When the 5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note was released in the run up to Christmas 2011, images of Dom Joly shouting in the library immediately sprang to many people’s minds. It was seen as a cumbersome device which pushed the boundaries too far, a niche smartphone which would only appeal to a small number of consumers.
Samsung threw its marketing might behind the device, educating customers as to what a larger screen has to offer. It also invested in clever software which reduced the impact of the large screen on core mobile tasks – ensuring that the phone was functional for calls and texts as well as videos and games.
A year and a half later, a second Galaxy Note has been and gone; Samsung’s 6.3-inch device aptly named the Mega has been launched; Sony’s released its flagship Xperia Z; and Nokia is developing its first phablet. All of this activity suggests the tide is turning and the case for a larger screen has been well and truly made. But there isn’t yet an industry consensus on whether large screens lend a competitive advantage. Apple has fiercely resisted the temptation to follow the large screen trend, insisting it makes using a smartphone unwieldy, and HTC’s latest flagship device – the HTC One – has virtually the same size screen as its predecessor.
The question is, should manufacturers be producing large-screen smartphones? Will it lead to the high levels of data usage and engagement that carriers are looking for, and will it ultimately lead to consumers remaining loyal to the brand? In essence, does size matter?
Brains vs. brawn
Consumers who own a phablet tend to be more engaged with their device than traditional smartphone users, especially when it comes to data-intensive activities such as video streaming and internet browsing. The Galaxy Note, for example, is used far more intensively than its smaller cousin, the Galaxy S III. This is important because bigger screens don’t just lead to an improved consumer experience; they also play a key part in customer retention. ComTech data shows that the more engaged consumers are with their device, the more likely they are to stay loyal to an operating system or brand when they upgrade.
However, the iPhone 5, which features a four-inch screen, generates higher levels of engagement than its larger rival the Galaxy S III, and in many instances even the giant Galaxy Note. This raises the point that while bigger screens can make people more engaged with their device, the content and user experience provided by the OS is an equally important factor. Quite simply, a Galaxy Note owner may have a large screen to watch videos on, but if the Android interface isn’t as compelling as iTunes then there will be limitations to its usage.
Apple benefits from its well-established iTunes interface, which supports downloading and streaming. iPhone owners are used to buying music and video and are also more likely to pay for other services such as apps and games. By contrast Android, as with other OS platforms, does not have such a long history or culture of payment.
Indeed, many apps which are paid for on iOS are free on Android, a factor which has reinforced the mindset of Android users that everything mobile related should be free. This largely explains why across the major European markets just 5% of Android customers pay for an app each month, compared with 13% for iOS.
In order for large screen devices to be more successful this mindset will have to be challenged. We know spending drives engagement and, in turn, brand loyalty. Carriers, content providers and manufacturers will have to work together to find a sustainable model which drives greater engagement. In the UK, consumers are happy to pay for monthly subscriptions. Perhaps pursuing more monthly film or game contracts could be one option.
It’s what’s on the inside that counts
Larger screens are opening up the potential for people to be more engaged with, and therefore more loyal to, their smartphone. Consumers are more likely to browse the internet, watch a video or play a game than ever before. However, an intuitive, accessible and functional interface is the more important factor at play, as the iPhone 5 so clearly shows.
Convincing consumers of the benefits of ever-larger screens isn’t the challenge - it is developing operating systems which support and encourage user engagement. The industry has made a shift in hardware development, but it must remember it’s what’s on the inside that counts.