Absolutely phabulous: The hysterical race to make the biggest smartphone screen possible

The first time I saw a Samsung Galaxy Note in the wild, it looked to me like a prop from an updated version of Lily Tomlin’s old Edith Ann bit. Back then I wasn’t conversant in the unfortunately named “phablet” category — a phone/tablet hybrid, get it? — so it simply resembled a smartphone on gadget-growth hormones; certainly, if the MLB were overlooking phone screen sizes, it would have suspended the Galaxy Note for the rest of the 2013 season, and the entirety of the 2014 season, too.

But it has since turned out that there is a substantial market for super-sized phones, which in theory can both function as a tablet and still fit in a (roomy) pocket. Samsung has gone onto sell millions of Notes, and Reuters has declared 2013 “the year of the phablet.” Even Apple upped the size of the screen on its iPhone 5 – from 3.5 inches on the iPhone 4S and all prior iPhones, to 4.0 inches – presumably in response to the growing appetite for larger displays.

You can guess, then, what one of the big new features of the latest Note iteration might be: It’s gonna be bigger! That one I saw a couple of years ago had a 5.3-inch display. Last year’s Galaxy Note II features a 5.55-inch display. The word today is that the new Galaxy Note III, to be formally unveiled in September, has grown to 5.7 inches. (At this rate, the Galaxy Note’s display will be a foot long in about 2045.)

A decade ago, the trend was reversed: Remember Derek Zoolander’s satirically tiny (and thus, at the time, chic) phone back in 2001? Perhaps some of the reasons for this total reversal in size-style are intuitive and logical. Smartphones are all about visual and tactile interaction, and bigger screens are easier on eyes (especially aging Boomer eyes) and thumbs (which have failed to evolve into sharp, pointy objects for faster texting). And most obviously: Being able to tuck a device discretely out of sight seems less important in the age of never putting devices away at all.

But there’s also some element here of the low comedy of industrial design “innovation.” If you think a 5.7-inch screen is impressive, wait until you see — a 6-inch screen! Oh, you think that’s all we got? Behold: Here’s the 7-incher that Zoolander would no doubt rock today, peacockishly taking calls by holding what resembles a small flat-screen TV against his face.

According to Wikipedia, 7 inches is the upper limit of the phablet. But there is no upper limit of design innovation, as witnessed via the opposite number of the huge phone: The wee tablet! The notable example here is the 7.9-inch iPad Mini. Which is like an iPad … but smaller. Best idea since the Whopper Junior! (Or maybe the iPod Micro, and its successors.)

The phablet fad, then, is just another example of the miracle of the marketplace, and the innovation it delivers: Smaller versions of big things, bigger versions of small things, or occasionally even smaller small things or markedly bigger big things. In the end, we always get what we want — another excuse to buy a new gadget. It’s phabulous.