The March Towards Uniformity

A few days ago Lorraine Luk, Eva Dou, and Daisuke Wakabayashi wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal conservatively titled — the hallmark of this upstanding publication — Apple iPhones to Come Out With Bigger Screens. It sparked a great deal of primarily confirmatory discussion over the next few days, during which Ben Thompson spoke out in favor of this rumor. Citing the Asian market’s desire for large devices, Ben made a compelling case for larger phones as Apple seeks to capitalize on the massive Chinese mobile phone industry. John Gruber, on the other hand, did not feel similarly inclined, and made a few valid points discounting The Wall Street Journal’s piece.

In the past I have tried — and failed, more often than not — to stay away from the Apple rumor mill. No one wins this crapshoot and ultimately nearly every outlandish idea has some grain of truth to it. Given enough time, whatever those in this “industry” write will eventually come to pass in some form. And, as many have pointed out recently, simply confirming or denying the latest gossip does not take any special knowledge, talent, or understanding: you have a 50/50 chance every time, and no one sticks around to see whose ideas turned out wrong anyway. I do believe, however, that this exercise does have some value when not solely conjecturing as to the proposed existence of an imaginary smart watch, but rather when using it as a lens to make observations and form hypotheses regarding the future direction of our darling company. With that in mind, The Wall Street Journal’s modestly-titled article contains within it two distinct predictions worth discussing: first, we have the notion that Apple has begun developing 4.5” and 5” phones, and second, that Apple could cease producing the 5C. As is often the case, the best way to gain truly valuable insight into the present is to examine the past.

The iPhone 5 in 2012 brought an entirely new form factor to Apple’s mobile phone line. Starting with the iPhone 3G, this had become customary: beginning in 2008 Apple had released an entirely new phone every two years and improved upon their existing model in between, labeling these median devices with the “S” moniker many came to assume meant “speed”. Unlike previous years though, in 2012 Apple expanded its product lineup from two devices, the current model and its immediate predecessor, to three: the new 5 sat at the top, the 4S resided in the middle, and the now severely outdated 4 came free with a contract. In 2013 Apple furthered that trend and released the iPhone 5S in September, moved the 4S from its median position to the bottom tier, and repackaged and repurposed the 5’s internals in a plastic, colorful shell rebranded as the iPhone 5C, which it then positioned at the middle of its mobile lineup. Although many praised the company for this departure in strategy, this approach brought with it a number of latent problems.

Prior to launching the 5C, we could have reasonably expected Apple to continue releasing and updating new phones on their established tick-tock cycle every September. This well-founded trend would have prescribed 2014 seeing the launch of an iPhone 6 replacing the 5S as Apple’s flagship offering, the 5S moving to occupy the second tier, and the 4S ceasing to exist as the 5 replaced it as the free-with-contract phone. However, the advent of Apple’s lauded 5C threw a huge wrench into the works, establishing that the second member in Apple’s mobile trifecta ought to sport the previous year’s internals encased in whimsically colorful plastic and named after the current high-end offering: Apple now had the 5-“speed” and the 5-“cheap”, if you will, and that other device that no one wanted anymore. Thumbs-up, Apple, way to go. That worked out fine and appealed to a certain demographic, but now, with the next generation of iPhones just a short eight months from hitting stores across the globe, Apple must decide how to proceed with a cycle and naming convention that only fit every other year. The way I see it, Apple has three possible courses of action, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Scenario #1: Start Making the 5 Again

Probably the least likely out of the three, Apple could re-tool their manufacturing process and begin building the defunct iPhone 5 once again. In addition to requiring a sizable capital expenditure, this option would negate any advantages Apple has seen by employing plastics and a potentially more streamlined manufacturing process up until now, although it would allow them to their previous, pre-“C” device product cycle. I don’t think this one needs any more discussion.

Scenario #2: Create a 5SC

Alternately, Apple could leave the 5C as-is, move it to the bottom tier, and follow this fledgling trend by which last year’s phone, upon obviation by a newer device, becomes the “C” model, thereby making the current 5S a 5SC, albeit hopefully with a better name than that. This would leave Apple in the same situation it was in prior to the 5C though, with two distinctly low-end phones and one high-end device creating an uncomfortable disparity. I also find this route unlikely and thus unworthy of further serious exploration.

Scenario #3: Keep Calm and Carry On

Finally, and — spoiler alert — this is the scenario I consider most likely, Apple could proceed as if nothing about their lineup had changed. Come September, they would move the 5C down to the free-with-contract device, the 5S into its place at the middle, and the the new 6 would assume its rightful spot on top. The 5C seems more appropriate for that tier anyway. Here’s where it gets interesting though: this course of action would find the 5C gone by the natural process of obviation come 2015 and the iPhone 6S, allowing Apple to once again build a “C” model in the 6C just as it had with the iPhone 5S and 5C. This is, in my opinion, the most logical and probable course of action; the path of least resistance. Ultimately though, we have no idea what Apple will do except for the high-end flagship model, the proposed iPhone 6, and now with the rumors of multiple larger phones in the works, even that is no longer guaranteed.

With regards to this eventuality, I have no doubt that Apple will create larger phones for the very reasons Ben Thompson puts forth in his previously-cited article. As every day passes and the Chinese smartphone market grows, it will become increasingly difficult for Apple — or anyone, for that matter — to resist catering especially to this market in addition to — or instead of, perhaps — the U.S. How Apple positions such a sizable (pun intended) family of devices, however, remained unclear until the iPad Air launched alongside its smaller yet equally powerful counterpart, the iPad Mini. In this we can find a very obvious clue as to the future of Apple’s mobile phones, which will differentiate themselves based solely on screen sizes rather than technical specifications, just as the iPads now do. Many will criticize Apple for this move, saying that doing so will introduce fragmentation to the platform and take away from the delightfully simple user experience, but I disagree: equipping each iPhone with uniform hardware would allow Apple’s customers to form that important purchasing decision based solely on personal preference rather than a desire to trade portability for power. Apple gave users the ability to make this same decision with their iPads three months ago; why not extend that same courtesy to the iPhone?