The iPhone 5 Speculation Report: What Do We Really Know?

May 18th, 2012

Since Apple moved the last iPhone upgrade from summer to fall, it is now assumed that this timetable is set in stone.  And I won’t say postponed, because Apple never said they were following a specific upgrade schedule. In any case, five months isn’t too early to take a ride on the speculation train, and it’s really crowded.

One of the most rampant rumors is the possibility that Apple will offer the next iPhone, supposedly labeled the iPhone 5, with a larger screen, probably four inches. Now the logic behind this move — or lack thereof — will be discussed later on. There are serious design considerations to consider.

First, of course, is the aspect ratio. All iPhones up till now, with or without the Retina Display, have had a 3.5-inch screen with a 3:2 aspect radio. In contrast, the aspect radio of the iPad, all versions, is 4:3, essentially the equivalent of standard size TV. While convenient to hold, the downside is that 16:9 widescreen movies will be letterboxed. But I don’t see many customers complaining.

In any case, developers are accustomed to working within these two constraints. There are over 600,000 selections at the App Store, with over 200,000 optimized for the iPad. At the same time, developers are busy adding higher resolution artwork for their iPad apps to support the new Retina Display. Older apps don’t look bad; text is sharp, but artwork isn’t quite as crisp.

Now the supposed reason for the iPhone to move to a larger display is all about the fact that Android and Windows Phone handsets already exceed four inches, with a very few over five inches. Certainly if your eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, you may appreciate having a bigger screen. But there is one serious tradeoff, and that’s the size of the device. The existing iPhone fits conveniently in the hands of most people, and stores comfortably in your pants or shirt pocket. It may, however, be a squeeze for a purse, as Mrs. Steinberg tells me.

Now with a 4-inch Retina Display, how does Apple configure a rumored iPhone 5? The media, tech and otherwise, usually can’t get past the screen size and seldom considers the consequences. If Apple keeps the 3:2 aspect ratio to ensure compatibility with existing apps, is the resolution changed? Or will the Retina Display just be a hair less sharp? The difference may be barely noticeable unless you look at the things side by side. But even if Apple reduces the border around the display, and maybe makes the Home button thinner, perhaps rectangular, to keep it readily accessible, the overall size of an alleged iPhone 5 has to be somewhat larger.

How large is too large for a smartphone? It’s a sure thing that Apple has been testing all sorts of designs to find the ideal (and most ergonomically suitable) configurations. That you hear of orders for a 4-inch Retina Display doesn’t necessarily mean such an animal is forthcoming. That and other sized LCD panels may be ordered simply for testing purposes.

If Apple keeps the width and extends the height to allow for a 4-inch diagonal measurement, it may be a more suitable configuration for portability. But once the aspect ratio is altered, hundreds of thousands of apps will have to be modified to remain compatible, to fit the screen properly. I’m sure many developers are already working hard enough to support the new iPad’s higher resolution screen. Does Apple really want inconvenience them even further?

Yes, I realize that the Android alternative is far more fragmented, so it’s not as if the grass is greener on the other side of the tracks.

My feeling is that, if the iPhone’s screen gets bigger, Apple will increase the unit’s size as little as possible with clever positioning of all the components. Or maybe they will decide they don’t need the media designing hardware for them, and they’ll keep the next iPhone’s display at 3.5 inches.

Certainly LTE support is a given. Supposedly the latest chipsets will be available in good quantities for an iPhone 5. One hopes they will be more power efficient, so Apple won’t be forced to enclose much larger batteries as Android smartphone makers are forced to do. The key is that battery life remain roughly the same as it is now, if not better.

The remaining features become even more speculative. The new form factor might be thinned by use of so-called in-cell technology, which combines the screen and touch sensors into a single layer. Or maybe Apple will use the extra space to house a thicker battery.

Another bit of speculation talks of haptic touch technology. Some of the recent Apple patent filings have revealed their take on that method, which is designed to provide a faux tactile feedback when you tap a button or a key on the keyboard. More advanced haptic technologies even provide a degree of flex so you believe that you are typing on a physical rather than virtual keyboard.

Other than LTE and perhaps a new case design, very little about the next iPhone is a given. And I haven’t even begun to consider what changes Apple might have in store for iOS 6. But that, at the very least, will likely be known in June at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

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3 Responses to “The iPhone 5 Speculation Report: What Do We Really Know?”

  1. dfs says:

    The prognostication about a larger screen may be right. But, if so, it would seem to go against the general Apple design philosophy that every iteration of a product ought to be lighter, thinner, and handier to hold and to use than its predecessor. And there’s something a bit objectionable about a significant change in the iPhone’s dimensions. Every time Apple introduces a significant dimension/port change in the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch early adopters have to endure a period of weeks before any protective cases come on the market. It would be nice if Apple were to give the case-producing industry a preview heads-up about dimension/port changes, but they don’t appear to have any concern about this issue.

  2. DaveD says:

    I would like to see Apple come out with the iPhone 4s+ with iOS 6. Better internals with LTE support and improved battery life. If it ain’t broke…

  3. Peter says:

    And I haven’t even begun to consider what changes Apple might have in store for iOS 6. But that, at the very least, will likely be known in June at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

    Think so? I’m not so sure…

    Apple tries to stay with a single message at WWDC and that message may very well be Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and updated Macs. I’m not 100% convinced that there’ll be a lot to say about iOS 6, if anything. I don’t pay much attention to the rumours, but the only thing I’ve heard about iOS 6 is, allegedly, a new maps application. Remember that it’s a developer conference, so unless Apple has APIs to show, they may very well hold off and do the iOS 6 demo when they announce the iPhone 5. But the iPhone 5 would ship with iOS 5.x.

    As an aside, a few years ago at WWDC, I was asked by a member of the press if I was disappointed that there were no iPod announcements. After all, Apple has the attention of the press at WWDC. And I responded that if, two weeks from now, Apple told the press that they had another big announcement, do you think you’d have a problem convincing your editor to let you go? Apple is at the point where they don’t need to bulk everything together into one place just to get everybody’s attention.

    That said, nowadays you probably have more iOS developers than Mac developers (Oh, how I hated typing that!). So a WWDC based mostly on Mac OS X Mountain Lion would torque off a bunch of developers who are coming exclusively for iOS knowledge. The counter-argument is that (a) the labs are still there, so you’re not wasting your time and (b) Apple can evangelize those iOS developers to bring their software to the Mac.

    Would I bet money on this prediction? Nope. But it wouldn’t surprise me…

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