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How Do We Choose a Smartphone and How ‘Big’ is Size?, a Sit-Down at CE Week

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A number of the smartphone industry’s foremost innovators came together last Wednesday during CE Week to discuss an age-old question: When it comes to smartphone displays, does size really matter?

Moderating the dialogue was Mashable editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff, whose publication orchestrated the event, titled Mashable SuperSession: The Battle Over Smartphone Screen Size.

The three panelists represented the wide range of today’s mobile media world. Representing the advertising standpoint was Samsung’s director of product marketing, Ryan Bidan. Ross Rubin of Reticle Research, meanwhile, brought the analytical angle, and Chip Chick editor Helena Stone rounded out the panel with a media perspective. Along with a few particularly enthusiastic audience members, each of the three panelists provided valuable insight on today’s consumer electronics trends, along with their own personal predictions for the CE industry’s future.

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Left to right, panelists: Ryan Bidan, Director of Product Marketing, Samsung; Helena Stone, Editor-in-Chief of Chip Chick; and Ross Rubin of Recticle Research sit down with moderator, Lance Ulanoff, Editor-in-Chief at Mashable to talk smartphone screensize at CE Week 2013.

“A year and a half ago, people were looking for smaller and smaller [phones],” Ulanoff told the audience. Of course, that was well prior to the current screen size obsession that today has consumers reaching for smartphones equipped with increasingly larger displays. Recently, he added, companies like Asus, Nokia, and even Samsung have been manufacturing mobile devices that, while still used primarily as telephones, nevertheless feature higher than average specs, and screen sizes of five inches or more.

Having helped to lead the team that worked on the latest generation of the eight-inch Galaxy Note 8.0, Samsung’s Bidan had a few opinions of his own to add. He recalled launching the Galaxy S2 and the S3, which have 4.3- and 4.8-inch screens, respectively. “People said, ‘That’s giant! People won’t adapt to that,’” he recalled. And yet today, the 4.5-inch smartphone screen is essentially an industry-standard. As Bidan rightly pointed out, “It’s about choice.”

Customers, in other words, will buy what they like. That’s no secret. But when it comes to choosing one particular phone over another, what are the factors that influence their decision? According to Stone, it all comes down to functionality and opportunity. Before Apple released its first iPhone in mid-2007, she said, software didn’t exist that could handle huge screen sizes. “There wasn’t any need to put all your fingers on the screen.”

And that’s due to the fact that at the beginning of the smartphone revolution, as Stone explained, the user experience began and ended with content consumption. People were beyond thrilled to simply watch videos, play games and surf the Web. But smartphones, of course, have since evolved, and today they’re used not just for content consumption, but for content creation as well. They’re also used for taking those creations to the next level with the help of editing software and social networking apps. (Instagram’s photo filters and Twitter’s micro-video Vine application both come to mind.)

This swayed the panel’s conversation to the topic of smartphone portability. “For men, the size of the pocket has long been a constraint,” Rubin said, with a wink. He also joked that American men are understandably reluctant to carry around a “murse,” or man-purse. Ulanoff responded, pointing out that a man’s pants pocket size hasn’t varied much since 2007. “Is fashion,” he asked the audience, “out of sync with technology?”

Perhaps this actually parallels a theory that’s lately become popular throughout the CE industry—that a five-inch smartphone is marking some sort of unwritten line in the proverbial sand. Generally speaking, there’s an understanding that any smart device larger than five inches should be deemed a tablet, while anything smaller is simply a phone. “Where does the phone end,” Bidan asked the crowd, “and where does the tablet begin?”IMG_20130627_105926_931

Next, the conversation turned to the all-important issue of pricing. Rubin explained that as the average size of most common mobile phones has increased over time, he likewise believes that consumers will generally accept “seeing a bit more space to the phone, particularly at the same price.” The $199 price point is a popular one, he added. And yet if cost fails to grow alongside these gadgets, customers who are upgrading to new phone models will remain less picky over “a quarter-inch here or a half-inch there.”

For men and women, Stone suggested, there clearly is a difference in what’s considered comfortable. Stone explained that she believes in a ‘sweet spot’ for both demographics: for women, it’s a 4.3-inch phone; for men, it’s five inches.

And yet “at some point ergonomics take over,” Bidan added. Smartphones need to fit comfortably in a person’s palm, especially during those long stretches of time while a person is talking on it. As screen size continues to get bigger, he suggested, “you just won’t be able to hold that thing to your head.” Moments later, the room shared a laugh as an audience member stood up with his laptop case to his ear, ‘answering’ “hello.”

Toward the end of the session, Ulanoff again invited the crowd to participate, asking how many members of the audience generally travel with multiple smart devices. An impressive number of hands shot skyward—including those of the panelists themselves, all of whom admitted to having both a smartphone and a tablet on them throughout CE Week.

But is this where “convenience turns into inconvenience?” as Stone rhetorically asked. Supposedly not, given that each device purportedly fits into its user’s life for different purposes. Each of the three panelists agreed that they usually delegate certain tasks to certain gadgets—phones for communication and social media, say, and their tablets for all the rest.

Lastly, Ulanoff introduced the topic of smart watches, an emerging technology believed to be in production by Samsung, LG, and even Apple. Coincidentally, Sony announced its SmartWatch 2 that very same day.

Considerably small in size when compared to an average smartphone, smart watches nevertheless cannot currently be introduced as smartphone replacements. As with all wearable tech devices, smart watches are still dependent on their connection to a mobile device. Stone, for her part, is especially excited to get her hands on a smartwatch, and unanimously, the panel agreed that it was looking forward to the day when wearable tech becomes commonplace. That is, assuming it eventually does.

After all, a lot has changed in the CE industry since the iPhone was first introduced in 2007. The only sure bet for consumers and companies both is that the industry will continue to change. As Bidan from Samsung wisely put it, “We’re learning as we go.”

Also, be sure to check out GadgeTell’s newest in-houser Hannah Abrams’ awesome response to this conference, here.

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