In 2012, Apple did something that many thought should’ve happened earlier: it released an iPhone with a larger screen. Many felt this was Apple’s late attempt at catching up to the larger screens on opposing Android handsets. After 5 previous iPhones with a 3.5-inch display, the iPhone 5 had a 4-inch screen. While taller than previous generations, it kept the same width. Why?
From the very beginning, iPhone developers had only one screen size to worry about. The iPhone 2G, 3G, and 3GS all had a 320×480 pixel screen measuring 3.5 inches corner-to-corner, giving it a 163 PPI resolution. While the iPhone 4 and 4S had a Retina display that doubled the number of pixels in each direction, it also kept the screen size the same. In apps, developers would continue to reference ‘points’ as opposed to individual pixels. With the Retina display’s 326 PPI resolution at 640×960 pixels, developers didn’t need to make any change to their apps for things to look the same as before.
In a special event in September 2012, Apple introduced the first iPhone with a different screen size: the iPhone 5. While still sporting a Retina display at 326 PPI, the iPhone 5 was taller than previous models, increasing the vertical pixel count to 1136. By keeping the pixel density the same, Apple made it easy for developers to work with the new screen size. Was an app not updated for the iPhone 5? It would simply sit centered in the iPhone screen with black bars at the top and bottom.
What if a developer wanted to optimize an app for both screen sizes?
Along with the iPhone 5, Apple updated Xcode to support Auto-Layout. With Auto-Layout, developers could set constraints in their app storyboards, defining the relationship between different UI elements so that they could appear as intended by the developer, whether the application was running on an iPhone 5 or an older model with the original screen size.
Doesn’t the existence of Auto-Layout mean that Apple could’ve updated the iPhone 5 to a size that had a different width? Yes, it technically is possible. However, there was another, more fundamental reason why Apple didn’t change the width of the phone.
If there is one constant with each iPhone launch, it is the comment that the newest iPhone is a joy to hold in one’s hand. For some, their preference for a ‘favorite iPhone’ comes down to the one that felt most comfortable in their hands. For example, my wife loves her iPhone 5c, even if it doesn’t have Touch ID or the A7 chip like the 5s does. For her, it comes down to a phone that is comfortable for her to have in one hand, and the 5c meets her needs perfectly.
At the iPhone 5 launch, while talking about the increased screen size, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, spoke about the reason they choice that specific screen size.
“Why would we design it that way? What is the design center for a phone? It’s this. [...] It’s your hand. A phone should feel great in your hand, and more importantly, it should be easy to use with [our thumb]. [...] So when you carry your phone, it should fit beautifully in your hand.”
Two years after saying that, would Apple now ignore the importance of the thumb and abandon the 4-inch screen? I’m not so convinced. I do believe Apple is making a larger iPhone, and a 4.7-inch display could be a great device for a lot of people. But for some users that have smaller hands, an iPhone with such a large display is no longer a one-handed device. Could my wife comfortably use a 4.7-inch iPhone with one hand? I doubt it.
For Apple to change the user scenario of the iPhone from a one-handed to a more-than-likely-two-handed one goes against what I believe Apple wants to do with the iPhone. If anything, I see the approach being what they did with the iPad in 2013.
While the iPad mini was launched in 2012, it was in 2013 where both the iPad mini with Retina and the iPad Air, representing the best of the two iPad sizes, were both given the same internal specifications. At that point, the choice of which of the newest iPads to buy came down strictly to a size preference. Both came with an A7 chip, Retina display, and all of the other features that we came to expect from the latest and greatest iPad.
I would not be surprised to see Apple go that same route with the iPhone. In 2013, Apple introduced the colorful line of iPhones starting with the iPhone 5c. While not carrying the latest statistics as the iPhone 5s, it did provide another option for people wanting to buy an iPhone. This year, the different option for people may not be color but size. In fact, instead of Apple simply going from a smaller screen to a larger screen, I would expect Apple to support two (or more) iPhone screen sizes.
Rumors continue to circulate that a 5.5-inch iPhone is in the works. That most definitely is not a one-handed friendly phone. Yet, it could be a size choice that many would be interested in (though I’m not one of those people).
All Apple has to do is repeat what they did with the iPad: Produce several iPhones that differ in size (4, 4.7, and 5.5 inch screens) and possibly color (make the 4-inch screen line the colorful “C” line, for instance). Then a purchase doesn’t come down to a feature set but, instead, to something that is much better for consumers: personal preference.
What would this do for developers? The new size classes introduced in Xcode 6 almost guarantee various iPhone sizes. Instead of having strict iPhone sizes to deal with, Apple now has things generalized for device and orientation. Want to create a UI for several iPhone sizes? You just need to deal with one size class. This greatly simplifies the way developers can support past, present, and future screen sizes.
Between the latest developer tools and the leaks that keep coming from Apple’s supply line, we can be pretty confident that we’ll see a larger iPhone. But I wouldn’t call for the death of the 4-inch iPhone just yet.
What do you think? Do you think the 4-inch iPhone has come to its end? Or is there a future for the truly one-handed iPhone? Let us know below!