Commentary

Phab Is Pfun - But Something Even Bigger Is Coming

The personal sea change of going from the diminutive domino that was the iPhone 5 (or at least it feels that way now after a week with the 6 Plus) is a shift in mobile sensibilities. In my head I am transitioning from thinking of mobility as portability -- having select content available anywhere -- toward ubiquitous functionality. A week and a half into pocketing Apple’s behemoth for work and play has already redirected some tasks, especially media consumption, and made the prospect of downscaling to a smaller phone doubtful.

The Plus grows on you. Once the sense memory of the older smaller iPhone fades, the Plus just doesn’t seem nearly as laughably large as it did on day 1. In fact, aside from it thwapping my thigh when walking up stairs in cargo pants (which are advisable iPhone 6 Plus fashion) I am never conscious of having a mini-computer in my pocket.

And there is no mistaking that the monster is stirring even when in silent mode.

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“I can feel your phone buzzing from here,” my wife tells me from her living room perch on a nearby couch six feet away. I have been accused in the past of ignoring phone calls and messages when I just failed to detect the subtle phone vibrato. Problem solved. Even if I miss the call, the person sitting next to me can probably alert me to it.

Indeed, one under-reported feature of the Plus is that it might double as an adult sex toy. The vibration from this thing is formidable and likely multipurpose. Just wait for the relevant apps to leverage the feature.

One of the most noticeable changes in going phab is being cut off from some common phone behaviors and utility. At first, the size and fragile grip associated with the device seemed to depress my using the Plus as a watch, for instance. Slipping the thing up from the pocket for a waist-level look becomes impractical. At least for the time being, there is a tendency to treat this thing with a lot more care and perhaps to avoid the most casual uses. Pulling it from your pocket is just that wee bit more of a bother than it once was and so you ask yourself, is this lookup worth it?

For me the Plus also gets disqualified as a gym iPod. It is too enormous and heavy for most gymwear, and armband wear seems a non-starter. The beauty of having a phone as an iPod in the gym was its persistent connectivity. It is the perfect podcasting device. It requires no syncing with the PC, can pass music to my car audio on the way to the gym, pause and resume when I work out. The experience is seamless. But this little change is indicative of how phablets make you graduate from phone as portability to phone as roaming PC.

All that said, the screen size for me still trumps the new inconveniences of a jumbo phone. In landscape mode you can now do credible site browsing. Video viewing also passes a tipping point of plausibility. There is enough visible detail at enough scale to view at close quarters without feeling as if you are missing anything.

And the gaming -- oh the gaming. Although I have never been a fan of virtual motion control on a touchscreen, the Plus is now vying for dominance with my PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, as well as the iPad Mini. While Bioshock Infinity is still a tough monster to manage at this scale, other games I reserved for the Mini or Air are all much more accessible here.

The bad news for media and advertising is that some site layouts and a lot of standardized ad units just look terrible on the larger screen. One of the first things that struck me about browsing on the Plus is how it breaks a lot of advertising. A number of ad units retain their mobile phone scale on the larger screen and look Lilliputian. Many mobile layouts are designed for narrow feeds and end up filling only the left side of the screen.

There is a lot of white space when browsing standard Web content on this thing. And the trendy fat image style that so many sites are adopting lately is especially tiresome on a bigger screen. It wastes the extra real estate with images that feel more oversized than lush. Clearly as these screens get larger the sites themselves will need to consider how their layouts really do work at different scales. In fact, if there is one current drawback to the larger screen it is that it is wasted in too many cases. Rather than giving you more information for greater functionality and efficiency, the screen often is just blowing up the smartphone. At its worst, the mobile experience on a Plus feels like the app experience on Android and Kindle tablets -- a magnified smartphone.

It is curious that after so many years in which electronics and the PC world placed miniaturization as a core value, this most personal gadget is reversing course. Remember the SNL Weekend Update skits lampooning Steve Jobs and his incredible shrinking iPods? No more. But it is probably a mistake to ascribe to the popularity of Samsung and Apple’s larger phones some general shift in scale. As connectivity migrates to wearables, cars, appliances, signage, it is more likely that we are seeing a more radical fragmentation of media away from standardized forms. I take the larger screen less as a fact of mobile life than a symbol of where mobility is headed. It indicates the increased importance of connectivity in all our lives and the indispensability of the digital environment minute by minute. 

Ubiquitous connectivity will allow for countless styles and personal preferences for being “connected” either to one another or to some zeitgeist we are anxious about missing. Some people will combine watches, cars, tablets, laptops, etc. into their own personal multiplex that fits their own habits and needs. For marketers, targeting by device will become maddening, and perhaps beside the point. How people mix and blend their own sets of connected points will be as personal and idiosyncratic as the way each of us organizes our desk drawer or closet. For a century and a half, dominant media machines determined how and where content was experienced. Untethering media from specific circumstances is one important part of the next media revolution. Just as exciting and daunting is our ability to create for ourselves a unique and personal media environment.     

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