The Next iPhone: What Do Users Need?

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Let’s cut to the chase: there’s almost certainly a new iPhone coming out later this year. Whether it will drop in October, as the latest speculation suggests, or some other time in the fourth quarter is anyone’s guess.

What’s certain is that this iPhone will see a few upgrades. What’s slightly less than certain, but still highly probable, is that those upgrades will be major. Whether or not you were disappointed with the iPhone 4S announcement, you have to admit that it was a very minor step up from its previous iteration.

Of course, “major” is a relative term. Apple’s halo device family has remained remarkably consistent over the years: every iPhone since 2008 has featured the same 3.5″ display with a single home button mounted below, in either a black or white monolothic slab casing. It wouldn’t take many changes to that formula to qualify as a “major departure” from previous designs.

We’ll be examining the same question from Apple’s perspective in a later piece, but today, let’s focus on what users need from the new iPhone.

Larger Display

The need for a larger display on the iPhone is so apparent that it hardly seems necessary to spell out the case for one. A diagonal span of 3.5 inches was perfectly satisfactory for the first three generations of iPhones, when the competition was mainly made up of similarly sized devices. As larger and larger LCD and AMOLED panels gained popularity, though, they graduated from the sideshow freaks of the phone world to the “new normal.” I’ve watched the 4.3-inch slot go from oversized-monstrosity to the new “sweet spot” in under two years. Whether or not that bounces back as OEMs continue seeking the best balance between resolution and display area, it’s pretty clear that 4″ will be the bottom end of the new nominal range.

So Apple needs to bump the iPhone’s display size to keep up with the times, and everything we’re seeing seems to indicate they plan to do just that. The 3.95-inch rumor makes sense to me, as it would allow for a more immersive experience while avoiding the necessity of expanding the iPhone’s smallish form factor, still an advantage in an age of too many jumbo-phones. Were Apple to take this direction, we’d get an iPhone with a resolution in the neighborhood of 1136×640 – close to a 16:9 aspect ratio. As 9to5Mac explains:

Apple will not just increase the size of the display and leave the current resolution, but will actually be adding pixels to the display. The new iPhone display resolution will be 640 x 1136.  That’s an extra 176 pixels longer of a display.  The screen will be the same 1.9632 inches wide, but will grow to 3.484 inches tall. This new resolution is very close to a 16:9 screen ratio, so this means that 16:9 videos can play full screen at their native aspect ratio.

If true, that would mean a screen that preserves Retina-level pixel density, while still offering more display area than current iPhones- additional space which iOS could utilize via either an extra row of homescreen icons, or possibly a more imaginative implementation. My hope would be for a dedicated widget area, but let’s not start talking crazy.

Speaking of alternative utilization: Apple loves harping on the fact that while it’s not always first to a feature, it’s at least first to do it better. In a lot of ways, I think that’s true; but if Apple is going to preserve that reputation, it needs to implement a larger display better than its competitors. Bigger screens mean more difficult one-handed use for average people. If Apple wants to do it right, it should consider moving the notification area to the bottom of the screen. And to complement its already-excellent laminated display approach, it wouldn’t hurt to start using a display technology that provides deeper blacks. The washed-out, glowing-gray look isn’t going to go unnoticed by the average user for much longer, especially as devices like the HTC One X and Lumia 900 flood the market.

LTE

Apple’s reasons for holding off on an LTE radio in the iPhone 4S were entirely valid; coverage was still underwhelming in most markets, and the technology needed further refinement before Apple would risk the reputation of its smartphone crown jewel. Also, LTE radios hadn’t yet slimmed down to the point where their inclusion in  the iPhone wouldn’t have necessitated a bump in bulk.

No.

But the mobile world moves fast: Verizon Wireless’ LTE network now covers 258 markets in the United States, or more than two-thirds of the country. By the end of the year, Verizon says, it’ll cover 260 million people. AT&T obfuscates their numbers by combining LTE coverage with UMTS coverage under a common “4G” branding scheme, but I was covered by Ma Bell’s LTE almost the entire way from NYC to Boston on a recent trip; not a negligible distance. Internationally, LTE adoption is expected to jump to 40 million users by the end of this year. Though North America is currently driving the majority of that growth, an expected pickup in LTE popularity in the Asia-Pacific region is projected to overtake America’s 4G subscriber count by the year 2014.

No one really disputes the fact that LTE is the future of wireless communications; it’s called “Long-Term Evolution” for a reason. While current data speeds over HSPA are serviceable, if Apple wants the iPhone to stay relevant, LTE is non-negotiable.

Ditch The Glass

When Apple introduced the iPhone 4, I was all about the hardware. The design was -and remains- one of the most beautiful I’d seen for a mobile device. Apple’s choice in materials was equally bold, and I respected its decision to build a phone entirely out of glass.

Unfortunately, the obvious down-side has made itself apparent in the years since. I’ve seen more shattered casings since the iPhone 4 release than ever before. That’s worthless as a hard data point, of course, but handling a naked iPhone 4 or 4S is most definitely a more perilous experience than holding a device made of, say, plastic or metal. Every time I drop an iPhone 4S (which happens surprisingly often, so don’t trust me with yours), I wince and slowly drop my eyes down to the floor, expecting to see a shattered mess. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not hopeful for the future.

And that kind of stinks. Sure, you can buy a case, but -and I swear I’m going to write an editorial about this soon- cases are horrible. Even if you like them, you have to concede that it’s wrong to require buyers to factor in the cost of a case, just to protect it against the rather common occurrence of drops and falls.

We’ve seen some really innovative use of polycarbonate and ceramic casing materials recently from HTC and Nokia. While I don’t think either of those options are really Apple’s speed, there’s nothing stopping Apple from finding a new and exciting path for its chassis construction.

A Standard Connector Port

Just ignore the bad ‘shop job and go with me on this.

Just to be clear: this will not happen. I know this. If you leave a comment saying this is unrealistic, I will direct you back to this sentence. I am aware.

Apple has made a lot of money building a value-laden ecosystem with iOS and iPod products, and their proprietary 30-pin connector is the core of the hardware side of that equation. That standardized interface is the foundation on which the third-party Apple accessory empire is built. Unfortunately, it’s also a big, ugly, and dated component … and though it’s very common, it’s not quite as ubiquitous as, say, a true standard like Micro-USB. The upshot: if you need to borrow someone’s charger, it’s still more likely that they’ll have a Micro-USB cable than an iPhone cable. Also, the Apple connector hardware takes up a lot of room inside the device, and the slot itself is quite a space-waster even on the outside of the casing.

It’s not just the preservation of an accessory ecosystem that keeps Apple from adopting a standard port. Multimedia considerations play into this equation as well. i-Devices tend to be very media-centric, so the 30-pin connector features line-out analog audio support. Without extensive modification, Micro-USB can’t offer the same functionality consistently.

Like I say, though, it won’t happen anyway. We’re hearing rumors that while Apple does indeed intend to minimize the dock connector, it will likely do so by introducing a smaller version of its own proprietary approach. Which it will no doubt offer in conjunction with an adapter for legacy accessories, at a … reasonable price.

We’ve got some time yet to continue speculating, so let’s do so in the comments. What’s everyone hoping to see appear/disappear with the next wonder device out of Cupertino?

New iPhone display speculation text and image source: 9to5Mac

VZW LTE coverage info source: Verizon Wireless

Global LTE subscriber count source: ITP

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!