virus protection updates, meaningless error codes, and device drivers. Consumer electronics devices either hide those things or have been engineered to not even deal with them in the first place. These smartphones and tablets offer the simplicity of a consumer electronics device with the power of a traditional computer.

Granted the power of such mobile devices may not rival a tricked out gaming PC or even a desktop from 2010. The performance gap is closing however. That gaming rig also could cost thousands of dollars but with few exceptions, most top-end smartphones and tablets all cost under a grand. For a much smaller investment, you get portability and power without the PC.

It all adds up to phones with bigger displays

While tablet sales are still on the rise, not everyone owns one. Far from it in fact. The smartphone market still dwarfs that of the tablet — and the PC, for that matter. Why? It’s the voice feature for one; we all need a way to keep in touch with work, family, our children and more. As we start to move voice calls to LTE and VoIP technologies, that will change, of course. For now, however, more people need a phone than they need a tablet.

Calling on a phone, 911, Location Labs

But we love those high-resolution large screens on tablets, whether they’re 7-inch slates or nearly the size of a laptop monitor. For now then, the idea of a tablet-like phone that’s still relatively portable and useful for a multitude of online activities is gaining momentum.

As this shift continues, it becomes really interesting in light of Apple’s device sizes. The company is rumored to be working on a larger iPad and already has the 7.9-inch iPad mini. I anticipate the company does boost the screen size of its iPhone — currently at 4-inches — for reasons stated above, but not to the epic proportions of some competing products.

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