The Galaxy Note is generally the punchline of a joke for two reasons. First, it has a stylus. Second, it’s big – probably the biggest phone on the market. The screen is 5.3 inches, which makes it an entirely new class of device – a mixture of phone and tablet. A “phablet.”
I do not own one, but I “tried one on” the other day at the local Best Buy and I really liked it. It was comfortable to use as a phone, and it still fit in my pocket (I’m 6-foot-4 – 193 centimeters – so have big pockets). I didn’t buy it because it’s new, and I want to see if it will survive, and I was vaguely afraid of being laughed at for my gargantuan Bigfoot phone.
So, after a race to the bottom in a quest for the smallest phone ever (remember the StarTac?), phone size is now on the upswing. The new tablet market is having a gravitational pull on screen size in the phone market, and screens are getting bigger.
My Droid X had a 4.3-inch screen which was considered embarrassingly large when I bought it 18 months ago. My new Galaxy Nexus S has a 4.65-inch screen. And the new Galaxy S3 has a 4.8 inch screen. The iPhone is stuck back at 3.5-inches, but not for long – the iPhone 5 is rumored to go to 4-inches.
There are two reasons why the physical growth in phones matters —
First, at the first of being completely obvious: as input devices, phones suck. They especially suck for people like me – as I mentioned, I’m a big guy, with big hands, and big fingers. I adored my Palm Pre, but trying to enter text on it was painful. It’s not Palm’s fault, as they have to design toward the average user, but that doesn’t make my experience any less crappy.
Besides bigger hands, I have a bigger head than most people (insert joke here). In fact, my Palm Pre was so small, that it probably looked silly being used as a phone. I’m sure at least one person looked at me and said, “Why is that man holding an eye shadow compact against his cheek?”
And this is where phones are so much different than other mobile devices. You input text on them differently, and use them for voice communication differently, and to do this, you make them intimate with your body type and size differently. Which means they’re sensitive to the size of the user’s body in ways that a keyboard or laptop will never be. If you fit neatly into the average percentile, good for you, but those of us on the extremes often have issues.
Ergonomics matters, and phones are a device which got too small for a lot of us. For people like me, phones need to get larger.
The second reason why the growth in phones matters is that phones and tablets are locked in an interesting dance of identity right now. I commend the Galaxy Note for completely muddying the waters by coming out and saying “I can be both.”
Remember at the end of the last century, when the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) was a thing? You had a PDA, and a phone, and this made total sense? One did things that the other did not. In fact, the proliferation of devices was considered so unavoidable that it created an entirely new type of pants for men.
But, then someone suddenly got the thought that this was silly, and the devices started to merge.
You can get your calendar on your phone? But that’s what your PDA is for…oh, I get it…
And, at that moment, the PDA was doomed. Depending on which way you looked at it, PDAs got phones, or phones got productivity apps, but five years later, the idea of a separate PDA was absurd.
And I wonder if this is going to happen with phones and tablets. I wonder if they’re going to merge. I have first-generation iPad with the 10-inch screen. It’s nice, but I bought a Kindle Fire with a 7-inch screen and find the size much more usable. I can fit in the pocket of a jacket (though it’s a bit too heavy to be comfortable, sadly). I think a smaller iPad would go over extremely well.
Now, if a 7-inch screen is usable, then we’re just a stone’s throw from the 5.3-inch screen of the Galaxy Note, and would that be enough? Put another way, how big does a phone screen have to get before we start thinking that having a separate tablet is as silly as having a separate PDA was ten years go?
So, this is why the Galaxy Note matters —
In the short term, it provides a much better input experience for most people and a much better ergonomic experience for larger people.
In the longer term, it really muddies the waters between phones and tablets. In doing this, it may trigger a trend of consolidation that will mark as an infection point in the history of both types of devices. The Note may not be the one that sticks, but it’s opened a door that some other device may walk through.
Only time will tell.