The Un-Phoneness of 5-7in Mobiles

I’m not a fan of calling devices that can do voice communications "phones" when they have larger than 4in screens. Yes, part of that is grounded in the fact that phones are still held to the side of the head (by instinct) and that the idea of speaking/conversation for that mode of communication tends to be a dominant behavior. However, I do get it when we see devices which have those screens which are 5-7in in size (diagonal) and people want to use/refer to them as phones. It feels ok to do so becaue that is the context that we know and best understand. However, unless some major usability gaps change, I don’t think that such a characterization is correct.

Taken from a comment that I made on a recent GigaOm article:

Back when the Tab came out, a friend asked me if it could be his mobile phone replacement if he had a suitable headset. I thought that was a good idea for that size of device, provided that the voice command facilities of Android were up to par and that he had a headset with a one-line display that had decent battery life and clarity. He didn’t go that route, but understood why my comment to him was driven in such a meme. It would need to be voice-driven, then data-driven, even though for him the size of the screen addressed issues of accessibility most smartphones at the time didn’t.

This device gets that same kind of approach from me. Its a tablet, and as such its best uses should mirror that. Maybe that’s part of the attempt of this article, to poke at another usage scenario for mobility that’s not as screen-dependent even with a large screen at one’s disposal. But, I don’t think that it would make the best of impressions in a phone context, Android just isn’t built that way. Its a computer, and maybe Samsung tweaked the composition aspects with the stylus as HTC has. But, to be a phone, its got to excell at that aspect of communication that is usually reserved for something with a bit smaller of a screen, and more clear of a purpose.

You see, there are these larger devices which are tablets and another part phones. But, in order for them to work in that niche, their basics of use need to change. I think that with a refined Siri, we could see Apple finally go the route of a smaller iPad/larger iPhone. But, the usability will center around how the conversational nature of what you need to do is facilitated by that screen. And then the consumption aspects (reading, composing, navigation) which need that larger screen more accurately fit into that context.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a fan of that form factor when I had my N800 and N810 Nokia Internet Tablets. But, the problem in the polish (so to speak) was that the software was either something mobile shoved into a larger screen’s paradigm of use, or PC-like shoved into a smaller screen where it didn’t work. There were very few applications designed for that screen, that hardware, that emphasized the unique benfits of a device of that design. Skype was one of them (as was WordPy/MaStory, Xournal, and Firefox Mobile).

If we are going to accept that these devices (5-7in screened devices) are solid communicators, then their phoneness has to be designed accordingly. If that’s not able to happen, the un-phoneness will shower the overall user experience (UX) and what we will end up with is a niche of folks never fully living beyond their imposed constraints.