SINGAPORE/HONG KONG, Sun Jan 6, 2013 - Call it phablet, phonelet, tweener or super smartphone, but the clunky mobile phone - closer in size to a tablet than the smartphone of a couple of years back - is here to stay.A surprise hit of 2012, it is drawing in more users, more handset makers and is shaping the way we consume content.
"We expect 2013 to be the Year of the Phablet," said Neil Mawston, UK-based executive director of Strategy Analytics' global wireless practice.
While Samsung Electronics Co Ltd has blazed a trail with its once-mocked Galaxy Note devices, now other manufacturers are scurrying to catch up.
At this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Chinese telecommunications giants ZTE Corp and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd will launch their own.
ZTE, which collaborated with Italy's designer Stefano Giovannoni for the Nubia phablet, is scheduled to launch its 5-inch Grand S, while Huawei brings out the Ascend Mate, sporting a whopping 6.1-inch screen, making it only slightly smaller than Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet.
"Users have realized that a nearly 5-inch screen smartphone isn't such a cumbersome device," said Joshua Flood, senior analyst at ABI Research in Britain.
Driving the phablet's shift to the mainstream is a confluence of trends. Users prefer larger screens because they are consuming more visual content on mobile devices than before, and using them less for voice calls - the phablet's weak spot.
And as WiFi-only tablets become more popular, so has interest among commuters in devices that combine the best of both, while on the move.
According to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, the monthly data traffic for every smartphone will rise fourfold between now and 2018 to 1,900 megabytes.
The upshot is a market for phablets that will quadruple in value to $135 billion in three years, according to Barclays. Shipments of gadgets that are 5 inches or bigger in screen size will surge by nearly nine-fold to 228 million during the same period, though estimates vary because no one can agree on where smartphones stop and phablets start.
But that's the point, some say.
"I think phone size was a preconceived notion based on voice usage," said John Berns, a Singapore-based executive who works in the information technology industry. He recently upgraded his Note for the newer Note 2 and bought another for his girlfriend for Christmas. "Smaller was better until phones got smart, became visual."
The Asia-Pacific is, and will remain, the world's biggest market for phablets, says ABI's Flood. Last year, the region absorbed 42 percent of global shipments, a proportion that will expand steadily over the next few years to account for over 50 percent of shipments by 2017, according to ABI figures.
"Countries like Japan and South Korea will be major markets for phablets," Flood said, adding that China, India and Malaysia would see increasing demand for larger screen devices as they roll out 4G networks extensively.
Samsung has been both the engine and beneficiary. While other players shipped devices with larger screens earlier - Dell Inc launched its Streak in 2010 - it was only when the Korean behemoth launched the Galaxy Note in late 2011, with its 5.3-inch screen, that users took an interest.
"The Streak was launched at a time when 3-inch smartphones were standard and the leap to a 5-inch Streak was a jump too far for consumers," says Strategy Analytics' Mawston.
"The Galaxy Note was launched when 4-inch smartphones had become commonplace, and the leap to 5-inch was no longer such a chasm."
THE BIGGER, THE BETTER
Since then Samsung has bet big on bigger: its updated Note has a 5.5-inch screen and its flagship Galaxy S3 - the best-selling smartphone in the third quarter of 2012 - has a screen that puts it in the phablet category for some analysts.
Samsung accounted for around three quarters of all phablets shipped last year, according to Barclays' Taipei-based analyst Dale Gai.
Samsung's marketing heft has paved the way for others. LG Electronics Inc accounted for 14 percent of shipments in the third quarter of last year, according to Strategy Analytics.
HTC Corp's 5-inch Butterfly - called the Droid DNA in the United States - has been selling well in places where Samsung is less dominant, according to Taipei-based Yuanta Securities analyst Dennis Chan. The first batch sold out soon after its December launch in Taiwan.
"I don't think we can say that Samsung invented phablets," said Lv Qianhao, head of handset strategy at ZTE. "But it did do a lot to promote this product category, which helped create tremendous demand."
Phablets are also proving popular in emerging markets.
A poll of nearly 5,000 readers of Yahoo's Indonesian website chose Samsung's Galaxy Note 2 as their favorite mobile phone of 2012, ahead of the iPhone 5.