Should Apple Make a Larger Screen iPhone?

on June 7, 2013

One of the things that has become very clear about the smartphone wars is that one size does not fit all. People want choices whether it be a particular smartphone OS, the size, or specific features they want or need on the specific phone they buy. For many, a choice of devices at different price points is also important. Because most smartphones in the US come with a 2 year carrier subscription, the up front cost to people matters. During the last year I have gone to the showrooms of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile and eaves dropped on people buying smartphones and concluded from these adventures that the variety of needs and wants of people buying smartphones varies greatly.

One common denominator I observed while watching folks talk to sales people about buying a smartphone is that the screen size was actually quite important in their decision of what product they purchased. Here again, one size does not fit all. Some people are quite happy with a 3.5-inch screen, while many opt for a screen in 4 inch to 4.3-inch range. And a lot had heard about smartphones with screens in the 5-inch and even 6-inch range and wanted to see these as well.

This issue of smartphone screen sizes has become a very big research question when I talk to most of the smartphone vendors. In Samsung’s case, they have screen sizes from 3.5 inches to 5.5 inches while Apple has settled on just one 4 inch screen for all of their new iPhones. With the Galaxy S4, and quite a few others sporting screens much larger than the one on Apple’s 4-inch iPhone 5, some media and consumers have been asking why Apple has stayed with a one size fits all strategy vs giving their customers more choices in screen sizes like many of their competitors do.

A Tale of Two Screens

For the last month I have been carrying an iPhone 5 and the new Samsung Galaxy S4 with me at all times to try and get a sense of my on preference in screen sizes. The iPhone 5 has a 4-inch screen and the Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch screen. One is based on iOS and the other is based on Android. I have also used smartphones with Windows Phone on them but for this exercise I focused on the two market leaders and their very distinct and different screen sizes.

Both are exceptional smartphones. Samsung has done a great job of making Android better on their devices and in certain cases I found the larger 5-inch screen very welcome (especially for my not-so-young-eyes). This is especially true when using news based apps like Flipboard, Zite, and Pulse as well as when surfing the Web. But the downside of a 5-inch screen is that for those of us with small, or relatively normal hand sizes, it is quite difficult to use a 5-inch smartphone with just one hand.

Until using the Galaxys S4 I had not really paid attention to the fact that most of my use of the iPhone was dominated by one-hand operations. The reason, at least for me, is that I tend to naturally use my right thumb to navigate and even type messages and emails one handed. In fact, I have become so skilled at this that when I tried using two hands to navigate and type on the Galaxy’s S4 screen, which included my left thumb, it surprised me how clumsy I was with my left thumb when using two hands to operate the larger screen.

Apparently I am not alone with this problem. My friend and colleague at PC Mag, Sasha Sagan wrote a great piece on this exact issue recently in which he stated that he just had to much trouble doing one handed operations on screens much larger then 4.3 inches.
I encourage you to read this piece when you have time as he gets more granular about the one handed operation issue and feedback he has gotten on this topic.

With the Galaxy S4 selling so well, it appears that for a lot of people a 5-inch screen is not a problem. However the iPhone is selling even better in the US, which says that a lot of people are fine with a 4-inch screen as well. In talking to quite a few friends and family it seems that one hand operation of smartphones is quite prevalent and is a real consideration when buying a smartphone for many.

But if the smartphone wars are based on one size does not fit all, why has Apple been so rigid on their screen size?
When the iPhone 5 was introduced last year, Apple’s EVP of World Wide marketing Phil Schiller told me that one of the things Apple observed with people using the iPhone up to then was that the majority of them used them with one hand. They had studied screens larger and smaller and while the original 3.5-inch screens worked well, many customers had told them they were interested in a larger screen in new models. In moving up to a new screen size, they looked very hard at what larger screen sizes would still allow for optimal one hand usage and settled on 4-inch screens for the iPhone 5. One handed operation is clearly at the heart of their design philosophy. And I suspect that even with Samsung gaining customers with a 5″ screen, Apple will stay true to this goal of creating a great smartphone that is optimized for use with one hand.

Could they possibly change their minds on this in the future and create multiple screen sizes that would meet the need of anyone who wants an iPhone? Given their strong conviction that the best usable experience on a smartphone is when it can be optimally done with one hand, I doubt they would even consider a 5-inch smartphone. Interestingly, during this time I started testing a 4.3-inch smartphone and while it was a bit of a stretch to use my relatively smaller hands for one hand operation, it is more than possible for most people to do one handed operations on this slightly larger screen. Perhaps Apple has discovered this as well and if I was a betting man, I would bet that if Apple does decide to introduce an iPhone with a larger screen it would be no more then 4.3″ diagonally.

The good news for consumers is that their are so many choices offered to them when buying a smartphone that they can pretty much get a smartphone with any size screen on it. But if you are waiting for Apple to copy Samsung and bring out a 5-inch iPhone, I suspect the odds are pretty much against it.