Gadgets

The Quixotic Quest For A Small Smartphone Will Fail

Do you want a small yet premium smartphone, that offers all the benefits of the current crop of larger-screened devices in a much smaller footprint?

Eric Migicovsky does. The founder of the smartwatch company Pebble back in 2012 has laid out his dream smartphone on a new website (www.smallandroidphone.com) and is hoping that 50,000 similarly enthusiasts supporters will sign a petition to get the attention of Android manufacturers:

“It’s increasingly clear that a small premium phone is not on any OEM roadmap. So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. My goal here is to rally other fans of small phones together and put pressure on Google / Samsung / anyone to consider making a small phone. “

There is a long list of dream specifications, but the key items on the wishlist are a display that is under six inches and matches the iPhone 13 Mini, a dual-lens camera system that matches that of the Pixel 5, runs stock Android OS with an unlocked boot-loader and is powered by the SnapDragon 8 series.

Right now, no phone on the market meets these attractive power-user specs. Surely it just needs a manufacturer to recognize small and powerful to run with it? The problem is that when consumers were presented with small phones that pack in the specifications of a high-end phone in the past… they didn’t buy enough of them.

The best example here is Apple. The iPhone 12 Mini has been heralded as a small iPhone that packed in the same features and capabilities as the regular iPhone 12. Aside from being an iOS device, and serving a very much locked-in market, the sheer number of iPhone fans suggests that there should be enough of them that want a small smartphone that this would be an easy win for Apple.

Reader, it was not an easy win for Apple.

Time and again, the order books for the smaller iPhone were cut, while the larger iPhones took a greater market share. While Apple does have the iPhone SE, it’s very much a mid-range handset when you look at the rest of the specs beyond the size …

… yet the iPhone SE remains far more popular than the iPhone Mini. Apple fans who wanted the smaller size picked up the iPhone SE knowing not only that the specs (such as the screen size) were lower than the main line of iPhone, but there would be an iPhone Mini launched just a few months later.

With modern components, the specs of a smaller smartphone that sits in the mid-range price bracket do not need to be outstanding, they just need to be good enough to get the job done.

And this is where the argument over small phones always comes back to. If you are pushing hard for a physically smaller size, the market has shown time and time again that pushing flagship specs into the small space does not sell. If you want a phone with flagship specs to sell, you are going to have to bump the size up.

Through years of iteration, the smartphone market has stratified into well-defined market spaces. You have your very high-specced very large phones at the top (and above that the foldable). You have your high-specced and reasonably sized phones, your mid-specced and reasonably sized phones, a few mid-specced and smaller phones, before you hit the mid- to low-spec handsets at the lower part of the price ladder.

Is there going to be a demand for phones outside of these tranches? For sure. As of the time of writing this, there are 24,000 signatures on the site. Which is, I suspect, two orders of magnitude lower than what would be needed to get any major Android manufacturer interested in starting to research the project’s potential.

You can’t always get what you want. Any hardware project has to have trade-offs. And the trade-off in a small smartphone with high specs is simple… there’s very little commercial interest. It’s been tried before and there’s no reason to revisit those conclusions.

Now read the latest smartphone headlines in Forbes’ weekly Android Circuit digest …

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