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Taking Hold

When Soyeon Park signed up for phone service on her new Samsung mobile device, she got something she hadn’t bargained for: a lot of good-natured teasing from her co-workers.

“We always try to make fun of her” for having a large phone, said mentor and business partner Y.Y. Zhou.

Park went big when it came time to upgrade her phone, choosing a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. She admits the device is so big that she often needs both hands to operate it. Despite the ribbing, the small-statured Park defends her choice of smartphones, saying the big screen is an excellent tool to show prospects the potential of the service offered by her San Diego startup, Whova.

The business offers a multipurpose app for people who organize and attend large group events.

With its 5.7-inch screen, the Galaxy Note 3 falls into the category of “phablet.” It is bigger than a phone but smaller than a tablet. Industry observers came up with the word phablet since it occupies the middle ground between phone and tablet.

Sunny Fugate, a 37-year-old civilian scientist who works for the U.S. Navy in San Diego, prefers his Apple Inc. iPhone 6 Plus, one of the more popular phablets. Its screen is 5.5 inches, measured diagonally.

With a bigger screen and more space for electronics, the phone can hold a battery that lasts much longer than a conventional smartphone’s. The battery can go two, three or four days before it has to be recharged, Fugate said.

Often Fugate can keep the phone in his pocket or backpack, where it acts as an unseen intermediary. He might use Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL)’s Siri robotic assistant and dictate a message into his Apple watch, which relays it to the big phone, which forwards it to the recipient. Fugate likes to use the phablet as a reader. “The text is a little larger” than it is on a standard smartphone, he said. “It’s easier on the eyes.”

Not everyone is convinced.

Using an extra-big phone is “like sticking an iPad up to your ear,” said one San Diego public relations person, whose business is not technology.

Big in China

As it is in the fashion industry, so it is in commercial electronics: notions of the ideal are changing.

Smartphones seem to be getting bigger, a group of engineering and marketing types from smartphone chip maker Qualcomm Inc. noted during a recent interview. The first phone to carry Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM)’s top-tier model 820 Snapdragon chipset is a phablet. The LeMax Pro from China-based LeTV has a 6.33-inch screen.

“In China, this is the size that they like,” said Qualcomm vice president Seshu Madhavapeddy.

When Samsung introduced a model with a 5.1-inch screen just a few years ago, Madhavapeddy added, “it was considered a giant phone.”

“They’re always getting bigger,” he said with a laugh.

The market research firm Strategy Analytics considered data from the first half of 2015 and found that the ideal display size in the United States and United Kingdom was 5.3 inches.

People want a device with a good “fit in hand,” said report author Monica Wong.

Respondents to the survey, released in December, said they preferred thin phones: 6mm thick. However, they said they would be willing to trade that away for a fatter model (8mm) to get more time out of the battery.

The San Diego Scene

So how do some recent releases from San Diego companies compare with that standard?

InfoSonics, which markets its phones mostly in Latin America, is betting that people want to go bigger. It’s verykool Cyprus LTE model, released Jan. 25, has a 6-inch screen. The Cyprus is 7.5mm thick. At the heart of the phone is a MediaTek quad-core MT6735P LTE processor. InfoSonics stock trades on the Nasdaq as IFON.

Kyocera Communications Inc., which has its U.S. office in San Diego, put a 5.7-inch display on its new DuraForce XD, introduced in January and available through AT&T. The DuraForce is from a line of rugged, job-site oriented models from Kyocera. It measures 13.9mm thick, partially due to its ruggedized design. The phone has a quad-core Snapdragon 400 chipset from Qualcomm. Like the InfoSonics model, the Kyocera DuraForce runs the Android 5.1 operating system, which is also known as Lollipop.

The big screen is good for viewing schematics, forms and invoices, said Kyocera spokesman John Chier. Company marketing materials show a person reviewing a spreadsheet full of data on the big screen. Chier did his interview using his phablet, which has been his phone of choice since getting an early version in November. “I’m hooked,” he said. Kyocera Communications has 170 San Diego employees. For comparison, the plain-vanilla iPhone 6 has a 4.7-inch display. The earlier iPhone 5 is 4 inches.

Easy on the Eyes

Long before founding Whova with three partners, Park — the entrepreneur with the big phone — received her doctorate in computer science from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon. Her dissertation was on lightweight fault-tolerant schemes for software distributed shared memory.

Park came to the U.S. to do postdoctoral work under Zhou, most recently at the University of California, San Diego. (Zhou is a professor and Whova’s four founders all have Ph.D.s.)Park’s Galaxy Note is her constant companion from morning to night. She said she prefers the large format for typing text messages and email. And that leads to the final benefit: Park says it prevents bad habits. Needing two hands to operate her device, she said, keeps her from using the phone as she drives.

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