Teardrop Skepticism

Preface: I don’t know what the new iPhone looks like. I don’t even know whether there’s only one new iPhone. The only thing I know is that there existed, months ago, “N94” prototype iPhones that looked like the iPhone 4, but which contained the iPad 2’s next-gen A5 CPU. That proves nothing, however, as I believe Apple was just as likely to build iPhone 4-lookalike prototypes whether or not they ever intended to bring them to market. Testing new internal components in disguised exteriors is an obvious strategy for a secretive company.

So what follows is just good old-fashioned speculation and design thinking.

As I type this, we’re four days out from next week’s “Let’s Talk iPhone” media event in Cupertino. Everyone knows that Apple is poised to release a new iPhone based on the iPad 2’s A5 dual-core system on a chip, and there’s also strong agreement that the new iPhone will get an upgraded camera. There seem to be two main lines of thought about what the new top-of-the-line iPhone will look like:

  • Pretty much just like the iPhone 4.
  • A sort of MacBook Air-inspired teardrop design.

People are calling the former the “iPhone 4S”, as it would be clearly analogous to the 2009 iPhone 3GS, which had the same form factor as the 2008 iPhone 3G. People are calling the latter the “iPhone 5”. I detect an undercurrent of sentiment that if Apple announces the iPhone 4S, it’d be a letdown, but if they announce the iPhone 5, it’d be exciting. But this is all merely about how the thing looks on the outside. A new form factor would by definition bring more “new-ness” to the announcement, but why should an iPhone 4-lookalike “iPhone 4S” be considered disappointing if it contains significantly improved components? The iPhone 4 is, I think it fair to say, the most popular device Apple has ever made.

Evidence for the “iPhone 4S” is based on component supply reports from Asia, and numerous leaks of actual iPhone 4-esque components that aren’t the same as those on the current GSM and CDMA iPhone 4 models. This is pretty good evidence that Apple is set to release a new phone that looks like the iPhone 4. The question is whether that phone will be the new high-end model, or the new low-end model. (If it’s the high-end model, what will the low-end model be? It doesn’t seem right to me that Apple would keep selling the 3GS into 2012. The simplest solution: 16/32/64 GB A5-powered iPhones at the high end, and an 8 GB A4-powered iPhone at the low end, all of them looking like today’s iPhone 4.)

There’s no such component evidence of a new form factor iPhone.

But: Chinese case-makers sure seem willing to bet that the much-rumored teardrop design is going into production. The website MIC Gadget published a report this week claiming that teardrop iPhone 5 cases are available all over China, from multiple manufacturers. They have photos and a video showing dozens of different cases in a gadget store. Maybe it’s not that big a bet on the part of these case makers — perhaps it doesn’t cost much to make a few thousand cheap plastic cases? But still, it’s a bet.

Then, yesterday Eric Slivka at MacRumors reported that AT&T retail stores are receiving “iPhone 5” silicone sleeves. Unusual, to say the least, regardless of whether Apple announces such an iPhone next week.

But here’s the thing: Something about this design seems wrong to me. The proportions seem off. Wouldn’t a teardrop body feel weirdly unbalanced when held horizontally? Look at MacRumors’s mockup of this purported design. It strikes me as ungainly that the “forehead” is smaller than the “chin” on the front face. On all previous iPhones the forehead and chin are the same size, which makes the iPhone look “right” no matter how it’s oriented. This iPhone seems like something that would only look right or feel right when held in portrait.

(And color me skeptical about a bigger display. If it goes to 4-inches diagonal, but the pixel count remains the same, won’t the pixels-per-inch resolution drop beneath Apple’s own threshold to qualify as a “retina display”? I mean, a 4-inch 960 × 640 display would still be plenty dense and should look good, but Apple tends to make things smaller, not bigger.)

Symmetry is a hallmark of Apple’s iOS devices to date. They look right in any orientation. In terms of weight and thickness, they feel balanced when held in either orientation. These things are true of all existing iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads.

The MacBook Air is symmetric despite its teardrop shape because it has only one orientation. A teardrop iPhone, when held in landscape, would be thicker (and presumably heavier) on one side than the other. That seems wrong to me. Not shockingly wrong, but wrong nonetheless. The iPhone is not as orientation-agnostic as the iPad — the iPhone homescreen and multitasking tray, for example, are portrait-only. But still, all previous models look and feel right when held in landscape.

Consider, for example, how many iPhone games are played in landscape and use the accelerometer for control (e.g. almost all driving games). Seems to me that games like those would suffer on an unbalanced asymmetric iPhone.

That brings me to the craziest thing I’ve seen all week, from the guys at Benm.at:

Based on CAD designs, hardware components, several leaked hints, cases and recent, believable mockups we created a three-dimensional computer model. This virtual model was then used to build a very detailed, true prototype that you can hold in your own two hands.

That’s a remarkable amount of effort to put into something that is, ultimately, useless. But, still — kind of cool, right? At the very least they’ve alleviated my concerns that I am unhealthily obsessed with this stuff, because I wouldn’t go to that effort in a thousand years. Benm.at’s photos of their prototype, to my eyes, make this design seem less severely tapered than MacRumors’ mockups based on the same purported form factor. It’s not balanced or symmetric, but, it’s not as unbalanced and asymmetric as I’d been thinking.

So, let me pull out my trusty old Magic 8-Ball to finish this off:

Q: Will Apple announce at least one new iPhone next week?

A: IT IS CERTAIN.

Q: Will they release two new iPhones?

A: ASK AGAIN LATER.

Q: If — if — there are two new iPhones, and one of them looks like the iPhone 4, is it certain that the iPhone 4-esque one is the low-end model?

A: BETTER NOT TELL YOU NOW.

Q: Is there a new iPhone with a tapered “teardrop” design?

A: DON’T COUNT ON IT.

Q: Is there a new iPhone with a new form factor, neither like the iPhone 4 nor “teardrop”, which Apple has managed to keep completely secret?

A: REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN.

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