Phablets Are a Niche, Not a Fad

Phablets are basically the Rodney Dangerfield of smartphones. Despite the popularity of jumbo handsets like Samsung's Galaxy Note, they get no respect.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Phablets are basically the Rodney Dangerfield of smartphones. Despite the popularity of jumbo handsets like Samsung’s Galaxy Note, they get no respect.

The latest undeserved diss comes from Flurry, an analytics firm that measures app usage. Its latest data shows that phones with 5- to 6.9-inch screens only account for three percent of devices in Flurry’s system, and for only three percent of active users on those devices. That led Flurry’s Mary Ellen Gordon to conclude that “Phablets are a Fad.”

Gordon argues that app developers shouldn’t bother writing software for huge smartphones, because the market isn’t big enough compared to other screen sizes. “Phablets appear to make up an insignificant part of the device installed base, and do not show disproportionally [sic] high enough app usage to justify support,” she wrote.

Let’s dismantle this argument, shall we?

For one thing, there’s a big difference between a niche, which can thrive in lieu of mainstream success, and a fad, which implies falling out of style and coming to an abrupt end. There’s plenty of evidence to support the former, and Flurry doesn’t offer any proof of the latter. Samsung’s original Galaxy Note reached five million shipments within five months of its October 2011 launch. The Galaxy Note II¬†reached that same milestone in two months.

And the Note II is still going strong. In January, ChangeWave Research found that 23 percent of future Samsung phone buyers were interested in the Note II, compared to 69 percent for the Galaxy S III. That’s a solid niche.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Besides, it’s not fair to compare the number of phablets to other devices, considering phablets haven’t been on the market for very long. The Galaxy Note was the first device to successfully bridge the phone-tablet gap (not counting the failed Dell Streak 5), and it’s only about 16 months old. Samsung’s competitors are only now starting to offer alternatives, like the LG Optimus G Pro and the ¬†Huawei Ascend Mate (pictured).

Meanwhile, the lines between extra-large phone and “phablet” proper are blurring, with phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and HTC’s Droid DNA that have 4.99-inch displays. To Flurry, that hundredth of an inch is the difference between a mid-sized phone and phablet. To everyone else, it’s a sign that people enjoy big phones, no matter how they’re labeled.

Flurry isn’t picking on phablets for no reason. The firm is arguing that app developers shouldn’t waste their time focusing on these larger screens because the market’s not big enough. But even that conclusion doesn’t make sense. It assumes that to make a successful app, developers must target the biggest possible audience. That’s not always the case.

Just look at all the third-party apps designed for the Galaxy Note’s S Pen stylus. These developers saw the opportunity to serve a niche market, and some of them have made good money doing it. Among the selection, I see a $4 handwriting app specifically for the Note that’s been installed at least 5,000 times, and a $5 Galaxy Note painting app that’s been installed at least 1,000 times.

I don’t own a phablet and I’m not an app developer. But as someone who really liked the Galaxy Note II, I’m always puzzled when phablets come under attack. Extra-large phones aren’t for everyone, but they deserve credit for being more than just a fad.

They could, however, use a better name. I nominate “Dangerfields.”