OnQ Blog

Phablets are bringing back the fanny pack

Darren Murph is a Guinness World Record-holding journalist, author, and consultant. He’s covered the untamed world of technology for nearly a decade, driven a motorized vehicle in all 50 States, and is probably on an airplane to anywhere at this very moment. Darren currently works at Weber Shandwick, an agency that consults with Qualcomm. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

Love 'em or hate 'em, phablets—smartphones with screens large enough to make tablets feel a twinge of anxiety—are here to stay. The dilemma is this: While neither humans nor our pant pockets are growing to accommodate larger screens, Earthlings are buying ever-larger phones. The solution—the only one that makes sense, at least—is a fanny pack. Once the domain of theme-park-roaming tourists, the hip-worn, hands-free carryalls deserve another look.

Let’s take this a step back. My belief system regarding product design is simple: Style is overrated, form should never trump function, and most of all, utilitarian is gorgeous. I'm sure I could find folks who disagree with me on all of those assertions, but as a bona fide Eagle Scout, technology enthusiast, and occasional globetrotter, I'd be willing to have the debate. Thankfully, we've now reached a place where one of the most useful accessories to ever be hung around one's hips is also considered en vogue. History, as they say, tends to repeat itself, and just as bell-bottoms, Birkenstocks, and maxi dresses have come and gone only to return (a few times), fanny packs are enjoying a renaissance.

But has the average phone really grown large enough to warrant a new carrying technique? Alex Barredo analyzed over 4,000 smartphones, PDAs and similar gadgets, starting in 2007, following the launch of Apple's original 3.5-inch iPhone. During that span, which many consider to represent the modern era of smartphones, it took a whopping five years for the average screen size to stretch from 3 to 4 inches. The kicker: it took only two more years to push the current average to 5 inches.

Even more astounding is just how quickly we've adapted to prefer these Bunyanesque devices. Three years ago, smartphones with panels measuring 4.5 inches or greater made up just 10 percent of the entire market. Today, they represent upward of 80 percent of all new models. This means that people aren't just buying bigger phones, but they're also voting with their wallets to put smaller phones out to pasture.

One has to wonder why exactly we're burdening ourselves with such mastodonic screens. As it turns out, though, phones have been shrinking in other ways, making it more palatable to carry around a product that's taller and wider. The screen-to-bezel ratio of early smartphones is astonishing to contemplate: The 3.5-inch iPhone 3GS, for example, was roughly 50 percent bezel. By contrast, nearly every flagship phone shipped in the past 24 months has a screen that represents over 70 percent of the device, highlighting just how narrow bezels have become.

Similarly, every component within a phone is shrinking—from batteries to memory to radios—leaving more room for a giant screen, and mobile operating systems have evolved to take better advantage of that additional screen real estate. Samsung's spin on Android enables multiple apps to run alongside one another on its Note line of phablets, while Apple’s suite of apps provides added information in landscape mode when used on the 5.5-inch iPhone Plus range of devices. So software developers are giving consumers good reason to demand more pixels. Games are more engaging, productivity apps are able to show more with less scrolling, and last week's episode of Veep looks so, so much better with each additional tenth of an inch.

Given that we aren't backing down from our super-sized demands, it makes sense to consider the daily use of a fanny pack to safely carry these things to and fro. Chanel, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, and Anna Sui all have fanny packs in their collections, with prices ranging from almost-affordable to ludicrous to you-can't-be-serious. Amazingly, it's possible to spend $239 on an outlaw's fanny pack from none other than Etsy. Even BuzzFeed has a list of “19 Stylish Fanny Packs That Will Liberate You,” signaling that the unprepossessing accessory has indeed crossed over into the mainstream consciousness.

We’ve grown pretty fond of the yearly smartphone upgrade, thus making it even wiser to invest in a non-proprietary case. But it would’ve been tough to imagine today’s form factors a decade ago, and it feels safe to surmise we won’t be looking at the same design language for long. With flexible OLEDs, increasing sophistication in the world of e-ink, and the blossoming of dual-screen devices, the shapes our phones will take could go in many directions. Maybe we’ll even replace phones entirely with face-worn wearables. Even if your next mobile device ends up looking more like a set of Ray-Bans than a glass slab, though, a so-called “phoney pack” could still be a great way to stow it.

So if you’ve been seeking an irrefutable reason to break out that fanny pack that the mocking of your peers forced you to archive a decade or so ago, look no further. You paid a remarkable sum for that phablet of yours, and it deserves better than to be awkwardly squashed and sat on. There's no dignity in tucking it away in a front pocket with its home button poking out—crop-top style—for all to see. The fanny pack is a tool that should be addressed with the same solemnity as, say, a jackhammer or inflatable raft. It's a useful instrument that doesn't discriminate among phablet makers, colors, or sizes.

The fashion industry at large has continually wrestled with the purpose and place of the fanny pack. Now, finally, the conclusion is obvious: It has always been the ideal phablet carrier, and we shouldn't knock it for being a few decades ahead of its time. 

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