Why Apple is making a phablet

Post-PC computing.
Post-PC computing.
Image: Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Wall Street Journal, which tends to get these things right, is reporting that Apple plans to release (paywall) a version of the iPhone with a screen that stretches more than five inches from corner to corner. That would officially make it a “phablet,” the portmanteau for mobile devices that resemble both phones and tablets.

Phablets are much-mocked in the West, and many people have questioned the wisdom of larger iPhones. (The iPhone 5 and above measure four inches diagonally; earlier models are 3.5 inches.) The market for phablets simply isn’t that big, with just 20 million sold last year; Apple probably sold more than 50 million iPhones last quarter alone.

But phablets are popular in certain countries like South Korea, where 41% of Android smartphones and tablets are between five and seven inches, according to analytics firm Flurry. Here’s what that looks like, courtesy of mobile analyst Benedict Evans:


I love that chart—it was my pick for favorite of 2013—because it treats phones and tablets not as separate categories but as a spectrum of screen sizes for glass-covered internet machines. (That phrase may not catch on.) It’s a better representation of how people use these devices, or at least how they do in markets like South Korea that tend to be ahead of the curve. They aren’t for everyone, but phablets nicely mix the benefits of portability and a larger screen.

That’s arguably why Apple’s iPad Mini (7.9 inches) and Google’s Nexus 7 (7 inches) have proven to be very popular tablets—powerful media players that can really travel with you. (They fit in your coat pocket, even some back pockets.) They don’t make traditional voice calls, but Samsung makes even larger tablets that do.

But this isn’t an argument that you should buy a phablet. To each his own. It’s merely to point out that while the worldwide market for such devices may seem small right now, there’s lots of potential to grow. South Korea shows that clearly. And viewed as a spectrum, you can see how easily—and quickly—the situation might shift.

Apple hasn’t generally feared cannibalizing its own products, so if a larger iPhone 6 proved more appealing than the iPad Mini, that’s OK. Cannibalization isn’t really even the right word when they are all just glass-covered internet machines.