Years ago, a small phone was desirable. Now, most consumers won’t even bother considering a phone with a screen less than four or five inches wide. It’s understandable that consumers would desire a smaller, slimmer phone, when one takes into account the comically large “bricks” that represent the first foray into true mobile phone development. Companies scrambled to cram more capabilities into a smaller space, giving rise to the Blackberry and the flip phone.
From brick-sized mammoths that required an antenna to palm-sized flip phones with thumbnail screens, to the now widely used, borderline-tablet that is the Galaxy Nexus and iPhone 6, mobile phones themselves, let alone smartphones, have gone through quite an evolution since their first emergence.
Apple shook up this trend towards micro in 2007 with the original iPhone, signaling a sea change in the way we interact with our devices. Pushing buttons? How 2006. The touch screen, while not invented by Apple, has, years later, become the new standard due to the profligacy of the iPhone and its market look-alikes. Recognizing the consumer excitement generated by this newer, sleeker model, Android burst onto the scene with an even bigger screen. In 2011, it introduced what seemed like a gigantic phone at the time, at 5.3 inches.
What seemed decadently large in 2011 is now standard in 2015. In fact, the iPhone 6 Plus boasts a 5.5 inch screen, and many of its competitors are even larger, leading some to mockingly refer to these seemingly tablet-phone hybrids as “phablets.” As Gizmodo accurately points out, we’ve now begun discussing phone size as solely a matter of screen size, which belies the ever-important factor of palm and hand comfort. They encourage users to look past this almost obsessive focus on screen size and consider comfort of use when making a purchasing decision.
So why the ping ponging hyper-large and scaled down screen size that manufacturers have been putting out in the last few years? The first Apple touch screen model showed us a new and addictive way to use our phones: not just as a way to make calls, but now as handheld computer with all the features and capabilities of one’s desktop or laptop. It went from a single-use tool to a full-blown computer one can keep in their back pocket and access any time they needed—no desk or power source required. Today, millions of people watch video on their phones, send email, conduct video meetings, and manage entire businesses.
With the growth of video watching, it’s natural that screen size growth would follow. But, as Wired posits, we may be at peak phone screen size. They argue that phones simply can’t get much larger because “no one’s got a head so large it won’t look ridiculous even using a Galaxy Note II.” That phone, for reference, has a 6.3-inch screen, nearly double the size of the first iPhone screen.
Yet, despite the mad rush to increase resolution and screen size, IHS tech analyst Kevin Keller reminded in the same Wired article that smartphone displays are reaching a point where we’re beginning to go beyond the resolution capacity of the human eye, where any improvement will be imperceptible to the end-user. Consumer buying trends support this, as individuals appear to be gravitating toward mid-sized screens in the four-to-five-inch range. And, as Wired reminds, any bigger than six-inch screens the end user feels as though they have a full-on tablet strapped to their cranium when making a phone call.
Maybe double-palm phones are the next wave of the future. But more likely, we are reaching a state of equilibrium with phone sizes in general (bigger than years past, but always-smaller-than-a-tablet), with extra-small and extra-large options to suit niche consumers. There will always be those who want a smartphone and never browse the Internet or watch streaming video—for those, a huge display is the opposite of innovative. As the first generation the grow up with smartphone nears adulthood, however, trends seem to point towards these people becoming a smaller and smaller minority.
So while the future doesn’t appear to hold the thimble-sized Zoolander phone (a joke that seemed funny back before the fanciest phones ballooned in size), even as industry standards are finding a balance somewhere between the too-small iPhone 5 and the too-large iPhone 6, there will always be options to satisfy the different habits and preferences of today’s varied market of smartphone consumers.