Phablet Phrenzy: Mobile World Congress heralds the triumph of the giant smartphone

Phablets are already stealing market share from tablets.

This week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, has provided new confirmation of the biggest trend in mobile computing - the inexorable growth in handset size as smartphones increasingly morph into big-screen phablets. Faithful TechWatch readers -- Hi, Mom! -- will know that I'm a big propronent of smartphones with "comically large screens," as one former colleague put it. But even I didn't expect the trend to gain so much momentum so fast.

In one day this week alone, for example, the New York Times posted not one, not two, but three different stories on how phablets are ruling the roost at Mobile World Congress.

BACKGROUND: Phablets are the phuture, no phoolin' and I was right: Phablets are taking over the world!

According to the Times, phablets are begining to bite into the growth of tablets, as more and more users decide a big smartphone can do the work of both devices. Research firm IDC says tablet growth will "remain impressive," but is already receding from its recent peaks, which may "indicate a significant slowing of the overall market." IDC predicts phablets (devices with screens bigger than 5 inches) will account for more than 30% of smartphone sales in China this year, topping 50% by 2017.

How big is too big?

The only remaining question? How big can phablets get? Some folks seem to think 5-plus inches is plenty big, and even that's a huge jump from the iPhone 5s' puny 4-inch screen. But we're increasingly seeing models with even bigger displays, like the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3, the 5.9-inch LG Optimus G Pro 2, the 6-inch ZTE Grand Memo II, and Huawei's humongous 7-inch MediaPad X1. That's the size of many full-on tablets, but it's also a phone.

The U.S. is actually behind the curve on phablets. NPD says phablets (defined as devices with screens at least 5.3 inches) accounted for only 4% of the domestic market in the last quarter of 2013. But if Apple delivers a rumored iPhone phablet later this year, that could change in a hurry.

As I've noted before, I'm certainly hoping it does. My iPhone 5 seems to be shrinking before my very eyes by comparison, and if Apple doesn't come out with a "full-size" phone soon, I may be forced to look elsewhere for the phablet of my dreams.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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