12 May 2014

The problem with a larger iPhone

As Apple moved into a yearly pattern for launching its new products, the tech press has settled into a similar pattern, coming up with new rumors and speculations each year before the launch events. This year everybody is impatiently waiting for Apple to announce a larger iPhone, either a 4.7’ or a 5.5’ device (or both!), and there has been no shortage of alleged leaks, more informed reports and analysis as to why Apple needs this kind of product. It would fit another recent pattern of alternating new designs with better specs – the iPhone 4 followed by the 4S, 5 by 5S. While I’m perfectly satisfied with my current smartphone, I would certainly be more interested in upgrading to a larger screen, if only for the ability to watch videos more comfortably.

But I think a larger iPhone could potentially mean trouble for Apple’s other significant product, the iPad. More specifically, it would cannibalize iPad sales, as potential customers would have less reasons to buy an extra device for longer reading and watching videos and existing tablet owners would have less incentive to replace them. As we saw in the latest sales results results, the iPad is not doing that well already, unit sales decreasing for the first time since launch by 16%.

Screen size comparison: current and rumored iPhone, current iPad
A graphic showing the relative screen sizes of current iPhone and iPad models and the two new rumored larger iPhones. For the expected new devices I used the same aspect ratios as the current lineup (3:2 for the smaller of the two, 16:9 for the larger), even though the reports point to both devices having the 16:9 aspect ratio. At 5.5’, the largest iPhone would be about 47% of the surface of an iPad Mini, the other model about 30%.

A lot of debate lately focused around the role of the iPad in a post-PC world and I’m going to share some of these opinions here:

  • Cue the sad music for the tablet we all loved, and that many still do. Except now as I glance over at my original iPad, iPad mini, Kindle Fire and Motorola Xoom, acting like paperweights, I realize I don’t miss them — especially when I am curled up with my five-inch phone fitting comfortably in one hand. Love is harsh, the pace of technology innovation is harsher, but the future certainly does look phabulous. Zal Bilimoria
  • Although both the iPhone and the iPad are multi-purpose devices, it seems only the iPhone fills a multi-purpose need in customers’ lives. A typical1 customer’s iPhone is put to work in all its capacity, while her iPad is relegated to only one or two niche uses. An iPhone is a phone, a flashlight, a GPS navigator, a camera, etc. An iPad can be most of those things, but in practice it gets stuck being just one or two of them. Jared Sinclair
  • The iPad’s limitations extend beyond classic office productivity tasks. I just tried to build an itinerary for a long postponed road trip, driving all the way from Key West Florida to Palo Alto. On a Mac, you can easily “print to PDF” to produce a map for each leg of the trip. Then you use the wonderful Preview app (I salute its author and dedicated maintainer) to emend unneeded pages, drag and drop, combine and rearrange the PDF files into a single document. Don’t try this on an iPad: How would you “print-to-PDF” a map page, let alone combine such pages? Jean-Louis Gassée
  • The iPad is a fantastic portable device with a screen that offers a powerful balance between the iPhone and the Mac. I genuinely believe that, even with larger smartphones and lighter laptops, there will be a place for tablets that you can hold with your hands and carry around wherever and whenever you want. But if I had to pick an area where the iPad has been lacking – and where I think that Apple could do a better job in the next few years – that would be the software. Apple needs more key differentiators for iOS on the iPhone and iPad, and its software has a long way to go, especially on the larger screen. Federico Viticci
  • When I first saw the iPad, I knew it was going to replace the personal computer for the vast majority of people. I was wrong. Yes, the iPad is easier, faster, and cheaper at doing pretty much everything a normal person wants to do on a computer. Yes, PCs are definitely going to die. And yes, by looking at most sales numbers, it appears that the transition has already started. But if you pick apart the data, a very different picture begins to emerge: The iPad is a false start; it’s a temporary sidestep on the way to a future in which everyone’s computer is simply their mobile phone. Dustin Curtis

In a sense, despite being hailed as a revolutionary product only a couple of years ago, the iPad has quickly turned from a hot selling device into another Mac, albeit at much larger sales volumes. The market saturated, the replacement cycle is probably closer to 3-4 years instead of 2 or less for smartphones. The core problem of the iPad is a weak differentiation from other computing devices: it has a smaller screen than a PC and more restrictive input methods, making it a poor replacement for content creation; compared to a smartphone it lacks the extra mobility and connectivity, as most people will buy Wi-Fi-only models and use them around the house or to watch videos while travelling.

The only advantages compared to smartphones are a larger screen space and specific apps, but both are being eroded away, on one side by the popularity of phablet-sized phones, on the other by weak developer interest for iPad-optimized apps – having to completely redesign apps for iOS 7 during the past year hasn’t helped. The iPad as a platform could fall into the same vicious circle that keeps Windows Phone on a distant third place: weak sales means less incentive for developers, lack of optimized apps reduces consumer interest and product differentiation. And a larger iPhone would only make matters worse by narrowing the other key differentiation and showing people they can do anything they need on the phone without buying a tablet, either from Apple of from someone else.

Unofficial concept of the new iPhone 6 featuring a huge 5.7 inch screen, a 3D stereo camera and night light

In my case, the only time when I felt any interest in owning an iPad was when Microsoft launched their Office apps for iPad; immediately I imagined using the lighter iPad with a keyboard for writing and carrying it around during my travels. But I can get the same things done with a cheaper and more flexible Windows tablet or with a larger smartphone, so I postponed that decision until I see what type of iPhone Apple has to offer later this year.

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