In marching to the beat of its own drums, Apple is faced with a potential conundrum with the release of the next iPhone–should it radically revolutionize the design and form factor of its wildly successful smartphone, as some recent rumors have posited, or should it continue to make slow evolutions to the iconic design that hasn’t really changed much since 2007? In this editorial, I’ll explain why an iPhone 5S that uses the iPhone 5’s design makes more sense to Apple, developers, and consumers, thus negating the need for an iPhablet with a larger display in 2013.
The Iconic Past
When Apple had debuted the original iPhone in 2007, it came with a 3.5-inch display. That was the hallmark of the iPhone, and reports suggested that late Apple co-founder and then CEO Steven P. Jobs wanted the screen size because it was operable in one hand and because your thumb could span the phone’s screen corner to corner while holding the phone in the same hand.
Even the iPhone 5, which was a marked departure with a 4-inch display, is only a slight evolution of that original iconic design–boasting an elongated 16:9 aspect ratio panel, but with the same width as the original iPhone’s display and a few millimeters in added length.
A Think Different Future?
With Android devices inching themselves to screen sizes upwards of 5 inches, industry pundits and onlookers are asking Apple if it will head down a similar and progressive path? Samsung’s been successful with its Galaxy Note phablets, and in recent months, it has attracted a host of rivals to the 5-inch club. Will Apple have the gall to think different?
To answer that question, you’ll really have to ask what different is–is it being able to think different from the herd of what Android manufacturers are doing? Or is it being able to define the future by straying from the past? In the case of the former, sticking with the status quo may be different enough but the latter may call for different as being bigger and better.
The ‘S’ Generation
Since the iPhone 3G debuted in 2008, Apple has released incremental updates in the form of the S model that kept its fore-bearer’s design while adding incremental upgrades. The iPhone 3GS looks the same as the iPhone 3G, but added speed in terms of an updated processor and more storage options. The iPhone 4S followed the iPhone 4 and added Siri support, rectified Antennagate issues associated with the iPhone 4’s design, and promised speedier HSPA+ network connectivity where available.
Now we have the iPhone 5. With the next iPhone, is Apple ready to go with the iPhone 6? I hope not. I hope the iPhone 5S will look similar to the iPhone 5, but with upgrades to storage, faster LTE connectivity, worldwide LTE radios and antennas for global 4G connectivity and roaming, and the ability to conduct simultaneous voice and data calls on CDMA networks like those operated by Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless in the U.S.
Why I Want a Second Round
There are two types of audiences why a second round resulting in the S generation for the iPhone would be good for. The first audience is the pro-user, likely consisting of tech geeks and Apple fanboys as they’re colloquially called. The second demographic is one who upgrades every two years when their contract is up for renewal–this way they get a subsidized smartphone and won’t have to pay too much out of pocket.
For the prosumers. Every time Apple redesigns its iPhone–which since the iPhone 3G has been every two years–it’s been a pain to get accessories. As an iPhone user, there are a number of iPhone model-specific accessories that I use and swear by in my daily life, and those accessories may take months to come to the market after an iPhone redesign. For fans who have an iPhone 5 and plan to upgrade to 2013’s model, if that model is a beefier iPhone 5S with the 5’s design, then those users won’t have to wait months for new accessories to be released and can reuse their accessories on the iPhone 5S.
Some of the accessories that I’m referring to include Lifeproof‘s slim and elegant waterproof case, Mophie’s awesome form-fitted Juice Pack battery case that’s designed specific to the iPhone as it’s a hard-shelled case, and a slim film-type protector like ZAGG’s Invisible Shield.
As I upgrade to each successive iPhone model every year, I was able to reuse many of my iPhone 3G’s accessory on the iPhone 3GS, including the desktop dock. On the iPhone 4, certain accessories were reusable as Apple did make some ever so minor tweaks on button placement for the volume keys and the ringer mute switch. And with the iPhone 5, I’ve waited a few months for the new Lifeproof case and am still waiting for Mophie and its iPhone 5 battery case.
Assuming I wait three months on average for my favorite accessory to be released and assuming the iPhone’s life cycle is one year before a new model is released, I would have just 9 months of utility with my favorite accessory. For a cheap $15 iPhone case, that’s no big deal, but when you’re paying $100 for the Lifeproof or Mophie each, you’ll want as much use of it as possible. Hence, reusing this generation’s iPhone design in order for me to reuse my favorite accessories and have no waiting period when the next iPhone gets released is a big plus.
For the environment. And for all the tech geeks who are tree huggers, being able to reuse your accessories on the next iPhone is also good for the environment! Just an added perk, but not only will it save you money, you’ll also save the planet.
For the average consumer. So the above scenario mainly applies to power users who are crazy enough–or can afford–to upgrade to a new model every year, but what about the average consumer who sticks with their same phone for two years before the next upgrade cycle? Reusing the iPhone’s design is also a great way for these people to retain as much value as possible on their phone. If Apple went to a new and different design every year, the resell value of the iPhone would be much lower than it is currently, and perhaps would be closer to what the resell value of Android handsets would be.
But given the Apple cachet and the fact that there are two generations of iPhone models using the same design, Apple’s smartphone resell value is maintained similar to the car market.
The Benefit to Apple
Building an S generation is highly beneficial to Apple. Rather than focusing on both the design and software, Apple can pour momentum into OS upgrades when it doesn’t have to do a major redesign with the S generation releases. A company has limited resources, and Apple is no exception. When it’s able to save some of that design talent from having to re-design the iPhone’s case and internals, it can focus its limited resources in making improvements to iOS.
Android hardware companies like Samsung don’t have to focus too much on the OS–except its UI overlays and packaged apps–because that work is performed by Google. Samsung has more resources to pour into new hardware every year. But in doing so, it dilutes the resell value of its handsets when a new model comes out. Apple’s premium is more similar to premium brand cars, like German brands BMW and Audi, or luxury brands Lexus and Infiniti. All those brands are able to maintain its prestige even as the car model ages. Cars from the likes Honda and Toyota look instantly aged when a new model revision comes out and that’s a similar strategy to Android hardware. Reliable, dependable, but when the Galaxy S3 debuted, the Galaxy S2 instantly looked like it was a historic relic. This contrasts to the iPhone 5’s debut, which looks like an evolution of the iPhone 4.
Supply is Key
Additionally, if the iPhone 5S is released with roughly the same design as the iPhone 5, Apple would not have to source entirely new or different parts. Sure, it would need to stock up on improved camera modules if it intends on using Sony’s new 13-megapixel Exmor RS sensor, but the glass and touch panel would be the same, and it may use the same casing or tweak its tooling slightly to change how the housing connects, but it’s roughly the same. This helps with the supply chain and would help Apple battle initial shortages at launch as it struggles to meet demand.
Differentiation Through Display
Sure, a 5-inch phone is beautiful to use and a 5.5-inch Galaxy Note 2 has been a joy at productivity, but when you’re on the go, having something that’s small in your pocket that’s un-obtrusive, slim, and doesn’t feel like a tumor is growing from your pants is a nice idea. The iPhone may not have that large glossy display, but there are still a number of users who stick by the iPhone because it simply is not unwieldy large. I have a few friends who are self-proclaimed geeks who refuse to upgrade still from the original Motorola Droid to preserve the 3.7-inch display size.
Perhaps, sticking with what’s been its norm is how Apple thinks different per its motto.
Regardless, a high-end smartphone–let alone a flagship–with a display size less of 4 inches or less is now a rare breed. Apple pretty much owns this market segment right now as Android hardware-makers battle in the 5-inch or bigger space.
A Small Screen iPhone Has a Clear Purpose
Those who clamor towards a larger display phablet–and I am guilty of that as I love my Samsung Galaxy Note 2–are trying to make their phones into a multi-purpose phone meets tablet frankendevice. However, there is something to be said about the iPhone’s compact size–it’s meant to be used as a phone. In creating this divide, Apple is clearly steering people who want a pocketable device towards the iPhone or iPod Touch, and those who want a tablet towards the iPad mini or iPad.
Those who want both will have to get two or more devices, and this increases sales for Apple. Clever strategy, as there is no overlapping and therefore little or no cannibalization. With the Galaxy Note phablet, I have in one device the best of a Galaxy Tab tablet and a Galaxy S3 smartphone, so Samsung lost at least one hardware sale with a phablet owner, essentially cannibalizing its own sales.
Big Screen + New Resolution = Unhappy Developers
And given Apple had already changed the screen resolution in 2012 with the iPhone 5, doing the same thing again will likely irk some developers. If Apple builds a 4.8-inch or 5-inch iPhone 6, hypothetically, it would need a high resolution panel for marketing the display as Retina. This means that the resolution would change and developers would have to upload more graphics and varying graphic sizes and resolutions for the different supported iPhone models. Developers have just gone through that process with the iPhone 5 and Apple may not want to force developers to do the same when there are more opportunities out there with rival platforms, such as those offered by Microsoft or RIM. A new screen size and a new resolution for 2013 may not jive well with developers.
The Conflicting Rumors
Rumors for the next-generation iPhone have been all over the place to say the least. Some say Apple will release an S generation model in the form of the iPhone 5S. Others are claiming multiple models with multiple screen sizes. Yet others are saying that Apple may offer a new low-cost option as well with high-end components from the flagship release but with a cheaper plastic shell rather than the premium glass and metal used in the flagship model.
Many of these options would help Apple reach new consumers in China and India where the cost and price of the iPhone thus far have kept the smartphone out of reach. But in doing so, Apple may be diluting its brand and the race to the lowest price would eat away at Apple’s profit margins.
Apple does what it does, and we can’t rule out for sure that an iPhone 6 with a larger display won’t make its way in 2013. However, there are a number of reasons why that model doesn’t make sense. As for me, I am still hedging my bets on an iPhone 5S, especially given the long wait for a Mophie Juice Pack–I’d rather not have to repeat the wait and the expense on a radically new piece of Apple hardware if it debuts that iPhone 6.