The west may be approaching peak phablet

(Almost) actual size.
(Almost) actual size.
Image: Reuters/Gustau Nacarino
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The ebbs and flows of screensize preference.
The ebbs and flows of screensize preference.
Image: Kantar Worldpanel

The unfortunately named “phablet,” a cross between a phone and tablet with a screen of 5 inches or more, may not be quite as popular as its proponents would have you believe. Last year, 42% of people in Europe’s five largest markets—Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain—ditched their oversized handset for a smaller one. 

The numbers come from Kantar Worldpanel, a market research firm. Kantar this week released its annual report of trends in the mobile industry in 2013 and forthcoming trends in 2014.

To be sure, 58% of those with large screens held onto their phablets. And 41% of people with phones between 4.5 inches and 4.9 inches also traded up to phablets. As the overall market for phones and tablets expands, so does the market for phablets, which according to IDC overtook tablets in the Asia-Pacific region. But according to Kantar, “the trend seems to be retreating as people question ‘how big is too big’”—at least in the West.

“Close to half of European phablet owners chose a smaller screen when they bought a new smartphone last year, with the sweet spot between 4.7 and 5.0” inches, the report says. “No matter how thin and light phablets become, there is no getting around the pocketability.”

The conventional wisdom—supported by some data—is that phablets are taking over the world. But Kantar’s survey shows that phablets may just be taking over outside of Europe and North America: “This downsizing trend is less apparent in China, where the tablet market is less developed, with many consumers choosing phablets to avoid the need to buy both a smartphone & tablet.” Samsung has said that some of its Asian customers prefer to use large screens to handwrite characters in their languages, instead of typing. Indeed, in Asia and Africa, it is not uncommon to see people holding up comically large devices to their faces. 

This means that device-makers need to figure out which device they are making for which customer. It is widely rumoured that Apple’s next iPhone will feature a large screen.

But Westerners may not want these hypothetical Apple phablets. And Apple’s prices put iPhones out of reach for many non-Westerners. Still, within the developing world, there are wealthy phablet-users too. Perhaps that’s the niche that Apple will target.