The Case for a (Much) Smaller iPhone

An iPhone SE 2 is coming. But maybe we can go even smaller.

It’s expected that in 2020, the company will drop at least four new models. One of them represents a welcome addition: A rumored sequel to the iPhone SE, which would be the company’s first new small iPhone since 2016. Four years isn’t so long ago, but the SE is practically paleolithic in Apple’s timeline, where devices are rendered “obsolete” by iOS updates every year. The new small iPhone, reportedly planned for this spring, will bring a meaningful change to the unending rollout of larger and larger screens that started with the iPhone 6 Plus in 2014.

Of course, Apple hasn’t stopped growing its phones. The company is reportedly working on another new iPhone that features, against all reason, the smartphone line’s “biggest screen yet.” (The 6.7-inch display would be nearly as large as the truly gargantuan Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, and it would stretch my jeans beyond sensibility.) This model will be released in the fall of 2020 alongside at least two more iPhones of varying sizes, according to South Korean news outlet ETNews, which correctly reported on the iPhone 11 Pro’s triple camera module before it was publicly announced last year.

Here’s the hot take: Apple’s product lineup could (and should) be lasered down to two iPhone models — a big one and a small one — and they should be updated only every few years. The Plus or Max or Pro model, whatever you’d like to call it, would be the chonker with the extra camera modules and the high-pixel-density OLED screen, and the small one could have the less expensive LCD display and limited camera options seen in Apple’s less expensive releases. And that’s it!

The reasons for a more modest iPhone lineup are pretty simple. First, the current release schedule, masterfully designed to encourage consumption, doesn’t serve consumers. Second, there’s a sustainability crisis on the horizon that means we should start making make fewer of these things — and probably of all electronic things while we’re at it.

An iPhone XS Max (2018) measured against an iPhone 7 (2016). The larger display is a bit clearer, with more pixels per inch, and it allows for more assets to be displayed on the screen. So what?

There’s a lot of bloat in Apple’s product line. The four new iPhones predicted for next year would join an array of existing versions already available for purchase from Apple: the iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone 11, iPhone XR, iPhone 8, and iPhone 8 Plus. (You can still get an iPhone 7 Plus, too.) The result is a confusing menu of touchscreen dimensions and camera modules that exist not because the new options are truly useful to consumers, but because annual smartphone releases consistently thrill investors.

A family member on a budget who wanted to upgrade from an old phone recently asked me which iPhone to buy. I had a hard time giving clear guidance. Does the iPhone XR at $599 make more sense than the iPhone 11 at $699? It’s actually really difficult to say: They’re nearly identical, save for an additional ultrawide camera lens and a higher quality selfie lens on the iPhone 11. Or maybe they should just opt for the strikingly similar iPhone 8, at $449? For individual consumers who may not have the time to dig through a site like GSMArena to compare and contrast the minute details, it’s tough to parse out the comparative value of these sets.

It’s nice to have options, but there’s a cost to diversification. Our planet is buckling under the weight of an electronic waste crisis. More phone models mean more specific parts, which means trickier recycling — and more trash. A never-ending cycle of upgrades means more devices, and more mining for the materials needed to build smartphones; the manufacturing of flat panel displays releases harmful fluorinated greenhouse gases. Perhaps an iPhone is less toxic than a large flat-screen television, but the Samsungs and LGs of the world haven’t yet created a market wherein you’re encouraged to upgrade your TV every year.

In a different era, electronics that cost thousands of dollars were expected to last years, if not decades. But Apple established a precedent that this company and its competitors should roll out multiple product updates every year. The process creates options where none need exist.

Apple’s strategy of multiple form factors for fundamentally similar devices extends beyond the iPhone and into its other products. Credit: Apple

There’s an alternate universe where Apple doesn’t splinter its product line to force people to decide between the iPhone XR, iPhone 11, and iPhone 8. Instead, there would be just two phones: a big one and a small one. These devices could be left to stand without annual “upgrade” releases. That would be better for the planet — and better for consumers who would no longer feel pressured to dish out hundreds of dollars to replace their smartphones annually.

Eventually, and maybe sooner than people would like to imagine, it will not be possible for there to be so many new smartphones manufactured every year. This era of excess, when a company like Apple can make you think that there’s something meaningful to be pondered in the space between an 8 and an 11, when we could buy these things without worrying about repair and recycling, will end. There is something to be said for the notion that responsible device manufacturing could start sooner rather than later.

So I say: Yes, make a smaller iPhone. But make the iPhone smaller as well — make it take up less space in general, demanding less of us and our planet. Same for Samsung and its many Galaxies, Google and its Pixels — you get the idea. We’ve had enough.

All Rights Reserved for Damon Beres

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