"It makes a lot of logical sense, especially as smartphones are becoming less and less phone and more and more computing devices," said O'Donnell, striking a stance he has held for some time and spelled out in a piece he wrote two weeks ago for the analyst-centric Techpinions.
To O'Donnell, those who sneer at phablets, who poke fun at people who hold what they see as enormous phones to heads, miss the point. "There's only a small portion of time spent with a smartphone talking on it," said O'Donnell. "When you accept that smartphones are used primarily for information access, then a larger screen makes sense."
Other arguments for Apple growing the iPhone's screen — while still offering the now-standard 4-in. display in other models — range from the Cupertino, Calif. company's desire to be a major player in China specifically, Asia in general, where larger screens are currently most popular, to its renewed push of larger-screen tablets, best illustrated by the thinner, lighter iPad Air.
Not that North Americans have shunned the bigger phones.
Nearly a fourth of U.S. consumers who upgraded their phones between June and December 2013 picked a phone with a screen that was 5 inches or larger, said Carolina Milanesi, the strategic insight director of Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, citing her firm's regular consumer surveys.
And Apple is losing out, she said. "Twenty-six percent of U.S. consumers upgrading to a device with a screen of 4.5 inches or larger are coming from Apple and going to Android," Milanesi said in an email.
She thinks Apple will go bigger in 2014, too. "I struggle to see them go beyond 5.5 inches, though," Milanesi said. "I think a larger phone would be a nice companion to a larger iPad, if you believe the talk of a 12-in. iPad."
As smartphones acquire larger screens, they will begin to disrupt sales of the smallest tablets, the experts said. A smartphone is almost always able to connect to the Internet, a plus when most tablets, especially those in the 8-in. and smaller form factor, are Wi-Fi only. And a 5-in. smartphone screen is close enough to a 7-in. tablet display to make the latter superfluous.
"This will spell trouble for the smaller tablet screen sizes," said Llamas.
"With a 5-in. or 6-in. smartphone, I can get the vast majority of what I have in a tablet, plus network connectivity," echoed O'Donnell.
The toughest decisions for Apple will be how to handle the increased size and what resolution to pick, the analysts said. Ideally, an increase should not impact developers, not require them to rework their apps to make their wares fit the new size and/or resolution, but let them take advantage of the bigger canvas.
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