A Smaller iPhone? We Dig It (And You Might Too)
It is exceedingly likely that on Monday, Apple will announce a new, smaller iPhone. There are rumors about specs, style, and pricing, but who cares! We’ll know those details for sure soon enough. The relate only question that really matters is: After years of upsizing, what happens when smartphones try to shrink?
It’s a reasonable question. Even though the iPhone 6 only came out 18 months ago, big phones have been a staple of the mobile market for years, and for good reason. People watch more video on their phones than ever—as of last July, the average YouTube mobile session was 40 minutes—and use that extra real estate for more comfortable gaming, reading, tweeting, or falling dangerously far down Instagram rabbit holes.
Maybe more important, people have gotten accustomed to big. In fact, outside of the ranks of modestly performing, tight-budget imports, you simply can’t find a small phone at all. A Happy Meal can look awfully sad after a few super-sized years.
You know what? Don’t sweat it. A small iPhone might not be for everyone, but if you and your pockets have been missing a miniature app machine, going back may not be as daunting as it seems.
First, the obvious benefit: A smaller phone simply doesn’t take up as much space. It fits more comfortably in your purse or pocket, and you should be able to operate it easily with one hand. That might go without saying, but it shouldn’t, because for some people that is only criteria that matters. And that’s fine!
“While larger phones definitely have broader appeal than we once thought, there are clearly those who don’t want a larger phone,” says Jan Dawson, president of Jackdaw Research. “Though there may be some correlation between these people and those who don’t care about always having the latest and greatest device, that’s not to say they’re all happy sticking with cheaper or older phones.”
In other words, there will finally be an upgrade path for people who want to stay on iOS at the 4-inch size they’ve used for years, rather than praying a three-year-old device holds out just a little bit longer, or switching to a cheap, pre-paid Android phone just to have a screen one’s thumb can navigate unassisted.
As for the screen size you’re giving up, that surprisingly not going to be as big an issue as you might think. While phones have puffed out over the last few years, the mobile web remains remarkably capable of servicing basically any size.
“If anything, a higher percentage of websites are now using adaptive layouts that will work just fine on smaller devices and larger devices,” says Dawson. “Any web developer worth their title knows that there are still more smaller phones than larger phones out there, even if what’s selling now is mostly at the larger end.”
Ian Burns, creative director at digital agency Huge, agrees. “I think design in general is in a very interesting place, where it’s pretty slick, it’s pretty sleek, it’s pretty streamlined,” he says. “We’re not using a lot of bevels and really heavy graphics. We’re trying to do stuff that’s clean, and bright, and wide open. That allows for fun and interesting interactions without worrying about killing the processor.”
That’s to a smaller phone’s advantage. If the mobile web had become more cluttered to take advantage of larger displays, shrinking back down could create maddening hunt and peck experiences. On some sites—and in some regions, like Japan, where user interfaces tend to be overfull—this will be an issue. But for the most part, Burns says, today’s young digital designers are already accustomed to approaching every project with a focus on how it will scale, in either direction.
“People who are more fluent in responsive think more in terms of fluid layouts,” says Burns, referring to digital design elements that automatically adapt to any screen size and shape. ” I think that this demand has created people who are able to hold those ideas in their heads.”
If anything, in fact, designers and developers haven’t been taking as much advantage of large displays as they should.
“It doesn’t feel like phone UX has adapted much, if at all, to bigger screens,” says Don Lehman, head of industrial design at Starry. “For sure we are three years smarter about how we design for mobile in general, but there are few meaningful, large-screen-specific UX features.”
However boring our big screens are, they’re inarguably better for watching video or viewing images. If you stream a lot, or are in a creative field, or want to give virtual reality a whirl, get the biggest, brightest, most pixel-dense display you can afford. Don’t, though, assume that scaling down to 4-inches will make videos suddenly unwatchable. That’s not how it works.
“I think the old adage, ‘The best camera is the one you have with you’ applies to different-sized smartphones as well,” says Lehman. “As long as you can watch Game of Thrones on it, people will adapt.”
Besides, it’s not like streaming video was invented in 2014. “Smaller screens didn’t stop people from watching video in the past, and it likely won’t in the future either,” says Dawson. “People will make tradeoffs between the various things they care about, and some will sacrifice video viewing at larger sizes for being able to easily use their phone with one hand.”
That, after all, is the real joy of Apple adding a smaller iPhone to its lineup. It might not be right for you, Mr. Hulu-Streaming-Yeti-Hands, but it will be for a lot of people who have spent the last few years feeling like Alice in Wonderland after a few sips from the DRINK ME bottle.
There’s no universally perfect phone size or shape. Every device requires some sort of sacrifice. But a smaller iPhone will come with fewer than you might have thought. And more to the point, you’ll have the option of making them in the first place.
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