Some thoughts on a future, bigger iPhone

Tech Life

In my recent article, The Next Big Thing, while considering what kind of future revolutionary product Apple might (or might not) build, speaking of portable devices, I touched upon the possibility of a bigger iPhone. The following passage got the attention of some readers who asked me via email to expand on it:

A bigger iPhone? Perhaps. Everyone speculating about such a device seems very much focused on the screen resolution and density math. I wonder if they also considered usability. Perhaps people ‘demand’ bigger phones, considering how well Samsung’s and other big Android smartphones are selling. But Apple also cares about its users in another way: by putting in their hands a device that’s a pleasure to use. A 5-inch iPhone, in this regard, might be a challenge.

A few days back, I brought up some observations on App.net, soon after taking this picture:

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It is a very rough sketch that shows the screen size of a theoretical 5″ iPhone (or more precisely a 4.94″ iPhone) compared with an iPhone 4 (whose screen is 3.5″). My first impression, as I posted on App.net, was How can a big iPhone be usable, I don’t know. Now, what I got wrong in that first sketch is the aspect ratio, which tends more towards 4:3 than 16:9. In creating a cardboard mockup of the bigger iPhone, then, I went back to the article that inspired me in the first place — Marco Arment’s A crazier prediction: iPhone Plus is real, and huge, and this is what I got:

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I haven’t cut the mockup precisely because I wanted to consider the added minor thickness of a protective case, like the one I’m using on my iPhone 4, which is an Incipio Feather case. Sure, next to an iPhone 4, this ‘iPhone Plus’ mockup looks even more monstrous than it already is, but then again, it’s still smaller than some Samsung or other Android handsets.

As I wrote in the opening quoted bit, my argument against such a big iPhone is based more on design and usability considerations rather than sheer screen resolution and screen density math. From a mathematical viewpoint, this ‘iPhone Plus’ is quite feasible. And Arment makes a valid point from a market penetration perspective:

Why would Apple release this?

First and foremost, there’s significant demand for larger-screened phones. As much as we make fun of the Galaxy Note, it sells surprisingly well, especially outside of the United States. Other large Android phones sell very well almost everywhere.

The iPhone has lost a significant number of sales by buyers either wanting a larger screen or being drawn to how much better the large screens look in stores. Here’s how this theoretical iPhone Plus looks next to the large-screened competition:

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Now, imagine that lineup without the iPhone Plus mockup. That’s how the shelf looks today when a buyer goes into a phone store. See the problem?

Maybe my opinion is deeply influenced by Steve Jobs’s way of thinking, but unless Apple does subtle but significant changes to the design of an iPhone that big (as Arment suggests) to accommodate a 4.94″ screen, I’m not so sure Apple’s willing to put into people’s hands a device that’s uncomfortable to operate with one hand. (Unless you have big hands, of course.) As I said on App.net, I think that such an iPhone would be considered ‘awkward’ by Apple’s standards. Certain customers who are already sold on ginormous smartphones like the Galaxy Note line, probably won’t care much about design and related matters, but maybe Apple will (following its logic of “We know what’s best for our customers”).

I’m not saying that Apple will never ever make a 5″ iPhone, but I believe usability matters more to Apple than, say, to Samsung. It’s also possible that Apple changes something in iOS before introducing a bigger iPhone, to better scale iOS’s interface and user experience on such a device.

To show that a theoretical ‘iPhone Plus’ may be problematic to handle, I’ve played a bit with my mockup. Here’s what I noticed:

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My hands are on the small side, but I have long thin fingers. This is, for me, the most comfortable grip to hold the iPhone. In this position, my thumb cannot reach the top of the iPhone screen (both the top row of app icons and the status bar are out of reach), but it can’t reach the Home button either (not comfortably, at least):

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To be able to press the Home button with a certain degree of comfort, I have to lower the grip (note the position of my fingers behind the mockup). This way, however, the mockup already feels off-balance — imagine a heavier, bulkier, finished device:

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Not to mention taking photos in portrait orientation. Not to mention performing the ‘Slide to unlock’ gesture, which gets so awkward for me that I basically risk dropping the device.

To comfortably reach the top of the screen, again I have to readjust the grip and let the device slide down my hand a bit, and then the problem I was having in the first picture is reversed — I can’t easily reach the app icons in the Dock, or even the rightmost apps in the lower right quadrant of the screen:

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The general feeling when handling the bigger iPhone mockup was of awkwardness and impracticality. I felt I was handling something whose size and scale were somewhat ‘off’. I love the proportions of my iPhone 4, and I’ve had the chance of holding an iPhone 5 more than once, finding it slightly less comfortable to operate one-handed, but feeling great in my hand nonetheless. The only way to get some real usability out of the bigger iPhone mockup was to use both hands. The only pockets where I could safely store the mockup were my overcoat’s. It barely fit in my cargo pants’ side pockets (again, the mockup is a relatively thin sheet of cardboard; a finished device — thicker and bulkier — would probably be more uncomfortable to carry around in your pants’ pockets.)

A certain gain in usability, in my opinion, would result after two major changes in the physical design of such bigger iPhone: 1) a significant reduction of the area surrounding the screen; 2) the removal of the Home button, replaced by a software button or a sensitive area under the docked app icons (à la Palm Pre) or maybe even by a thinner but wider hardware button. Number 2 seems unlikely, though, and it may actually introduce further usability issues. But Number 1 can be attained, in order to have a bigger iPhone which is basically ‘all screen’ on the front. This could reduce the device’s size enough to make it tolerable to use.

On a final, strictly personal note, I’ll add that all these considerations are, of course, completely speculative. I’m not rejecting the possibility of Apple producing a bigger iPhone. I’m certainly not saying that, since I find such a device to be hard to handle, Apple won’t make it. What I’d love to see from Apple in this regard, however, is a bolder move than simply fill a spot in the market of big smartphones and ‘phablets’. Granted, introducing the iPad mini was a similar move in the tablet arena, and a smart one at that. Sometimes, following in the competition’s steps makes sense, especially if the result is an overall better product. I’m just not entirely convinced that a bigger iPhone is going to be a similarly compelling product in the smartphone arena. I believe that, at the moment, iOS is more in need of innovative features and redesigns than the iPhone hardware. But this is going to be the subject of a different article…

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