Should Apple Make A Larger iPhone?

on February 11, 2013

iphone_bigThere has been chatter of late around Apple’s plans for the iPhone. Some suggest they need to make a more affordable version of the iPhone. Notice I didn’t say cheap. The logic for a more affordable iPhone is that it will open the door to new customers, especially in emerging markets, who can’t afford the high price of an unsubsidized iPhone. There is a lot of merit to this argument and if done right it can be a healthy addition to the iPhone product line.

The other speculation as of late is that Apple could make an even larger iPhone than the current 4” iPhone 5. This would fall into the larger phone category (some call it Phablets) and would give Apple a competitive iPhone for those who desire larger screens in the 4.7-5.5” range. Apple making a larger iPhone is a newer element to the discussion but one that is worth some thought for those of us who analyze competitive trends.

No matter how you slice it, I believe the time has come for Apple to expand the current iPhone line. This would mean releasing two or three current generation devices in the same year each targeted at different audiences. Apple does this now with the Mac line where they have 11”, 13”, and 15” products in their lineup. Arguably they also do this with the iPad line offering both the 4th generation larger screen iPad and the iPad Mini. I believe it is time this same thinking comes to the iPhone.

Although I think the idea of a more affordable iPhone is compelling, if I had to choose the strategy for either the more affordable iPhone or a larger screen size version for the first product to expand the lineup, I would choose the larger iPhone.

My reason for this logic is the ecosystem. As we have learned from Android phones, focusing on the low-end lowers engagement and ecosystem investment. Those who have cost constraints simply don’t spend as much in an ecosystem. A large question looms as to whether iOS would lead those in the cost conscious category to higher engagement or ecosystem investment. But the evidence we have so far is that the lower end of the market uses these devices very different than the tiers above them. And not in ways that lead to loyalty or deeper ecosystem investment.

Ecosystem investment is important to Apple. Horace Deidu and analyst at Asymco tweeted out the following data yesterday:

Also in a tweet earlier than that one Horace estimated that gross margin for iTunes is now 15%-17%. This is why for the current growth trend and competitive strategy for Apple, focusing the iPhone lines on segments who can and will invest in the ecosystem is important.

An expanded current generation iPhone line not only gives more customers a path to Apple’s door, it gives more customers an opportunity to invest in Apple’s ecosystem.

Now turning our attention to the topic of Apple making a larger iPhone. I wrote on Friday about my experience thus far with the Galaxy Note II. I made many conclusions in that article and the primary being that larger phones, those above 5” are actually more tablet like than phone like. Yet the value of a pocketable phone/tablet is apparent. The question that needs answering is whether or not the market for larger phones (Phablets) is big enough for a company looking for mass market products—like Apple— to care about. I believe the answer to that question is yes.

Is The Market Large Enough for Large Phones?

The Galaxy Note I sold about 10 million devices world wide in 2012. They will most likely sell at least 20 million this year and most well reasoned analysis I have seen project a steady growth trend for these larger size smart phones. The reasons are simple.

For many markets people can’t afford a smart phone and a tablet. For many markets, especially emerging ones, a product that can merge the benefits of a phone and a tablet is a compelling value proposition. We all know that the phone capabilities of any device is simply just an app, but the portability or pocket-ability is important for a device that is with us 24/7. This is what makes the larger phones a legitimate category. Just how big a percentage of the overall smartphone market large phones are, is a project I am still undergoing. I believe it is larger than 10% but how much larger I am not yet sure. Even if it is only 10% of the overall growing smartphone base of the next few years, it would be in the hundreds of millions.

For more analysis on the value this form factor brings to market read my column on the Galaxy Note II.

Room to Innovate For Larger Devices

Using the Note II, and for that matter the iPad Mini, has led me to think about those form factors as unique sizes to solve challenges for one-handed operation. 5-7” devices, whether phone or tablet, are still manageable to hold and do some operation with one hand. Samsung included some software around the keyboard and keypad to make one-handed operation easy but the device is still to large for full ease of one-handed operation. I genuinely believe this form factor presents some unique opportunities for innovation.

One way could be by using voice, and in Apple’s case Siri. Our research has continually returned many of the primary use cases for Siri not just being search but also automation. Set reminder, add a calendar event, post to Facebook, send a tweet, set an alarm, etc., are all examples of common automation tasks from heavy Siri users. One simple way to address some of the issues with one-handed operation on larger screen devices will be around voice.

Another is sensors. As sensor technology evolves we will be able to embed these sensors into the bezel of the larger devices. The Galaxy Note II was almost impossible for me to reach the back button with just one hand. The back button is a key function of Android and is needed throughout much of its UI. A sensor solution could allow me to have a back button function by simply taping the side of the device. Scrolling was feasible but not ideal on the Note II. This is also a use case I found was capable with the iPad Mini but not as much with the iPad. Sensors could be embed into the sides of the device and allow a slide of the finger down the side to act as the scroll function. There are many more opportunities for sensor control than I can get into here, but I believe this is an area for innovation and improvement. By Apple innovating to solve some one-handed operation problems for a larger iPhone, they can leverage those innovations for iPad as well.

In a market the size of smartphones, staying competitive will mean offering a range of devices. The smartphone market is mature enough that it has begun to segment. An iPhone designed to serve the market that wants a larger screen, which can add to more productive and more media rich experiences in a pocketable form factor, is a good move in my opinion. One that Apple could do right and again put them years ahead of the competition.