By Stephen Schenck | January 29, 2013 7:08 AM
Last week, we looked at a couple rumors about what Apple’s up to for its next iPhone models, and this time they went beyond the idea that there would be both a new regular-series iPhone and some sort of budget-priced iPhone, to suggest that Apple could be working on a version with a 4.8-inch display. It didn’t take long before we saw some serious backpedaling over that claim, suggesting instead that a jumbo-sized iPhone might be on the menu for sometime in 2014 instead of later this year. For me at least, the seed had already been planted, and now I was curious; could Apple really be developing such a thing?
My initial instinct was to dismiss the idea, and there are any number of ways I could convince myself it was nothing more than misguided speculation. But while this one particular rumor may not be based on the most solid of ground, could there be something to the idea in general, that Apple could be considering at least giving its users the option to pick up a larger iPhone? Let’s take a few minutes and talk about why that could either be a really great way for Apple to diversify its lineup, or why it might signal that Apple’s really starting to lose control of its vision for iOS in an effort to stay the growing popularity of Android.
Apple likes to lead, not follow. I think in a perfect world, at least in Apple’s perspective, it would have one iPhone model and one iPad – maybe there wouldn’t even be different storage options, with Apple instead electing to only provide the one it felt would be most appropriate for the majority of us. Instead, we’ve seen two big breaks from tradition in the past several months: the launches of the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini. While you could argue that these are the result of inevitable evolution and the maturity of the company’s iOS lineup, my gut says both are Apple begrudgingly bending to the whims of the market.
After all, smaller tablets have been doing brisk business over in Android-land, and sub-four-inch non-widescreen displays on smartphones sound positively 2010. For the iPad mini, Apple could have very well kept going with the larger iPad as business as usual, but it stood the risk of missing out on a whole lot of sales, and more importantly, seeming like it wasn’t prepared to give users what they wanted. With the iPhone 5, on the other hand, I don’t think the move to a four-inch, 16:9 screen was necessarily about pleasing existing iPhone users, but more about making the iPhone seem more modern in an oh-so-very-quickly-changing smartphone market.
Luckily for Apple, it was able to grow the iPhone’s screen without making it any wider, which helped minimize any backlash from existing users. It also helped the phone maintain its identity; change too much about a popular product, too fast, and you risk making it appear that you’ve lost your way.
But now Android’s not content to largely remain in the mid-four-inch range anymore, and five-inch on up threatens to become the new normal. The more people are exposed to these phones, the more even the four-inch iPhone is going to look miniscule in comparison. Could this be forcing Apple to think long and hard about a larger iPhone option?
I don’t believe that Apple would fully do away with an iPhone model close to its current size, nor do I think anyone’s suggesting that. Instead, what if it brought along a 4.7-to-5.0-inch “iPhone Plus” to give users another option? Presumably, there would still be a number of annoying technical issues to work out with iOS developers, especially if this model introduced a new resolution, but as a smartphone consumer myself, I think it could be a great way for Apple to attract the attention of some previously-long-time Android users. And that’s really the holy grail of the smartphone game, isn’t it – converting users from one platform to another?
On its face, a larger iPhone option may make a lot of sense, but Apple isn’t just any hardware manufacturer. The company has vision, and enormous influence, and more than a little bit of pride. I’m worried that a larger iPhone would be pushing its luck a little too far with the sort of new form factors it’s been introducing lately, and it might not be able to shake the image of transforming from an innovator to a copycat. Other companies might be able to live with, or even turn that reputation into an advantage, but Apple’s already on shaky ground with its rep, and without there being something more compelling to such a larger iPhone other than its size alone, the company has to realize how bad releasing it could look.
In the end, I don’t think there’s an easy answer here. What happens is going to depend a lot on what transpires in the smartphone market between now and next year, how more moderately-sized phones like the new BlackBerry Z10s fare, Apple’s internal politics, and a whole lot of other factors I probably haven’t even begun to consider.
Apple’s going to need to do some real soul-searching; does it want to stay a more boutique firm, focusing on refined design and a limited, well-thought-out device lineup, or does it want to be another Samsung, targeting every niche under the sun? Maybe it can find a comfortable middle ground, but whatever it ends up doing, you had better believe it will do so under some intense public scrutiny.