A year ago, phablets -- that is smartphones with a display greater than 5-inches -- were dismissed as something of a joke, a fad that would disappear as quickly as it had emerged. But now even Apple is in on the act with the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, and by the end of this year, phablet sales are expected to overtake those of notebooks.
As the unofficial global arbiter of high-tech taste, aspiration and consumer sentiment, when Apple moves into a product category its time has officially arrived. However, it's not just the iPhone that has morphed into phablet due to consumer demand.
The latest Google-designed smartphone handset, the Nexus 6, has a 5.9-inch screen, and Google has made it clear that it believes that from this point on, all new premium smartphones will have a 5-inch or greater screen.
At the start of 2013, Flurry Analytics, a company that monitors and scrutinizes mobile device and app use, studied activity across its networks and came to the conclusion that at just 2% of traffic, phablets -- a category created by Samsung with its first Galaxy Note handset -- were essentially a fad.
However, by the start of 2014, attitudes towards larger screens were beginning to change. An Accenture study of 23,000 consumers in 23 countries published in June found that 48 percent of those in the market for a new handset this year were sizing up one with a 5-inch plus display and that when the numbers were broken out by country, demand in emerging territories was greater still -- 67% of Indian consumers, 66% of Chinese and 65% of South African consumers in search of a new phone wanted a phablet.
Phablets are already proving hugely popular in Asia as they offer the benefits of a tablet and of a phone with voice calling features in a single, affordable device -- 25% of smartphones shipped to the Asia Pacific region are already of the phablet variety.
However, the US and Europe are also coming round to the idea of carrying a bigger phone because the way mobile devices are used is changing rapidly.
The Adobe Digital Index 2014 US Mobile Benchmark report, published in September, shows that smartphone owners are spending more time gaming, watching video content and reading, all of which are better with larger screens.
"A year ago, tablet browsing surpassed smartphones, and that trajectory was expected to continue," said Tyler White, an ADI analyst. "Since then, however, browsing growth by these devices has flattened, and we think this is mainly because smartphone screens are getting bigger. Now, instead of buying both a smartphone and a tablet, people are opting for phablets and relying on just this one device-with a larger screen-for all of their browsing."
Indeed, according to IDC data also published in September, phablet shipments are expected to hit 175 million in 2014 and by 2018 will represent 32% of the global smartphone market and 24.4 percent of the smart connected device market, which also includes notebooks and tablets. By the end of 2015 the research firm expects the phablet market to have overtaken the tablet market and by the end of this year will already be on a par with notebook shipments.
"While consumers in places like the United States and Western Europe are likely to own a combination of PCs, tablets, and smartphones, in many places the smartphone -- regardless of size -- will be the one connected device of choice", said IDC senior research manager Melissa Chau. The fact that phablets are becoming more affordable is helping them become more popular but even though the smartphone market is well and truly established, consumers are still "Trying to figure out what mix of devices and screen sizes will suit them best," siad IDC program vice president Tom Mainelli. "What works well today could very well shift tomorrow as phones gain larger screens, tablets become more powerful replacements for PCs, and even smart watch screens join the fray."
Even Flurry decided it was too hasty in writing off phablets, and earlier this year re-examined its networks to see how and why phablets are appealing to consumers. It found that phablet owners are the biggest readers -- accounting for 10% of all time on all mobile devices studied spent accessing e-books -- and that they are the most likely users to be social influencers, business travelers and entertainment enthusiasts.