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  • Is a Larger iPhone Inevitable?

    May 8th, 2014

    It may be surprising if you haven’t kept up to date with the history of smartphones, but the original iPhone, with the 3.5-inch display, was considered quite large. Maybe too large to some, but other smartphones of 2007 usually came with physical keyboards to take up the rest of the space. Although not the first, the BlackBerry set the standard, particularly for up-and-coming professionals and even a certain candidate for President from Illinois.

    But one of the ways for the competition to respond to the success of the iPhone was to offer features that Apple’s smartphone lacked. One of those features was a larger display, and I suppose it has its advantages to some. But there’s also a compelling argument that four inches represents a sweet spot for convenient one-handed usability. Of course, if you have smaller fingers, maybe it still doesn’t matter, but Apple actually cares about such things.

    Indeed, this was an argument Apple made in demonstrating the iPhone 5 back in 2012. Clearly Apple’s marketing people understood that there were dozens and dozens of smartphones with larger displays, and usability was an important issue.

    More recently, Tim Cook has made it clear the company isn’t rejecting the idea of a larger iPhone, but that there were too many tradeoffs to existing models. One being battery life, the other being picture quality.

    While I understand about corporate spin, it is true that Apple doesn’t just add a feature because there’s a demand for it. It has to work at least passably, so people could actually benefit from it. So you can say that Maps for iOS was released prematurely, and was riddled with serious bugs. But it did actually function in most respects and there has been ongoing improvement.

    Today, when I use Maps, I don’t see the 3D image of the Hoover Dam or the Statue of Liberty melting. Compared to Google Maps, the accuracy of turn-by-turn directions seems comparable in the tests I’ve run (your experiences may vary). But I think you see my point.

    Take the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. For most, it works most of the time. For some, hardly, or not at all. Right now, as a cut heals on my right thumb, I either have to use a different finger or avoid Touch ID for another week or so. But I never doubted its relative reliability. However, the fingerprint sensor on Samsung’s flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S5, barely works. Two reviewers for major publications couldn’t make it function. So I think you see Apple’s point.

    So if there is going to be an iPhone 6 with 4.7-inch display, as widely rumored for the past few weeks, I expect Apple will offer it in a form factor that makes it as convenient as possible for daily use. A thinner case might even make it possible for some of you to use it with one hand, though that’s stretching the limits of the digits for most people.

    I did have months of experience working with the 4.8-inch Samsung Galaxy S3, which is close enough to the projected size of the iPhone to give me a sense of what it will be like. Unfortunately, the Samsung’s AMOLED display washes out completely in sunlight; it’s supposedly better on the Galaxy S5, which has a 5.1-inch display.

    Overall, I can see the benefits of the larger screen in reading text from documents or sites. There’s a lot to be said for being able to watch a video with a larger display as well, so I can see why many people consider the them so attractive. I’m sure if Apple moves in this direction, you’ll get a great product all around with battery life that matches or exceeds current iPhones.

    After writing several articles on the subject, I’m still on the fence about the alleged iPhone Air or phablet, the supposed 5.5-inch model. The rumors suggest it may be late because of problems with display production and battery life. Or maybe it will be available in smaller quantities, and I wonder what price point Apple might set for such a beast. I would expect the iPhone 6 to be priced the same as current models, mostly because there’s where the competition remains. Leave it to Apple to be able to source parts at prices that will keep the cost of building them at reasonable levels, perhaps not much higher than the present iPhone 5s.

    While I wouldn’t buy an even larger iPhone, it’s true there is a sizable audience out there, particularly in China, where 40% of smartphone sales involve phablets according to a recent survey. To many in developing countries, a phablet is the all-in-one personal computer that serves as both telephone and tablet. But I wonder just how much of a premium Apple would charge for such a gadget. With the standard iPhone retailing at $649 or thereabouts before subsidies, the presumed iPhone Air might be at least $100 more. Would that price it out of the market, or would carrier financing and subsidies make up most of the difference?

    While Apple doesn’t produce gear merely because people want to buy them, the phablet form factor may be the runaway train that Apple needs to jump on before it gets away.

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