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Will mini smartphones boom or bust?

By Evan Wade / October 30, 2013

Remember the Pantech C300?┬áThat’s right, the “World’s smallest camera flip phone.” Even if you don’t remember that specific model, the sight of it has to remind you of the days when microscopic feature phones were all the rage. It’s a trend that has come and gone several times, and now, with smaller smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini hitting shelves, it appears some hardware manufacturers are willing to make a significant investment in tiny tech. The question is, will it make a big enough impact?

Phones get big, phones get small

Previous devices like the Palm Pixi were pushed on the public with limited success, but the goal of smaller phones are different this time around. According to mobile expert, Elliot Chenger, “I feel like ‘mini’ is just a buzzword to get people to rethink [devices with screens smaller than five inches].”

On the topic of phablets, Chenger said, “I think the fad of big devices really came from the desire to have high-resolution content at your fingertips. As people have explored these devices, they have generally come to either enjoy the real estate or they have decided that [carrying a larger phone] is just not practical.”

Then, of course, there’s the cost factor. Android developer, Mustafa Ali, says these so-called minis have already taken off as a trend due in large part to their competitive pricing. You can pick up a S4 Mini contract-free for less than $400 online, a factor that ultimately comes from lower development costs for manufacturers.

“OEMs spend a lot of time and resources to build their flagship devices and then possibly spend even more to market them,” Ali said. “It’s much easier and cheaper for them to build a mini version of their flagship than to build a mid-range device from scratch. A slightly smaller and less powerful version of a flagship device is a very good option for consumers who don’t really need a high-end device.”

A recent update says that may not be the case, claiming that mini smartphone sales “have reportedly been so slow that [mini-making companies like HTC and Samsung] are now forced to rethink their strategies.” The same site reports that other, larger phones from Samsung are doing just fine, indicating that the mini smartphone fad may fizzle before it truly gets a chance to get big.

The development aspect

Whatever consumers think of mini smartphones, developers will remain more or less unaffected by the trend. Apple, though yet to launch a mini device (the iPhone 5c is cheaper, but not smaller), will always have a strict set of rules and regulations for app developers, making things business as usual for the houses behind popular iOS apps.

The situation is just as common for Android app makers. “Having a variety of screen sizes is pretty much old hat to Android developers at this point,” says Senior Android Engineer, Adam Fitzgerald. “If the initial design phase starts with the assumption that screen size is variable, then a quality user experience can be achieved [no matter what the screen size].”

For phone manufacturers, making smaller phones means using different hardware. Rumors say Android 4.4 will offer a feature called Device Tree, which allows manufacturers to utilize a master ROM across several types of hardware. According to Ali, it won’t matter if Device Tree is in Kit Kat or not because Android makers are already pushing out a broad range of device sizes. “Getting Android to run on different hardware hasn’t been difficult,” assures Ali.

More options are always welcome

In the end, mini smartphones won’t impact developers’ day-to-day decisions, and it’ll be up to the market to decide whether they’re worthwhile. Simply put, they’re just another size option. If people want them, they’ll buy them. If not, the latest mini smartphone craze will vanish again. But, as history shows, it will probably be back.