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The Phablet Report: You Want Apple to Make That?

The other day, a neighbor dropped over and asked me to help him figure out why my texts to his Samsung handset kept being rejected. Receiving his messages presented no problems whatever, so it was curious why it didn’t work in the reverse direction.

The neighbor used Sprint, I used AT&T. A phone call to AT&T support brought the response that Sprint was rejecting those messages for some unknown reason. But my friend said he hadn’t made any changes on his handset, a recent Samsung Galaxy Note with a humongous screen that he pried, with difficulty, from his back pocket.

On the surface, a Note, sporting screen sizes ranging from 5.3 to 5.7 inches, is positively huge compared to a regular smartphone, even the Galaxy S4, which I regarded as pretty large. Aside from the stylus alternative, however, it operates pretty much the same as its smaller brethren, and made my iPhone 5s, with the 4-inch display, seem positively puny by comparison.

I casually checked the neighbor’s phablet to see if any setting would bar my messages. He remarked that he only bought the new handset a couple of weeks earlier; he was having similar problems with his older gadget, a normal-sized Samsung smartphone of undefined Galaxy “S” vintage.

In the end, perhaps AT&T was correct. For some reason Sprint was blocking my texts, and it would be up to the neighbor to sort things out.

But that brief encounter with a genuine phablet made me more convinced it wasn’t for me. Apple’s main argument against the larger form factor is the inability to do things with one hand, and that was certainly true with that Galaxy Note. I made no effort to stuff the thing into my pocket, but I can tell you that the iPhone fits nicely, thank you. It would be near-impossible to put a phablet in the same space. If I ever thought of buying one of those things, I’d get some sort of belt clip, or maybe consider moonlighting as a clown.

Of course that’s just me. Tech and financial analysts have been pushing for Apple to build a phablet for quite some time now. They claim Apple is putting loads of sales on the table, though phablets, last I heard, had 20% of the market, and those sales were heavily concentrated in Asia, where the form factor seems to be more popular.

Regardless, Apple has made a huge deal about usability, and one-handed operation is significant. Tim Cook has said that Apple isn’t dismissing a larger iPhone, but claims there are tradeoffs in display quality, longevity, battery life and other factors. Of course, I haven’t heard about a raft of failures involving Samsung smartphones or phablets, so I wonder if that’s just spin. But since Cook didn’t dismiss the possibility of a larger iPhone, no doubt one will be forthcoming before long.

Indeed, this year’s spate of rumors suggests that the iPhone 6 is destined to be larger, though surely not as large as some of Apple’s critics would like. But it also seems that they aren’t considering the usability of the product, only the fact that other companies have big smartphones, phablets, or whatever, and thus Apple must build one too in order to remain competitive.

Now I have little doubt that larger iPhone form factors have been tested, and it may very well be true that one or more larger-sized models will be offered. But I wonder how many potential iPhone customers are put off by the small size. If the huge handsets are getting 20% of the market, it means that 80% of the sales involve products with smaller displays, so where’s the advantage?

Now I spent seven months using two flavors of the Samsung Galaxy series. The current model, the Galaxy S4, has a 5-inch screen, and it was a bit of a chore to get one into my Levis and pry it out again whenever I got a phone call. I considered a holster case or something similar, but I haven’t had one for several years. Usually I stuff my smartphone into my pocket when going out. When I’m taking a long trip in the family car, I place it in one cup holders if it’s not filled with a beverage. But I do not make a habit of looking at the screen when I’m driving, although I realize some of you do.

In any case, that some people buy phablets doesn’t mean Apple must enter that arena, although I can see a reason for a somewhat larger iPhone. Then again, if sales of the iPhone 5s were as good as some expected for the holiday quarter, maybe Apple should be cautious about making it very much larger. Of course, I suppose there are tricks to fit a somewhat larger screen into a case that’s not much bigger. Reduce the screen bezel, for example, although you won’t have much space  right and left. But the critics won’t be satisfied until there’s a 5.5-inch iPhone.