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September 16, 2014

The unpredictable nature of screen sizes

It's a mad, mad, mad world as far as the screen size of mobile devices goes. Witness...

For smartphones, 4.7 inches or so now seems the least customers will accept, and 5.5 inches or larger is better. When Apple introduced its iPhone 6 (4.7 inch) and iPhone 6+ (5.5 inch), the demand was such that both Apple's and AT&T's websites couldn't keep up. The AT&T website, in particular, was so messed up from all the pre-orders of giant phones that almost a week after I tried to place my own order, I still have no clue whether the order went through or not.

Dial back a couple of decades to the dawn of handhelds. The first Apple Newtons and Tandy/Casio Zoomers and such all had displays in the 5-inch range, and all were considered much too big and heavy. Which, of course, they were. So the Palms and Pocket PCs that followed weighed less and had much smaller screens. The standard screen size for an early Microsoft CE-powered Pocket PC, for example, was 3.8 inches, and that was quickly replaced by the 3.5-inch format. Phones weren't smart at that time, and when they did start getting some smarts screens got progressively smaller as the quest was for smaller and smaller phones.

This drive for the tiniest phones possible had an impact on industrial handhelds, with many switching to 3.5, 3.2 and even 2.8-inch screens, much too small for most serious work.

What happened when the iPhone and then Android phones came along was that phones stopped being just phones and became computers with very small screens. The screen size issue was first addressed with "apps," software specifically designed for tiny screens, and then, increasingly, with larger screens as more and more customers wanted to do "real" computer work on phones. The lure and tangible benefits of larger screens outweighed the inconvenience of having larger and larger phones, and so now we have phones with screens measuring almost six inches diagonally. Obviously, it's not a trend that can go on.

Interestingly, tablets and laptops followed different trajectories.

Laptops initially had very small screens, because the industry didn't know yet how to make larger LCDs. Once that technological hurdle was solved, screens became ever larger, with laptop screens growing to 17 inches. That meant size and bulk and weight and cost. Many attempts at smallish, lightweight "boutique" laptops failed due to cost, until netbooks arrived. Despite their tiny screens they sold in the tens of millions, primarily based on their very low cost. The low cost, unfortunately, also meant low performance, and so customers demanded more speed and larger screens. The industry complied, but once netbooks were large and powerful enough for real work, they cost and weighed more and customers abruptly stopped buying and abandoned the netbook market in favor of tablets or, more specifically, the iPad.

Interestingly, despite the decreasing costs of large screens, laptops all of a sudden became smaller again. Apple dropped their 17-inch models and is devoting all energy on super light 11 to 13 inch models. And it's rare to see a ruggedized laptop with a screen larger than 15 inches, with most being in the 12 to 14 inch range.

With tablets, customers don't seem to know what they want. Historically, the first attempt at tablets and pen computers back in the early 90s was all 8 to 10 inch screens, primarily because there weren't any larger displays available. When Microsoft reinvented the tablet with their Tablet PC initiative in 2001/2002, almost all available products were 10 inches, with the 12-inch Toshiba Portege 3500 being the sole deviation, making it look huge. None of the Tablet PC era tablets and convertibles were successful in the consumer markets, though, and that lack of interest didn't change until the iPad arrived.

The iPad set the standard for a "full-size" tablet with its 9.7-inch display that seemed neither too large nor too small, though many didn't know what to make of Apple sticking with the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio at a time where every display was going "wide." The aspect ratio issue hasn't been resolved as of yet, and screen sizes remain an issue. Initially being unable to get any marketshare from Apple, competitors tried another way by going smaller and cheaper, and suddenly everyone predicted 7-inch tablets were the sweet spot. And the 7-inch class was successful enough to get Apple to issue the iPad mini which, however, never sold nearly as well as the larger original.

With tablets getting smaller and smartphones larger, the industry came up with the awkward "phablet" moniker, with "phablets" being devices larger than phones but smaller than conventional tablets. But now that phone displays are 5.5 inches and larger, "phablets" have become "phones," and the survival of 7-inch tablets seems in doubt, unless people suddenly decide that a 7-inch "phone" is desirable, in which case the old 1992 EO440 would look prescient rather than absurd.

As is, no one knows what'll come next in terms of screen size. Even years after the first iPad, tablets with screens larger than 10-inches have not caught on. Phones as we know them simply cannot get much larger or else they won't fit into any pocket. And the size of traditional notebooks will always be linked to the size of a traditional keyboard, the operating system used, battery life, and the cost of it all.

It should be interesting to see how things develop. And that's not even getting into display resolutions where some phones now exceed the pixel count of giant HD TVs

Posted by conradb212 at September 16, 2014 04:57 PM

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