It’s hard to believe that, just six years ago, Apple was mocking smartphone makers who produced handsets with 4-inch displays or larger. At a press conference at the time, Steve Jobs ripped into manufacturers who built phones “you can’t get your hand around”, adding “no one’s going to buy that”.
By 2012, Apple was mocking smartphone makers who produced handsets with 5-inch displays. It’s really easy to make a bigger phone, said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, adding: “The challenge is to make it better and smaller.”
In 2013, new CEO Tim Cook defended the size of the iPhone 5, saying that its 4-inch display “provides a larger screen size for iPhone customers without sacrificing the one-handed ease-of-use that our customers love. So, we put a lot of thinking into screen size and believe we’ve picked the right one.”
Finally, a year later – just three years ago next month – Apple succumbed. The iPhone 6 emerged with a 4.7-inch display, and its big brother, the 6 Plus, with a “massive” 5.5-inch display.
It was a given at the time that Apple was responding to the rise of large-screen Android smartphones. But there was one device in particular that had woken it from its slumber: the Samsung Note.
The first version, released in October 2011, really was massive for its time: all of 5.3-inches. It was roundly mocked by Apple as well as other rivals. But it sold a million units in the first 30 days, and 10-million over the next 10 months. The large screen was here for good.
However, it has taken six models, gradually expanding from the initial 5.3-inches to 6.3-inches with the latest iteration, for the small screen to be banished for good.
Last week’s unveiling of the Samsung Note 8 was astonishing for two reasons.
Firstly, coming a year after the disastrous Note 7, which began exploding or catching fire around the world, it represented a complete turnaround from marketing disaster to public relations triumph. Critics and commentators were almost unanimous that this was the best smartphone produced so far in 2017.
Secondly, and more significantly for potential sales, it represented a massive increase in display size without an equivalent increase in phone size. The body is about the same size as that of the iPhone 7 Plus which, like the 6 Plus, carries a 5.5-inch screen. However, the Note 8 fits a 6.3-inch display into that body, thanks to more efficient use of the front of the phone, and what is now an iconic curved screen on high-end Samsung handsets.
Equally remarkably, the phone feels as comfortable in the hand as any 5.5-inch device, if not more so.
“We’ve succeeded in creating a large-screen phone with a comfortable grip,” says Craige Fleischer, head of mobile at Samsung in Southern Africa. “The curved edge has a sharper drop-off than the previous screens so there is more flat surface.”
The so-called “infinity display” of edge-to-edge screen is expected to become a standard feature in both high-end and mid-range phones. However, the innovative design is geared towards a greater purpose than size for its own sake.
Most obviously, it speaks to the rapid growth of streaming video on the smartphone. But there is a second factor, as the smartphone becomes the default computer for the average user.
“Millions of people have recognised that the Note was much more than a new smartphone, but a platform for productivity,” said DJ Koh, president of Mobile Communications of Samsung Electronics, at the launch of the Note 8 in New York last week.
The Note has long defined productivity on a smartphone, thanks to the S Pen, an interactive stylus that slides into the phone when not in use. The stylus evolves in tandem with the Note, and can now be used independently from the handset, on other compatible devices.
The sub-brand has also also pioneered multi-tasking on smartphones, not only opening two apps on the same screen, but now also, with one click, simultaneously opening two apps that are regularly used together. The bigger the screen, the more useful such functions become.
And, of course, the more useful the functions become, the more dependent users will become on large screens.
Already, 2013 in smartphone years looks like the previous century. Another three years from now, it will seem normal that people prefer their smartphones to computers or TV sets for their entertainment and work lives.