It’s not often that this happens, but it seems as though BlackBerry (BBRY) has its fingers on the pulse of what smartphone-buying consumers want — and is reacting to that demand more quickly than Apple (AAPL).
While Apple’s fingerprint-scanning, 4-inch flagship iPhone 5S goes on sale in a matter of days, BlackBerry has unveiled its new top-of-the line phone, the Z30, boasting a 5-inch display. Consumers might find biometric security an interesting feature, but the one signal they’ve been sending clearly to manufacturers for years is that bigger is better.
The demand is deafening enough that BlackBerry got it … and yet, Apple didn’t.
Remember when BlackBerry (then Research In Motion) ruled the smartphone market with devices that sported physical keyboards? Apple figured out what consumers wanted and released the iPhone, with its simplified user interface and touchscreen display. BlackBerry’s co-CEOs rifled off a number of quotes on these consumer-friendly features that have haunted the company ever since — gems like: “The most exciting mobile trend is full Qwerty keyboards.”
By sticking with their guns and ignoring the touchscreen displays that consumers demanded, BlackBerry let Apple and then smartphones running Google’s (GOOG) Android dominate the smartphone market.
Now, however, it’s Apple that’s stubbornly resisting a key consumer demand with the current generation of smartphones.
When the original iPhone was introduced in 2007, then-CEO Steve Jobs described the device’s 3.5-inch display as “huge.” Jobs was insistent that the 3.5-inch display was the ideal size for one-handed use, and as recently as 2010 he said, “no one’s going to buy that” when talking about competing smartphones with displays more than 4 inches in size. In 2012, Apple VP Phil Schiller dismissed rival Samsung’s (SSNLF) Galaxy S III smartphone and its 4.8-inch display, saying, “(It’s) really easy to make a new product that’s bigger. Everyone does that. The challenge is to make it better and smaller.”
With big smartphones and so-called phablets taking off in sales, Apple did budge slightly with the iPhone 5 and its 4-inch display, but it kept the iPhone 5S at that size, so the iPhone remains the smallest flagship smartphone out there.
Consumers are using their smartphones for just about everything today. They’re playing games, watching movies, reading e-books, surfing the web, updating Facebook (FB), composing documents, reviewing spreadsheets and editing photos. These activities benefit from more visual real estate. Add in the fact that a 5-inch or larger smartphone can replace a 7-inch tablet for many consumers — saving them money by skipping the second device — and you can see why the bigger form factor is increasingly popular. Phablet sales (smartphones with 5-inch and greater displays) for the second quarter of 2013 were up 620% year-over-year.
Consumers aren’t just voting for bigger with their wallets. CNET surveyed iPhone owners prior to the iPhone 5S reveal, and among the features that Apple’s customers most wanted to see in the new smartphone were a bigger display and better battery life.
Which brings us around to BlackBerry’s Z30, unveiled today in Asia.
The latest device since the company’s faltering comeback began, the Z30 is exactly the kind of smartphone consumers are clamoring for. The Z30 has a 5-inch Super AMOLED display, a snappy 1.7GHz processor with quad-core graphics and a huge battery designed to last for “up to 25 hours of mixed use” — perfect for doing virtually anything on the go, and the Z30 won’t leave you looking for a recharger before dinner.
Consumers might not be flocking to BB10, but at least BlackBerry read the tea leaves and delivered hardware that satisfies demand. Give BBRY props for that. (Too bad it didn’t arrive in January …)
Apple has had its head in the sand for several years now. A smaller smartphone is easier to operate with a single hand, but that’s not the only yardstick that people are measuring desirability with any longer. Some consumers want to be able to see more stuff on their phone. Pinch-to-zoom was cool in 2007, but no one wants to have to pinch-to-zoom everything on their iPhone. They want a bigger display, end of story.
BlackBerry made the mistake of ignoring consumer demand for touchscreens over the Qwerty keyboards because it was convinced physical keys offered a better typing experience. Consumers didn’t actually care, and BBRY paid dearly.
Apple at least has been rumored to be testing out larger iPhone form factors for 2014. But with iPhone’s global market share continuing to slide, that process needs to be ramped up.
After all … Apple’s now playing catch-up with BlackBerry.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.