iPhones, Phablets & iPads: Does Size Really Matter? [UPDATED]

A Flurry Analytics report recently suggested that display size and OS choice has all kinds of implications for the popularltiy of small devices, smartphones and tablets. The survey data suggests that phablets are a fad for now and that Android customers aren't really enthusiastic about full-size tablets.  I'd like to assess that report.

The article I'm diagnosing is, "Size Matters for Connected Devices. Phablets Don’t." The first caveat is that the data is drawn from active users in Flurry's system. However, the author, Mary Ellen Gordon, Ph.D., points out that that represents 80 percent of all usage*. That's a large sample size. [An additional Q&A with the Flurry Analytics author is at the end of this article.]

Secondly, the data is drawn from the top 200 device models. That's a significant data sample. The author breaks those down into five groups based on screen size.

  1. Small phones (e.g., most Blackberries), 3.5-in. or under screens
  2. Medium phones (e.g., iPhone), between 3.5 - 4.9-in. screens
  3. Phablets (e.g., Galaxy Note), 5.0 - 6.9-in. screens
  4. Small Tablets (e.g., Kindle Fire), 7.0 - 8.4-in. screens
  5. Full-size tablets (e.g., the iPad), 8.5-in. or greater screens

That breakdown is not arbitrary. The product designs tend to create the size categories. But as time goes on, the categories will no doubt blur.

Next, the author has a Ph.D. While that's not a ticket to an unassailable position, I like to see that. It tells me the author is trained in technical analysis and presentation.

On the other hand, one of the author's observations is not so convincing: "As the device base grows, we’re seeing an increasing variety of screen sizes, from sub-smartphones to full-size tablets and beyond. This poses both challenges and opportunities for developers who must consider how audiences, usage behavior and app category affinities vary by form factor."

I asked Ben Bajarin (Creative Strategies, Inc.) about this, and he pointed out that "Android scales apps automatically so there is no reason to develop phablet specific apps anyway." That suggests a final caveat: that even when confronted by graphs, a keen understanding of the ecosystem is in order.

Finally, anyone who has looked at one of those sand charts that displays the evolution of competitive products knows that any survey is just a moment in time. Better insights are obtained when looking at trends over time.


Given these caveats, one is probably on good ground to make some general observations over and above -- or in concert with -- the author.

Looking at the numbers for phablets, small tablets and full-size tablets, they appear at 2, 6 and 7 percent respectively. (See the chart below.) Phablets, while selling in the millions, by relative numbers, aren't really all that popular. Plus, small tablets and full sized tablets are about equally popular when the OS isn't a factor. But not when the OS is folded in. We'll see that next.

In the second chart (below), what really stands out is that, in the iOS world, full-size iPads make up a greater share of the devices used, 24 percent, versus just 2 percent for Android. Taking into account the absolute size of the two populations, one can still assert that customers may love their Android phones, but they're not flocking to full-size tablets with Android in the same way Apple customers are with iPads and iOS.

Big Android tablets: not so popular, relatively speaking, compared to Android smartphones.

In turn, that made me think that perhaps this has something to do with the Internet traffic stats we've seen on shopping with iOS and Android devices. Perhaps people are more comfortable shopping with an iPad than an Android tablet, whose population is much smaller anyway. I don't have more definitive data, and I present it with just a notion and need for further research.

Another thing I see is that while we've seen reports of the surging popularity of the iPad mini sales lately, it's only been on the market since October, 2012. So it only accounts for 2 percent of the iOS devices in use -- in this survey group, at this point in time.

Finally, from that second chart (below), it certainly appears that Android customers are more willing to acquire a 7-inch Android device (8 percent) than a full-size tablet (2 percent.)

A final observation, from the report's third chart, that intrigued me was:

Studying books and videos, it’s somewhat surprising that tablets, which possess larger screens, do not see a larger proportion of time spent. An explanation for the high concentration in time spent in smartphones could be that consumers watch videos from their smartphones on-the-go (e.g., commuting to work on public transit), whereas they opt for a bigger screen to watch video (e.g., computer or TV) when at work or home."

If you've ever wondered why the TV networks are so intent on providing sports coverage on these small displays, this data supports their enthusiasm.

Also, the above tendency has to be taken into account in those discussions of second screen phenomenon: watching home TV with a smartphone or tablet in one's lap. It would appear that second screen devices are primarily smartphones, not tablets. That surprised me.

There are other observations drawn by the author, but the ones I've cited stood out for me. Data like this gives us a glimmer of the kind of data that Apple executives look at. (Of course, Apple also has its own feedback mechanism in iOS.)

This data also reveals that popular discourse on the Internet, such as the current sales popularity of the iPad mini (versus installed base), the supposed popularity of phablets, and what devices people use to play games, read books and watch videos is often not born out in survey data. Popular wisdom can and does result in analysis of Apple's product plans that's just plain wrong.

Of course, I may have made some wrong observations myself. I tried to contact the author with some questions, but did not hear from her by publication time. [UPDATE, April 3: Dr. Gordon responded to my questions. Answers are below*.]


I like data of this kind when presented with a proper understanding of the origin and caveats. A specific survey and its specific context, a snapshot in time, and numbers are seldom definitive, even when presented in tech-speak and graphs, but with the right perspective, one can extract some interesting results and compare them to the conventional wisdom. It can help us understand better how Apple views the competitive situation.


* [UPDATE] Dr. Mary Ellen Gordon responded to some questions I had.

1. What does it mean to be "in Flurry's system"?

App developers can choose to install our software developer kit. Doing so enables them to get usage stats for their app (similar to the way Google Analytics works on the Web). Devices  on which that app is then downloaded appear on our system unless a user has specifically opted out. Through this process Flurry currently sees data from about a billion devices. That is the vast majority of devices currently in use. We see a smaller percentage of total app traffic because we only get information about things that happen within apps we track, but we now track about 300,000 apps, so it is still a large percentage of total app traffic.

2. When you say: "which represent more than 80% of all usage."  Do you mean that 80 percent of all customers are encapsulated by your collected data?

The analysis in the most recent blog post is based on 200 different device models (e.g., iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, iPadMini...). 80 percent of the billion or so individual devices currently in use (e.g., my iPhone 5, your iPhone 5...) are represented by those 200 different device models. There is a more complete explanation of this and the 80% [at our website.]