Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dear Samsung, Thanks For Bringing The World The iPhone 6 Plus

Before most of us had gotten up close and personal with Apple’s new iPhones, the website BGR ran a post provocatively titled: “The truth hurts, Apple fans: You can thank Samsung for your big new iPhone displays.” Samsung liked it so much, it was featured in its new Apple-mocking ad, which reminds the world that Samsung — often the copier – was indeed first to market with a giant-screened smartphone. And it took years, literally, before Apple realized Samsung was onto something with its Galaxy Note phablets. But the folks in Cupertino have responded, producing not just the iPhone 6, but the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. To paraphrase Apple’s design chief Jony Ive it’s “beautifully, unapologetically a phablet.” And it wouldn’t exist were it not for Samsung and the fantastic market success of the Note series. So in a hat tip to BGR, I’m thanking Samsung as I marvel at the gorgeous iPhone 6 Plus, #phabulous.

The Note, as Samsung likes to remind us in an ad that is honestly mystifying in its purpose, wasn’t well received by critics at first. In that respect, it joins the iPhone, iPad, Macbook Air and iPod — Apple’s big four of mega-hit products from the new millennium. Thanks to Stefan Constantine, who produces Tab Dump, I have some data handy on how each generation of Note has been far more successful than the one before. The original took 9 months to sell 10 million units. The Note 2 bettered that by half, reaching the mark in just 4 months. And the Note 3 halved the time again. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 is due to arrive imminently and while it seems unlikely it can pull off the feat of selling 10 million in just 30 days, it’s absolutely fair to say it has become a big hit for Samsung. Indeed, it has spawned imitators from LG, Sony, HTC and even Nokia, all with screens bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus’ 5.5-inch diagonal.

Given that the Note invented popularized* the segment just 3 years ago, phablet growth has been nothing short of staggering. IDC sees 175 million being shipped in 2014, which is likely not far from the total number of iPhones Apple will ship in the calendar year. But if IDC is right, phablets are going to rocket past both the iPhone and also PCs next year. The firm see 318 million phablets being sold in 2015 against just 300 million PCs — and 233 million larger tablets. If that’s not impressive enough growth, IDC believes phablets will reach 593 million sold in 2018, growing 60% compounded over the next four years. Phablets are far and away the fastest growing segment in mobile, indeed in all of technology right now.

Those numbers, Apple could not ignore, in much the same way it brought out the iPad Mini after initially rejecting smaller tablets as a bad idea. As with the Mini, when Apple decides to join in, it does so with a bang. The iPhone 6 Plus is a stunning device. It has what might be the finest screen on any smartphone, certainly a worthy competitor to the current crown holder, Samsung’s Galaxy S5. The smooth curves of the all-metal body feel nearly seamless as they meet the gentle curve of the front glass. The large screen necessarily makes it the biggest iPhone to date, but it’s barely an ounce heavier than the 4s and thinner than an iPhone 5.

Phablets hold special appeal in Asia, where personal computers never reached the penetration they have in the U.S. and the idea of one single device that’s almost good enough for everything is especially desirable. I’ll have a more detailed look at this later, but it’s not unreasonable to argue if that was your goal, the iPhone 6 Plus would be as close to perfect as you could get right now. The wide array of iOS apps, the much improved ability to type on the larger screen, and the fantastic visuals make the 6 Plus one of the finest computers Apple — or anyone — has ever built.

But absent Samsung pushing the boundaries of size in smartphones, it seems unlikely Apple would ever have made such a device. While Apple’s history wasn’t as a one-size-fits-all company, it has taken a harder line with the iPhone. When everyone else kept moving larger, Apple focused on one-handed use and keeping the iPhone screen small enough to make that possible. And while it still sells those smaller phones in the now-less-expensive 5s and 5c, Apple only brought its newest and best features to the larger 6 and 6 Plus. The phablet, in fact, got unique capabilities the smaller model didn’t, including the best camera, display and battery life.

Seven years ago, it was reasonable for the New York Times to write: “Now, there will be plenty of people who will pass on the iPhone … who find the iPhone too big.” For a while now, many of us have been saying for a long while the iPhone has become to small: At least offer the option of bigger screens like those from Samsung. Ive and the rest of iPhone team at Apple have delivered, producing a phablet that’s so popular it’s selling out everywhere. BGR suggest that it’s even bringing some Android users over to the iPhone camp. Whether Apple would choose to admit it or not, the competition with Samsung and others is a good thing for the company. Each copies some of the best features from the other and tries to produce something new and appealing to draw in customers. Early returns indicate Apple has done that with the 6 Plus. The company — and all the buyers — owe a debt of thanks to Samsung.

* Hat tip to Charles Arthur of The Guardian for correctly reminding me on Twitter that the Dell Streak beat Samsung to the 5-inch smartphone plateau, arriving a year earlier in 2010. That makes Dell arguably the phablet pioneer and serves as yet another reminder that being first is rarely the most important thing.

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