By Michael Fisher | August 7, 2012 1:40 PM
One of the reasons Apple rumors are so tenacious is that they have such an amazing shelf life. Apple’s once-a-year product cycle for its mobile products leaves a lot of time for speculation, and the stagecraft and panache that accompany its announcements almost guarantee that, no matter how iterative the product, people are going to foam at the mouth to get their hands on it.
If that kind of rampant pre-emptive enthusiasm is predictable for the standard iPhone and iPad announcements, it’s even more true when rumors start swirling about a change in form factor. Rumors of a smaller “iPad Mini” just won’t die off, primarily because there are a significant number of leaks swirling around out there, but also because there’s significant consumer interest in a 7-inch iPad. Or at least, there’s interest in the idea of one.
So when we started hearing rumors early last year about a smaller, cheaper “iPhone Mini,” the pump was primed for a speculation storm of ponderous proportions. According to the rumors, the new device’s design was basically an iPhone 4 in a smaller casing built from cheaper materials, which might have produced a device that retailed in the $200 range – unsubsidized.
That leap from high-end, high-margin devices to bargain-basement market-flooders would have been quite the stretch for Apple, so maybe it’s not too surprising that such a product hasn’t yet come to pass. But with all the buzz surrounding the rumored iPad Mini, it’s worth taking another look at its phone-side cousin. Are we likely to see a miniature iPhone hit the market anytime soon?
If you ask me, the answer is no. That pains me to say, because I prefer a wide choice in form factors on all platforms, but I truly believe the iPhone Mini is an idea that’s dead in the water.
At the same time, though, the answer is also yes. Think this makes no sense? You’re 100% right. But it also does. Kind of.
If you’re still with me after that brilliant piece of nonsense, read on and I’ll explain.
Why It Makes Sense
Frequent Pocketnow readers don’t need a reminder of how much I detest the ongoing homogenization of smartphone form factors. Just as took place in the clamshell-dominated world of years past, the industry has consolidated around a trend of same-ness: bigger, blockier slab phones now dominate the landscape, making it hard to tell phone from phone out on the street. As a habitual device-checker-out-er, that’s a minor problem I can (sort of) live with. But as a phone buyer, the jumbophone effect is real, and it’s very discouraging if you have smaller hands, smaller pockets, or just prefer a smaller phone.
That’s a problem that a few smartphone companies have recognized. HP tried remedying the thin offerings in the tinyphone space with Palm’s Veer. Sony Ericsson keeps plugging away with its Mini line. The Droid Incredible 4G LTE I recently reviewed is part of a device family built specifically for this target audience, a segment of the population that wants a smaller device footprint without sacrificing (much) performance.
Offering multiple sizes is just good business sense. And Apple has already effectively made this concession with its iPod line, which features no fewer than four available form factors. Those who don’t mind a comparatively big and heavy device buy either an iPod Touch (for a faux-smartphone experience) or an iPod classic (for added capacity), while those who want smaller,
more-portable barely-there devices can opt for the Nano or the Shuffle. There’s something for everyone, at every price point. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of broad choice, and it should translate just fine into the smartphone world.
Why It Won’t Happen
The thing is, those miniature mobile phones aren’t the biggest sellers on the block. The Veer was given very little support by HP, but even before the strategy shift that ultimately doomed it, it was clear that the little webOS device was never going to be a hot seller. Sony’s Xperia Mini devices get a fair amount of praise, but they’re not flying off shelves. Know what are, though? HTC Ones, Samsung Galaxy Notes and Samsung Galaxy S IIIs. The monsters. The biggest phones on the market.
The market hasn’t just shifted away from miniature smartphones; it’s moved away from even moderately-sized devices as well. When the original iPhone launched amid a sea of BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile smartphones, its 3.5-inch display was pretty huge. As the market reacted, first matching and then exceeding the iPhone’s screen dimensions, Apple stood firm: today’s fifth-generation iPhone 4S sports a panel with much higher resolution, but exactly the same dimensions as its 2007 ancestor.
Meanwhile, competing devices went from 3.7 to 4 to 4.3 to 4.5 to 4.65 to 4.8 and all the way up to 5.3-inch displays, with rumors indicating that we might be about to hit the 5.5-inch mark. That’s ridiculous, yes … but people are buying devices at all of those tiers, and not in small numbers.
So it’s not just that a miniaturized iPhone wouldn’t make sense. That might’ve been my stance had I been writing this piece in 2009, but today it’s tangential to the real point. Today, in 2012, the question “will there ever be an iPhone Mini” isn’t just easy to answer; it’s already been answered. Because the current-edition iPhone 4S is the iPhone Mini.
Though the implication didn’t fully hit me until just now, I think I first realized that reality a few months back. Back then, a petite friend of mine was replacing her Droid X- a device whose software she got along with, but whose hardware looked comically huge in her tiny hands. She’d grown to hate its oversized bulk (and the Motorola UI skin) and decided to invest in something smaller, either in stock-Android or iOS flavor. The iPhone 4/4S hardware fit her perfectly. Today, she’s a much happier user, because she’s carrying a device that’s sized properly for her; the inconvenience of a platform shift wasn’t enough to keep her on Android in the face of that everyday hardware convenience.
Considering what’s been happening with generation-old iPhones upon the release of their successors, I think we’ll see many similar stories going forward. The new iPhone will launch in all its stretched-screen glory, and the iPhone 4S will take a step down in price and a back seat in the publicity department. Though it won’t undergo a name change, all of the new branding and advertising will show the 4S alongside the larger iPhone 5, showing Apple offering iOS in multiple smartphone sizes for the first time. And the iPhone 4S will become the de facto “iPhone Mini.”
It may not be the hot new hardware some might have wished for, but there will be many worse phones on the market to be had for (probably) $99. And Apple will still sell a boatload of them.
I still won’t buy one, though. How about you?
Title image source: Fast Company