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Does the World Need a Smaller iPhone?

The tech world can be as topsy-turvy as the rest of our little corner of the universe. At one time, Apple’s iPhone seemed positively huge, with an expansive 3.5-inch display. Desperate for ways to compete with Apple’s handset, other companies decided the easiest solution was simply to deliver gear with larger displays.

Apple made a move, beginning with the iPhone 5, to migrate to four inches. Other companies made their handsets larger and larger, and some today approach six inches. That takes them into tablet territory, but since they contain a telephone too, they’ve become phablets.

So the critics demanded that Apple get with the program. Four inches is puny compared to a Samsung Galaxy at just over five inches. Besides, isn’t Android trouncing the iPhone with more variety, larger screens, smaller screens, and everything in between? The naysayers said Apple could not compete unless it entered the large handset space.

All those criticisms came despite the fact that Apple more than held its own over the years, with growing iPhone sales and profits. Yet despite some ill-informed claims, the iPhone was never number one, with or without a bullet.

Yes, Android had a greater market share, with higher unit sales, but most of those sales were confined to the low end of the market where scant profits are to be made. Still, when CEO Tim Cook was asked about larger iPhones, he didn’t dismiss the concept. He focused more on supposed tradeoffs in the larger displays, implying that Apple would work out a solution and release it when ready.

Now the arrival of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus came as something new and different, not just Apple’s answer to large smartphones or phablets. But Samsung and other competitors had made huge deals over the fact that Apple wasn’t playing in the larger smartphone league, and that seemed to be their only compelling advantage. Useless features that barely worked, such as Samsung’s notorious Tilt to Scroll, or a fingerprint sensor that most times failed to sense unless you swiped your finger at the “right” speed, hardly made the case for Android gear even before Apple introduced larger displays.

While the final numbers won’t be known until next month, early indications are that Apple’s new iPhones were the stars of the handset market among individual models during the holiday season. Far more people bought the iPhone 6, but it’s larger sibling was also harder to get because of tight supplies. Only in the final days ahead of Christmas did the situation really improve.

That, as they said, should be that until the next iPhone arrives, but some suggest that Apple shouldn’t overlook a smaller handset. Not everyone desires a larger screen, and there are undeniable shortcomings when you try to hold one of those things with one hand and actually get something done. Apple’s clumsy solution, double tapping on the Home button to engage Reachability, will simply reduce the content vertically to help, and that may be all they can do.

Except to continue to build smaller iPhones.

If your requirements max out at four inches, you can still buy last year’s iPhone 5s in 16GB or 32GB sizes, or an iPhone 5c with a mere 8GB of storage. Good luck upgrading to new iOS releases on the latter. In any case, Apple will probably not break down individual sales of the various models, but maybe something will be said if there’s still a huge demand for the 5s. I know of one prominent tech commentator, Macworld contributor Kirk McElhearn, who actually sent back his iPhone 6 after a couple of weeks and stuck with his iPhone 5s because he didn’t want something so big and clumsy.

There are even published reports suggesting Apple might deliver, in the fall of 2015, a smaller version of the iPhone 6 form factor known as the iPhone mini. That would be a four-inch version, possibly offering the specs of this year’s standard iPhone 6. While some might chafe at offering too many sizes, it makes plenty of sense to attempt to fill the needs of customers without subdividing the lineup into numerous barely distinguishable models. In fact, Samsung is supposedly going to cut back on model proliferation next year, but not enough to match Apple’s approach.

Yes Apple is playing the multiple model game with the current iPad lineup, but it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Offering the iPad mini 2 and iPad mini 3, for example, which are not seriously different except that the latter has Touch ID and a wider range of storage options. The iPad mini 3 is also $100 more, which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. There’s little to justify the purchase of this year’s model if you really want a smaller iPad.

Or perhaps you might want to consider getting an iPhone 6 Plus instead, putting up with a smaller display, but gaining a telephone, superior camera optics and genuine optical image stabilization. Yes, the price without a contract is higher than most iPads, but there are quite enough compelling deals out there that appear to make a subsidized deal a good choice.

In any case, I won’t make any predictions about Apple’s future moves, but an iPhone mini — or whatever you want to call it — seems to make a lot of sense.