In October 2011, in Berlin, Samsung launched a phone the like of which no one had ever seen before: The Galaxy Note, with a massive 5.3-inch screen.
A lot of people laughed. “We’re not so sure that’s a good thing,” we said at the time. The screen seemed impossibly big — how would you fit it into your pocket? Is it really supposed to be a tablet? They were given a derisory nickname, “Phablets.”
Apple — marketing the 3.5-inch iPhone 4S at the time — largely ignored the trend. In 2012, it launched the iPhone 5 with a slightly larger 4-inch screen. The logic for going bigger but not too big was that many people used phones with one hand, and the 4-inch screen was the biggest you could go still comfortably using it without engaging two hands.
Now, three years later, with the news that Apple will launch two big-screen phones later this year, it appears that Apple has finally admitted it made a huge mistake by underestimating the demand for big screen phones and the design of them.
It’s a dramatic mistake that cuts to the core of Apple’s corporate philosophy: careful design. Apple prides itself on the thoughtfulness of its design and the care they put into their products. A big screen presents only a trivial technical challenge to a phonemaker, so this is overtly a design issue and not a technical issue.
Yet between 2011 and now, Samsung became the market leader in big-screen phones — the Galaxy S3 and S4 also had bigger screens than the iPhone.
But it is the Note, which is huge in Asia and less popular in the West, whose sales are remarkable. Some numbers:
- After its launch, the Note sold up to 10 million phones per month.
- Samsung sold 38 million Galaxy Notes since 2011.
- When the new Note 3 was launched it initially began selling the equivalent of 50% of all iPhone sales, by some calculations (that pace would presumably drop off in the weeks after the launch).
- In South Korea, 41% of Androids are Notes.
You can quibble over the statistics. What is not in doubt is that Samsung created a brand new type of smartphone market from scratch, and dominated it.
Apple lagged, and then copied it.
It’s a humiliating position to be in for a company that professes to make the best gadgets in the world. It was Apple, after all, who invented the touchscreen smartphone market back in 2007.
In hindsight it seems so obvious: What made the iPhone immediately great was that it had a big screen. Blackberrys and feature phones of the time had tiny little screens for texting and not much else. The big screen ruled.
Yet as the years rolled by, screens got bigger around Apple, and Apple stayed small. As a proportion of available models, the iPhone basically shrank.
Today, the iPhone is noticeably tiny. At CES in Las Vegas this year I noted that “I felt alone as I tapped away on my little iPhone 5. … My tiny iPhone looked like a dumbphone next to Samsung’s Galaxy and Note devices.”
So it should come as a huge relief to iPhone fans that Apple is finally catching up. Two — 2!! — 5-inch-plus iPhone screens are on their way. They will doubtless be as functional, reliable and well made as everything else Apple does …
… Which is why Samsung ought now to be terrified.