As smartphone screens go ever-larger, some expect a backlash and a return to poky displays. But there is a powerful force behind the trend.
The 2014 flagship phones from Samsung, Sony and LG all feature displays larger than five inches, while the three are joined by Nokia, Lenovo, Huawei and Alcatel in producing phablets ranging from 5.7" to 6.5".
The last serious hold-out is Apple, but even that venerable old believer in small screens is rumoured to be planning a 4.8" iPhone 6. HTC, the only serious Android phone maker to remain below 5" in 2013 with its 4.7" HTC One, is expected to move to 5" with an upgrade this year.
To some, this inexorable move to bigger display is puzzling, given the continued popularity of the iPhones and their maximum 4" screens.
There are many reasons for screens going larger, including the fact that a larger display gives apps more functionality, and that the smartphone has become the new photo album. But there is another good reason, which will ensure the displays must keep increasing in size: the rapid and dramatic rise of video as one of the key functions of the smartphone. And that includes making, viewing, downloading, sharing and manipulating video.
The clearest clue to this trend can be found in the Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI), which is updated annually. The VINI's latest Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update for 2013-2018 shows that global mobile data traffic grew 81% in 2013.
The truly significant trend uncovered by Cisco was the finding that mobile video traffic had exceeded 50% of all mobile data, reaching 53% of traffic by the end of 2013.
By 2018, says Cisco, more than two-thirds of the world's mobile data traffic will be video: mobile video will increase 14-fold between 2013 and 2018, accounting for 69% of total mobile data traffic.
Clearly, when most of what you’re doing on a phone revolves around moving images, you want as much screen real estate as you can get. That alone should tell us that Apple is also likely to enter the superphone category – displays above 5" but below the phablet starting point of 5.5" – before long. Don't hold your breath for it this year, though – the brand has never been eager to follow the crowd.
But look for the moment at what the crowd is doing: According to the VNI, at the beginning of 2010 the top 1% of mobile data subscribers generated half of all mobile data traffic. At the end of 2013, the top 1% was generating only one tenth of mobile traffic. That means mobile data traffic has evened out significantly, and will continue to flatten across all users.
By 2018, says Cisco, the average smartphone will generate 2.7GB of traffic per month by 2018, a 5-fold increase over the 2013 average of 529MB per month.
South Africans often feel they are so far behind the curve that they've fallen off, but in fact this country is only about a year behind those global averages.
When Vodacom chief executive Shameel Joosub recently presented quarterly results for the three months ending December 31 2013, one of the big surprises was average data usage per smartphone: it had grown by 83.5% from the same period a year before, to 254 MB per month – almost exactly half the global average, but growing faster.
Underlining that point, the Cisco forecast states that the Middle East and Africa will have the strongest mobile data traffic growth of any region for the next four years, at 70% a year, ahead of central and eastern Europe's 68% and Asia Pacific's 67%.
Already YouTube is the third most popular destination among South African web users, after Google and Facebook. That contradicts a common view that bandwidth constraints hold back video growth in this country. As infrastructure improves and smartphone penetration grows, those visits will increasingly become mobile.
Add to this the growth of video-conferencing in South Africa, and the growing availability of tools to manage it professionally on a mobile device, and it is clear that, in the next few years, the smartphone's display will become more important than ever before. – Gadget.co.za
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee