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The iPhone Phablet Kicking and Screaming Report

On the surface, the concept of a phablet seems an awkward mix. It’s meant to serve the functions of both a tablet and a full-featured smartphone, but there is that issue about usability that complicates the picture.

So Apple famously maintains they want you to be able to do things on your smartphone with one hand, and thus the iPhone has a four-inch display, which is taking it to the edge with some users. Yet Tim Cook has not dismissed the idea of a larger handset. He speaks of technology issues, which may include battery life, display quality and reliability as being among the reasons why Apple hasn’t made larger iPhones, at least not yet.

But it’s not that the larger screens on other smartphones necessarily suffer from any of those issues, so let me continue.

Supposedly things will change with the iPhone 6, where the rumor sites have settled on a 4.7-inch display for various and sundry reasons. Part of it is how well it scales up from the smaller models. But it’s hard to realize now that, at the beginning, the original iPhone form factor, with a 3.5-inch display, was actually quite large for a smartphone. But the competition, wanting to trump Apple in the specs game, went for the bigger screens.

But what about the phablet?

Well, it comes across as the sort of kludge that Apple would frown upon. As a smartphone, it’s big, maybe too big. The landlord has a Samsung Galaxy Note, and I can see him struggle to place it in his pocket, but I suppose he finds the larger display useful for conducting business on the road without having something that’s too large, or being forced to bring two devices with him.

To me, it would be a non-starter. My iPhone goes in my pocket, and I found the 5-inch Samsung Galaxy S4 to be a chore to insert and remove. I had thought less-than-seriously, in passing, of maybe moonlighting as a clown to get pants with larger pockets, but that’s not my thing. So for me, perhaps the larger iPhone 6, if the form factor is as predicted, would be a little much, but I suppose I could tolerate it if Apple employed appropriate space efficiencies.

But what of the phablet? As a tablet, it’s clearly a non-starter for practical use, or so it seems. Apple went with a 7.87-inch standard aspect ratio display for the iPad mini because it provides a decent amount of useful work area for something other than movies. This is the great advantage over all those 7-inch Android widescreen tablets that have polluted the consumer electronic store shelves.

As a practical matter, the phablet seems the worst of two worlds. Too large for a handy smartphone, and too small for a usable tablet. But that’s just a case of practicality, and customers aren’t always practical.

So we have this market survey from Kantar WorldPanel ComTech reporting that 40% of the smartphones sold in China in March were phablets, having screens larger than five inches. Now Apple is lusting after the Chinese market big time. This year’s deal with China Mobile, the world’s largest wireless carrier, was the result of lengthy negotiations, and Apple clearly wants to grow the relationship. It’s not easy to give up on the potential of tens of millions of lucrative sales even for a form factor that might be, well, controversial or somewhat inconvenient.

Such an approach may seem to be against Apple’s meme, which is not to build products that serve every possible market niche but to focus on a simple lineup that makes it easy for customers to chose the models that best fit their needs.

But you may see the value of a phablet as an all-in-one computing device that does have appeal to many potential iPhone customers. Rather than buy two gadgets, particularly in a country with a far lower income than any of you would find tolerable, they choose just one. A phablet doesn’t have to be cheap, and Apple would clearly charge an appropriate premium for the bigger form factor, but the public relations impact might require a little explaining. Nothing about the phablet seems to fit within Apple’s usual standards of usability, yet it has to be sorely tempting.

So if there really is, as rumored, a 5.5-inch iPhone Air, Apple would need to employ smoke and mirrors to explain why they succumbed to the almighty dollar. The sheer popularity of the form factor, particularly in some parts of the world, might be enough, although even netbooks were once popular. But a case can be made for a phablet being a gadget of choice for many users. No such case was ever made for the netbook, which was just a bad PC by any normal standard.

In light of this, I am becoming more and more convinced that an Apple phablet, an iPhone Air or whatever, may really come to pass. I wouldn’t buy one, and I suspect Cook would green light the product with decided reluctance and a groan on his countenance, but if there’s going to be a phablet, why not make the best one on the planet?