Smartphone displays are getting bigger every year. The sole hold-out is Apple (AAPL), the company whose iPhone helped to launch the market only to see Android dominate it.
Despite speculation that it would unveil a bigger iPhone in September, the iPhone 5S retains the same 4-inch display of last year’s model. Rumors are now swirling that Apple is finally working on a bigger iPhone, one with a curved glass display. If this is true, the bigger iPhone won’t see the light of day until 2014 — most likely the fall of 2014.
But will that be too late? And why complicate things with curved glass?
When the original iPhone was released in 2007, it had a 3.5-inch display. Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs was always adamant that consumers didn’t want “big” smartphones, so he stuck to the 3.5-inch size as being ideal of single-handed use. Apple did cave a little in 2012 when the iPhone 5 grew to a 4-inch display, but even at launch it seemed behind the pack. At that time consumer surveys were showing 4.5-inches as the preferred display size for a smartphone.
When you look at the four leading smartphone platforms, Apple’s iOS is the odd man out. You can buy smartphones with a big display for Android, Windows Phone and even BlackBerry. Samsung’s (SSNLF) Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch display, the HTC One has a 4.7-inch display, Sony’s (SNE) Xperia Z1 has a 5-inch display, and the BlackBerry (BBRY) Z30 has a 5-inch display. Nokia’s (NOK) latest Lumia is a 6-inch phablet.
Looking at premium smartphones side-by-side in a display at a wireless carrier, the iPhone 5S looks almost like a toy. In this setting, those big displays are eye candy that’s hard to ignore. With our use of smartphones evolving from a device to check e-mail to one used for surfing the web, watching movies, updating social media, playing games, reading and checking out photos, the iPhone’s small display seems like an actual detriment.
Apple has never been one to chase market share — its refusal to release a cheap iPhone or iPad is a pretty clear indicator of that. However, with its share of the smartphone market continuing to shrink (currently sitting around 13%) there is a real risk in ignoring the trend.
I own a ton of Apple gear, but I’m holding on to my iPhone 4 until Apple puts out a device with at least a 4.5-inch display. A wicked fast CPU, LTE and Touch ID are nice, but not enough to tempt me. What is tempting is the parade of big Android smartphones I receive for product reviews. If Apple doesn’t relent, it risks losing customer like myself who may grow tired of waiting and will eventually jump platforms to gain more capable hardware.
So it makes sense that the company appears to be relenting and testing out much bigger iPhones. But why curved glass?
I think that plays into another key difference between Google‘s (GOOG) Android and Apple’s iOS. While the difference is no longer so stark as it was in 2010 (when 73% of Android users were male), there is still a gender gap between Android and iOS. Even today, Android still skews male, while the iPhone skews slightly female.
Jezebel just published an article titled “Smartphones Are Made for Giant Man Hands” that helps to illustrate why Apple might be reluctant to potentially annoy a key demographic by making the iPhone too big. If you think that seems far fetched, Business Insider suggested that the greatly hyped iOS 7 employs pastel colors in what many people have interpreted as an open appeal to that female demographic. The gold iPhone 5S could also be interpreted as such.
If you are forced to adopt a physically bigger display, employing curved glass is a way to make the device more easily gripped by a smaller hand. So while curved glass might result in engineering challenges and potentially a higher cost for Apple, having the iPhone 6 as a 4.5-inch or larger model with a curved form factor satisfies the general demand for a bigger display without making it so large that women find it unwieldy to use.
Of course, Apple could also simply release an iPhone phablet and keep the iPhone 5S or iPhone 5C as an option for those who prefer smaller devices, but that strategy has its own risk. Namely, that its flagship iPhone might not be seen as its flagship iPhone anymore.
Whatever Apple is up to, it needs to move fast. It’s not just late to the big smartphone game — it’s not even there at all. When BlackBerry can get its ducks in a row and beat you to the market with a smartphone that meets consumer demand, you’re seriously behind. In the year between the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S, Apple ceded another two percentage points of smartphone market share. Another year at that rate puts it dangerously close to single-digit territory — a place it does not want to be.
Look for the iPhone 6 next fall to be bigger, with Apple heavily promoting a curved form factor that supports one-handed use without compromising on pixels.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.