A tale of two bigger iPhones

One of the more popular rumors making the rounds right now is that Apple will release not one but two new, bigger iPhones this year. The first would be the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the second, a 5.5-inch Apple "phablet". These rumors aren't coming from overly sensational, overly outlandish sources, but from mainstream news outlets and some of the more reserved financial analysts. Even so, information gleaned from supply chain sources, many of whom are working on a wide array of products and prototypes from a range of vendors, this far in advance, is likely only slightly more reliable than a roll of the polyhedral dice. But beyond the rumors, what could all this mean?

Of densities and displays

Early versions of the "two bigger iPhones" rumor simply stated two larger phones — something between 4- and 5-inches, and something over 5-inches. Apple prototypes a lot of stuff before deciding what they think is the best product, so it's understandable that a lot of nebulous reports get surfaced. Recently, however, specifics have been attached — 4.7 inches at 1334x750 (@326ppi) and 5.5-inches at 1920 x 1080 (@401ppi).

Apple could take the current iPhone 5s display, 1136x640 (@326ppi) and stretch it out to 5-inches, but doing so would bring it down to iPad Air density (@264ppi). That would leave both the 4-inch iPhone and 7-inch iPad at the same density, and the 5-inch iPhone and 10-inch iPad at the same density, but the gain in size and accessibility wouldn't be matched by a gain in pixels and potential functionality.

If Apple changes the resolution of the iPhone screen, even if they go to a standard like 1920x1080p, it will cause pain for developers, but so did going Retina for iPhone 4, so did going 16:9 for iPhone 5, and temporary pain in the present for better products in the future is never something Apple's shied away from in the past.

Two new resolutions seems like an unnecessary amount of pain, however. (And Auto Layout — don't let the marketing name fool you — isn't a magic bullet.) Other manufacturers have put 1080p displays in 4.7-inch phones without a problem. It's a ludicrous density to be sure but it means that, instead of cropping/adding pixels to maintain size (like iPhone 4s vs. iPhone 5), they can be shrunk/enlarged to maintain count (like iPad mini/iPad Air). You'd lose nothing at 5.5-inches but gain a ton at 4.7.

I went over a bunch of different options, including stretching, @3x, @4x, 1080p, and more back in January of 2013 for Imagining a 5-inch iPhone and while I think the logic still holds, my personal opinion has evolved.

I'd love 1080p across the board at this point.

@3x (1704x960 @416ppi at 4.7-inches) may offer some advantages for developers in terms of scaling, though not as many as @4x (2272x1280 @554ppi at 4.7-inches), but those densities are beyond ludicrous. Even at 5.5-inches they work out to 356ppi and 474ppi respectively.

1080p is somewhat balanced between 4.7-inches, where it's 468dpi, and 5.5-inches, where it's 401dpi, and having the same resolution for both could lessen the pain, at least a little.

But the bottom line for me is that limited pixels will eventually limit software. Just like the iPad's larger size allowed for a higher class of software, so too could a larger iPhone.

Give me more pixels.

Of markets and madness

There are several reasons why a 4.7-inch (or thereabouts) iPhone 6 is a good idea for Apple in 2014. A couple of years ago the 4-inch iPhone 5 outsold not only every larger-than-4-inch phone in the U.S., but all of them combined on networks like AT&T and Verizon. Even over the course of the last year Apple's share of the premium smartphone market segment rose form 65% to 85%. Like I went over in Why a 5-inch iPhone 6 is far more important than a 13-inch iPad Pro, that leaves over 4-inch phones as a growth opportunity:

Once upon a time people had to choose between an iPhone on AT&T or a different phone on Verizon. Many chose the iPhone, but some didn't. When the iPhone hit Verizon, however, people no longer needed to choose. They could have both.Right now people have to choose between a 4-inch iPhone or a larger phone from another manufacturer. Many still choose the 4-inch iPhone but some don't. When the iPhone goes to a larger screen size, people will no longer need to choose. They'll be able to have both.That increases Apple's addressable market in a premium space (and removes a key differentiator for competitors), and that's what new devices are all about.

5.5-inch devices, or phablets, aren't so clear. They're incredibly popular in Asia and emerging markets where people want a primary computing device that serves as a phone but provides functionality closer to that of a tablet. Some geeks the world-over like them for the very same reason. However, in North America, they sell almost not at all.

Apple, by virtue of their brand and experience, could change that and do for phablets in North America what the iPad did for tablets, or they could simply target Asia and treat any traction they gain in North America as bonus.

Ben Bajarin discussed these market realities in more detail in Vector 36: Wearables, phablets, and the next big thing.

Of software and scale

On any new iOS hardware, the iOS part can't be ignored. How iOS would scale to the tablet was the big question prior to the iPad's release. How 9.7-inch iOS would scale down to 7.9-inches was the big question prior to the iPad mini's release. So, how iOS would scale up to bigger iPhones has to be considered as well.

The simple answer is just to scale it up the same way the iPad mini just scaled it down. It might look slightly comical on a 5.5-inch screen, but it would avoid introducing a third interface paradigm and the complexity that comes with it.

I wrote about this back in February of 2013 in ore on a 5-inch iPhone and scaling the interface. I'm starting to change my thinking on that as well, however.

Over time — maybe not with iOS 8 but with iOS 9 or others that follow — the iPhone interface itself could evolve to better make use of bigger, denser displays.

A single column list view has served us well. It's the back upon which the modern smartphone revolution was carrier. But as people become more sophisticated and devices become more capable, that too can and likely will evolve.

The bottom line

I've only heard about one new, bigger iPhone this year, the iPhone 6. Going to a bigger size solves a lot of problems for Apple and it makes a lot of sense to do it this year. That would, conceivably leave a 4-inch iPhone 5s-like device on the market for those still enamored with that form factor and size, and open up the addressable market with a 4.7-inch device.

A 5.5-inch iPhone is harder too see. Whether I've just not heard of it, whether it's not being treated as a phone but some third class of product, or whether it's not coming until later or next year, if at all, I don't know. But seeing Apple cover [every sweet spot on the mobile device spectrum at some point wouldn't surprise me in the least.

Announcing a second new iPhone or even phone-like phablet after September's iPhone 6 would. Releasing, not at all. Manufacturing constraints are manufacturing constraints. However, iPhone events are iPhone events. If there is more than one new size I'd expect to at least see them on stage at the same time.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.