Apple’s iPhablet and the Empty Hype Machine

How many more sizes is Apple actually willing to do?

People must love phones that don’t really fit well into pants pockets, because the market for oversized “phablets” will grow to 120 million units by 2018, according to Juniper Research. That’s quite a jump from the 20 million phablets shipped in 2013.

Which means the tech press is chattering about one thing: when is Apple going to enter the phablet game?

This happens every time another product category surges in popularity. When netbooks—cheap, small laptops meant for Web cruising and not much else—hit their peak in 2009, analysts buzzed endlessly about how Apple was losing out by not introducing its own version. (Apple eventually rolled out a small computing device, the iPad, which helped fatally undermine the netbook market.)

A few years later, Samsung and other Android manufacturers began issuing popular smartphones with larger screens, again sparking a lot of analyst angst over whether Apple would expand the diameter of the iPhone to match. (Apple did, to a point, with the iPhone 5.)

And who could forget the wails that erupted when smaller tablets gained traction, and observers wondered whether the flood of 7-inch screens would doom the iPad? (They didn’t; and Apple soon released an iPad Mini that proved a bestseller.)

If you listen to some of the pundits, Apple will face certain doom if it doesn’t start churning out iPhablets, like, yesterday. “Unless Apple acts quickly the Phablet market will shape up into a two horse race, without iOS,” Haydn Shaughnessy wrote on Forbes. “The reality is the fast developing markets like China, which Apple is trying to woo, make far more use of large screen applications like streaming services and games.”

Quick, Apple! Rush something to market!

It’s often a fool’s game to try and guess what Apple will do next; this is a company that’s long marched to its own drumbeat, instead of chasing the broader technology market. The rumor mill doesn’t help, either—in the months leading up to an Apple product event, a dozen reputable publications (often relying on the ever-popular unnamed sources) will publish conflicting stories about upcoming devices and services, which just gets everybody worked up.

With that caveat, it’s worth mentioning the current batch of scuttlebutt, which suggests Apple is indeed hard at work on some combination of phablets and iPhones with larger screens. “Numerous reports have now said that Apple will finally launch a bigger iPhone this year in an effort to take on smartphones with larger displays from the competition,” Boy Genius Report suggested earlier this month.

Steve Jobs would have never gone for phablets—this was the man who famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) denigrated mini-tablets in an October 2010 earnings call, and who prized “hand feel” as a key determinant in the original iPhone’s size. (If nothing else, phablets are a pain for many people to hold, unless they have large hands.)

But he’s dead, and current CEO Tim Cook seems a little more willing to listen to what the market wants, which is why you can walk into an Apple Store and purchase an iPad Mini. If his team decides phablets are a long-term business, and the margins work on paper, Cook could very well authorize their production—provided, of course, his manufacturing partners have sufficient capacity with all the other Apple products slated to roll off the production line in 2014, including a new version of the “regular” iPhone and (possibly) a smart-watch. Whatever its plans, Apple—ever the cautious company—isn’t prone to rushing into anything.


Image: Apple