It seems abundantly clear that Apple has been bitten by the serpent that Steve Jobs disdained. I refer, of course, to the “phablet” popularized by its arch-rival (and imitator) Samsung. Every rumor, every report that emerges from the supply chain and echoed through well-regarded analyst notes and traffic-baiting tech blogs alike align in the same direction. The iPhone is going large and it is just a matter of how large.
The rumor mill around Apple has become so highly engineered that in the last iPhone cycle, a seemingly well-connected Australian tech blogger, still in his teens, managed to leak authentic factory-machined parts that gave away virtually the entire design story of both new iPhones weeks before the official Apple reveal. Because of this track record, documented in my post-mortem, The Winners And Losers Of New iPhone Leakers And Rumors, we have to approach this current iPhone cycle armed with the knowledge of the increasing porousness of Fortress Cupertino.
So when The Wall Street Journal comes out and says that “Apple plans an iPhone model with a screen larger than 4½ inches measured diagonally, and a second version with a display bigger than 5 inches,” we treat it as more than idle gossip. And some of us do more than just write about what Apple will do next. For the members of the mystical not-so-secret society I call the Apple Fantasy Prototyping League (#AFPL), like Italian designer Federico Ciccarese, these rumors are calls to action.
Ciccarese has created a pair of iPhone 6 design concepts based on the WSJ information that allow us to visualize not only what these new devices might look like, but how Apple’s mobile operating system will fare in this super-sized environment. He has translated the rumors into his estimate of actual screen sizes and pixel dimensions, keeping the 16:9 aspect ratio and retina pixel density of the iPhone 5 line as a constant. Compared to the 4″ diagonal, 640×1138 px screen of the iPhone 5S, Ciccarese has calulated the “mid-size” iPhone 6 at a 4.7″ diagonal, 750×1338 px screen size and the “phablet” at a whopping 5.5″ diagonal, 878×1568 pixels. (These dimensions sound too irregular to be what Apple would actually do, but the estimates allow Ciccarese to work out the details of his 3D models.) He notes in his description of the concept designs that these larger screens will allow the icons to be reorganized on the homepage springboard.
This simple observation, and Ciccarese’s demonstration of how an identical number of identical icons fit on the three different screen sizes, bely a larger point about the larger-screen iPhone. iOS 7 on an iPhone 5 series screen is already a matrix of 24 candy-colored icons to a screen. The iPad, both regular and mini, solve this problem by displaying larger icons with larger margins between so that the springboard contain the same number of icons as the iPhone screen. So it’s certainly possible that iOS 8 will make use of the responsive scaling of vector icons already included in the iOS 7 SDK and range on the spectrum somewhere between the current iPhone and the iPad Mini.
But the larger point here is that larger screens provide other possible interaction patterns than either scaling up the number or size of springboard homepage icons. The original iPhone, as conceived by Steve Jobs, was a marketing tool as much as a piece of hardware. Just looking at the home screen people knew immediately that this phone was a container for apps. At the time, this was an important concept to get across. And in fact Apple’s growth has been linear with the growth of app usage in the same way that Google’s is linear with the growth of overall internet usage.
By now, of course, people know what a smartphone is—Apple taught us that already. And we know what apps are. But increasingly there is a disconnect between the number of apps on our multiple home screens and the value we actually extract from them. Many apps get downloaded and used only once, if at all. The Apple App Store model, based on the very successful iTunes Store model, treats apps like pop songs that we want to be current with, that we want to consume.
The problem is that consumers did indeed learn to buy songs from iTunes, but most of Apple’s customers rarely pony up for paid apps. Consequently, app makers have to resort to “freemium” models with all manner of manipulative in-app purchases in order to actually get paid for their work. So the abundance of apps in the App Store and on the home screens of our iPhones misrepresent the actual (paid) market for apps and the lack of value that many of those apps deliver to users. (There’s an analogy here between the poverty of the sell-not app makers and that of adjunct university faculty, but don’t get me started!)
On a superficial level, the grid of apps approach communicates a sense of freedom to users. You can download any app (from the Apple App Store only, of course) and put it anywhere on your screen and dispose of it when you no longer want it. But what Apple’s “sandboxed” approach doesn’t do for users is give them the freedom, one level up, to download an app that lets them control the representation of those icons on their screen or any other more sophisticated way of managing applications. This is why so many users jailbreak their iPhones.
Imagine that for you, the novelty of having this candy crush of apps on your phone has worn off and instead you want a more pared down approach. You could, of course, just have fewer little icons on your screen. But what if you want just four big, honking buttons for the only four things you use your iPhone for anyway? Or what if you wanted your phone to be intelligent enough to present you with your morning apps for the commute to work, your enterprise apps during the work day, shopping apps when you are out at the mall, entertainment apps in the evenings… you get the picture. If Apple doesn’t see fit to offer this meta-programming capability, you’re out of luck. Even if you are a developer and want to build it yourself, you could only deploy it on jailbroken iPhones.
Phablets, it seems, are where consumers are going, particularly as our initial enthusiasm with the iPad begins to cool. But there may be more to that transition than just scaling up the iPhone. It may take a while for consumers to catch on, but the opportunity space exists for someone to design a better interaction model for these larger smartphones. Will Apple be the one to do it?
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