For the Phone, the Future is Big

Phone makers turn to bigger screens in a departure from past Brian X Chen Smartphones are going against one of the long-held rules in portable electronics, that smaller is better. Year by year, computers, storage devices and music players have shed size and weight. And for decades, it has been happening with cellphones, too. But now cellphones, and smartphones in particular, are going the way of the television: they just keep getting bigger and bigger. And people keep buying them. The trend became even more apparent this week, as handset makers introduced a number of bigscreen smartphones — from five diagonal inches to more than seven inches — at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Samsung, Sony, Huawei and ZTE are all betting that consumers find images and video to be more vivid and engaging on a bigger screen, and that they may prefer to carry a larger phone instead of both a smartphone and a tablet. The turn to bigger screens is a sharp departure from the dominant strategy of phone makers just a few years ago, when critics often and loudly mocked devices with big screens, joking that people would never buy them because they would not fit in the pockets of tight hipster jeans, or because people would not want to clutch big devices to their skulls. Large Screen Saver But Samsung, the No. 1 phone maker, pushed hard on phones with bigger screens, and the effort has paid off. Lee Young-hee, head of marketing for Samsung’s mobile division, says, “Most people like the bigger display — it’s more and more welcomed by people around the world.” Demand for big-screen phones is clearly strong. IDC, the research firm, estimates that 20% of all smartphones shipped last year in China, the largest smartphone market, were five inches or larger. It predicts that number will balloon to 50% by 2017. IDC also recently predicted that the growth of tablet sales would slow this year, partly because many people are gravitating toward larger phones and shifting away from smaller tablets. “In some markets consumers are already making the choice to buy a large smartphone rather than buying a small tablet,” said Tom Mainelli, an IDC research director who follows tablets. The most extreme example of a big phone announced this week came from Huawei, which introduced the MediaPad X1, a smartphone with a seven-inch screen, usually a size used in tablets. Because the device has a phone connection, Huawei calls it a phablet. Roland Sladek, a vice president at Huawei, said the company found that people liked to spend at least an hour a day on mobile devices, and that has driven the demand for larger screens. Other makers are pushing slightly smaller versions. Samsung introduced the Galaxy S5, its latest flagship smartphone, which, at 5.1 diagonal inches, is just a smidge bigger than its predecessor. Sony unveiled the Xperia Z2, a 5.2-incher. ZTE introduced the Grand Memo II, a 6-inch phone; last month it introduced the Boost Max, a 5.7-incher that it hopes will gain traction in US. Reception to big-screen phones is still relatively muted in US. The NPD Group, a research firm, said that out of the 121 million smartphones sold in the US last year, only 3.3 million were 5.3 inches or larger, what NPD considers a phablet. In the fourth quarter, phablets represented only 4 of US smartphone sales, NPD said. Can Apple Do It? That is largely because Apple, the No. 1 phone maker in US, has refrained from making a bigger iPhone. Some analysts are sceptical that large phones will take off in US unless Apple releases one. Rumours abound that Apple is planning to release at least one bigger iPhone this year. Timothy Cook, Apple’s CEO, has said the company would consider releasing one only when the technology was good enough to meet Apple’s high standards for quality. The global market data, along with the traction that Apple’s Asian competitors are gaining, show an opportunity for Apple to expand sales with a bigger iPhone, perhaps among customers in China, where it hopes to be a more dominant player. Laurence Isaac Balter, chief market strategist at Oracle Investment Research, thinks it is necessary for Apple to introduce a larger phone. “The fact that today many Apple users walk around with an iPad Mini and an iPhone is ludicrous,” he said. “In the end the manufacturer that delivers the one device that does it all will be the winner.” The New York Times

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