iPhone 9: The Small Screen Savior?

Consider the remarkable success of the Popsocket for one moment. These things are on the back of seemingly everyone’s phone and have ushered in a whole product line of form factors and co-op marketing partnerships. Otterbox has even included a removable Popsocket on some of their cases. But at its core what is the actual purpose of a Popsocket? While some people will use them as some sort of makeshift kickstand, the real purpose is to help us properly hold these massive phones in our pockets that only seem to get larger by the month. Popsockets have sold over 100 million of these grips and have capitalized on a core flaw of large-screen smartphones: they are impossible to use with one hand. So when reports of a refreshed iPhone SE started to pop up, it begged a question. Why does no one make an excellent small phone anymore?

I think about the iPhone SE when it was released. At the time, it was the device for people that did not want to go with the larger iPhone 6S and 6S Plus that Apple had just released at the time. In many respects, it was a throwback device to the iPhone 5 and 5S. People at the time joked that Apple must have had some spare casings of the 5S and decided to release a phone to sell them. Yet the SE sold very well and appealed to the classic iPhone user that was used to the size of the original iPhone and didn’t think that going larger was the right course of action. After all, the idea of a larger iPhone was always panned by Steve Jobs. Famously saying at a press conference years ago that “you can’t get your hands around” a big-screen phone and that “no one is going to buy that”. Well, Steve Jobs was right about a lot of things. This was not one of them.

As time has gone on, the advent of video into our phones has gained notoriety. Services like Snapchat, Tik Tok, and Instagram TV have prioritized video and in turn, customers have demanded larger screen devices. These larger screens have led to the war on bezels and sensors on the front of phones. All this shifting of form factors has a cost, however. The usability of the smartphone as a communication device for messaging, emails, etc. has taken a turn for the worse. There still remains a contingent of smartphone customers that long for the days of the phone that can be comfortably used with one hand to fire off a quick text message or IM while on the go. As these devices continue to get larger, our definition of a “small” phone has shifted.

Consider Google’s Pixel 4 or Samsung’s Galaxy S10e. These devices have 5.7” and 5.8” screens respectively. The original Samsung Galaxy Note, the one that ushered in the term “phablet”, came in at 5.3”. Modern smartphone design trends have led us to narrow phones under 6 inches of display with smaller bezels as being dubbed the “small” phone. Apple has used this formula since the launch of the iPhone X. The smaller device is 5.8” while the larger one is 6.5”. Much to Apple’s credit, they have never skimped on features for the smaller model on the altar of selling more large screened iPhones. This is something that Android manufacturers seem to engage in, however.

As an example of this, the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy S10e. While the hardware inside is largely the same when compared to the two larger S10 models, there are some things missing. The S10e lacks the third camera lens, the optical fingerprint sensor, and the curved display. While some may argue that those omissions (especially with the curved screen) may be a benefit of the S10e, there is still a precedent set here. The smaller phone is less full-featured than its larger siblings, therefore to have the best experience just buy a larger phone. This is where Apple has an opportunity to change the narrative of small phones with the iPhone 9, SE2, or whatever Apple decides to call this device.

There is no denying that Apple dictates a lot of trends in mobile, regardless if they came up with the idea or not. Take wireless charging and headphone jack removal as an example. Once Apple started doing both of these things, almost everyone in the industry followed suit. So it is not unreasonable to think that if Apple put in the effort to make their small phone as good as their bigger phones, then there could be some sort of shift into the thought process of what a smaller phone should be. There are ultimately two ways that Apple can achieve this, one more likely than the other.

The most likely scenario is Apple playing it safe. As the rumored iPhone 9 name would indicate, this device is intended to be the true successor to the iPhone 8. A smaller device with the physical home button for Touch ID, as quite a few people miss that form factor and are not fully sold on the idea of facial recognition. If Apple goes this route, and prices the device at around $400 then it will be successful. It will be Apple’s answer to the Pixel 3a and Samsung Galaxy A51 and have just enough good features to sell well. But if Apple is to truly give consumers a reason to think about going small the solution may need to be more radical.

The vocal minority that has complained about phones being too large have always cited Steve Jobs’ idea that one-handed use is the most important thing to the usability of a phone. Which is to have a device the size of the iPhone SE but made more modern. What if the body of the iPhone SE was used as a reference with the overall design aesthetic of the modern iPhone? If the notched edge to edge design were to be used in the new SE/9, then we would end up with a device in the general ballpark of 5 inches diagonally. That size screen would ensure one-handed usability in addition to being good enough to view content on.

If priced right, say around $800, with the same types of internals as the iPhone 11 Pro there would be a new small phone champion that no one else would be able to compete with. If Apple were to do this, there would not be as much ridicule of companies like Sony when they release a Compact series phone. It would challenge a company like Samsung to not strip features from a device just because its form factor is smaller. It would also be a sharp contrast to what Samsung is doing this year with the S20 range of devices. Samsung has gone all-in on the larger-screened devices this year. With the smallest S20 being 6.2 inches, Samsung has decided that its customers will place a high premium on large-screened devices and has acted accordingly.

A look around at all of Apple’s competition this year and the trend of massive displays is abundant. LG has seemingly decided not to make a G series phone this year and will instead release the V60 with a 6.8 inch display. OnePlus hasn’t tried making a small screen phone since the ill-fated OnePlus X was announced in the fall of 2015. Google is rumored to make the Pixel 4a an in-between in sizes as to avoid having two models this year and with all of the negative battery life press that the smaller Pixel 4 got this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Google decide to go with a larger screen and a larger battery to keep the YouTube wolves at bay. This leaves Apple with an opportunity to truly do something different with this release.

The dilemma that Apple faces here is one of price competition. The idea to basically release a retread of the iPhone 8 and price it around $400 is very important for Apple. Apple’s pricing lineup currently goes as follows:

  • iPhone 8: $449
  • iPhone 8 Plus: $549
  • iPhone XR: $599
  • iPhone 11: $699
  • iPhone 11 Pro: $999
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max: $1099

So there is a void for a $400 market with something new. The iPhone 8 while objectively a decent option for $450, is also old news. People look at it as just the old iPhone that Apple is trying to get rid of. Meanwhile, people look at the Pixel 3a as the affordable Pixel. Therefore, when someone is looking at a phone for around $400 the 3a is more appealing because the marketing says that that device is 90% of what you get from a Pixel 3 or Pixel 4 for half the price. The iPhone 8 is looked at as a slower processor, worse screen, and worse camera experience than the current iPhone. So they need some new blood to excite Apple fans on a budget.

This need to compete at the $400 price point is more important than ever. With manufacturers like Xiaomi, Motorola, Vivo, Poco, and now Google and Samsung competing at this price point it is imperative for Apple to have an answer that at this price point that is compelling. Therefore, making a premium small screen device is something that this might not be. The question really becomes if there is to be a smaller price phone by Apple, why couldn’t that phone be the highly functional small device? The throwback Apple device for the people that miss the idea of a one-handed iPhone. The Steve Jobs phone, the modern iPhone that he would have approved of in the sea of tablet cannibalizing large screen devices.

Years ago, Apple’s main branding was centered around two words: Think Different. Those words are powerful, a message from a main player that tells the consumer that they will think outside of the box in favor of just bending to what the industry is doing. Right now, that trend is larger screens that have made average interactions more and more unusable. The usable small smartphone is dying. Apple is the only company that can save it at this point in the smartphone life cycle. We as collective consumers can only hope that Apple really considers thinking differently and going small when everyone else has gone massive. The 5 inch all-screen iPhone is something that our minds and more importantly our hands need now more than ever.

All Rights Reserved for Omar Zahran

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