Prelude to Tomorrow’s Big-Ass iPhone Apple Event

The iPhones

Here’s what I expect. Two new iPhones, one 4.7 inches, the other 5.5. Same internal specs on both — same A8 SoC, same cameras, same guts. The only difference will be the screen (and the software implications that result from it). I think my predictions on display resolutions from a few weeks ago are still looking good:

  • 4.7-inch display: 1334 × 750, 326 PPI @2×
  • 5.5-inch display: 2208 × 1242, 461 PPI @3×

(More on that @2×/@3× difference in a moment.)

I think the 5.5-inch model will have a starting price $100 higher, and that the new iPhone lineup will look like this (based on U.S. subsidized prices, with two-year carrier contracts):

  • New 5.5-inch iPhone: $299/399/499
  • New 4.7-inch iPhone: $199/299/399
  • iPhone 5S: $99
  • iPhone 5C: “free”

I suspect now the whole point of the iPhone 5C was to get to this point, where the plastic iPhone and the “free” iPhone are one and the same. Next year, I wouldn’t expect the 5S to move down to “free”; instead, I would expect an iPhone 5CS — a 5C-style plastic iPhone with 5S internals and features (like Touch ID).

I’m hoping that all storage tiers get doubled — that the “free” phone goes from 8 to 16 GB, the $99 one from 16/32 to 32/64, and the two new ones go from 16/32/64 to 32/64/128.

There’s a catch, I suspect, with the 5.5-inch one. There have been pervasive rumors for months that the 5.5-inch iPhone was lagging the 4.7-inch one in production. Many of these rumors even claimed the 5.5-inch one would be announced later, or, if announced alongside the 4.7-inch one, that the 5.5-inch one would not go on sale until later in the year or maybe even next year. That makes no marketing sense, though. Apple isn’t going to announce a new iPhone in September that doesn’t go on sale until December or January.

Today comes a report that both phones will launch on September 19 (the same date relative to the announcement — the Friday a week and a half after the announcement event — as with all previous fall iPhone releases). That makes perfect product marketing sense, but it doesn’t jibe with the pervasive reports that it’s behind in production.

We can square this circle pretty easily. My guess is that both phones will go on sale, officially, at the same time, but that the 5.5-inch model will be in short supply initially — perhaps severely short supply. In short, the 5.5-inch iPhone might be this year’s gold iPhone 5S — very hard to get for the first few months.

Why change the “regular” size from 4.0 to 4.7 inches? I don’t know; I’m willing to keep an open mind until I see one in person tomorrow that it’ll be an improvement without being much of an imposition — that the device as a whole won’t feel that much bigger volumetrically and the increase in screen real estate will be a welcome improvement.

Why introduce a second size class, at the relatively enormous (for a phone) 5.5 inches? Two reasons, very clear to me:

  1. Some people want to buy them. It doesn’t matter why. For some it might be games. For others, being able to carry one device as a hybrid phone/tablet. For others, it might be about reading — making the iPhone more usable as an e-book reader. It doesn’t matter what the reasons are. The simple fact is that many people want huge phones — not just bigger ones, but huge ones — and they’re willing to pay a premium for them. Apple has played a one-size-fits-all game for seven iPhone generations. The market shows that one size does not fit all. I don’t know that they should have done it sooner, but it certainly feels like the time for multiple iPhone sizes has come.

  2. Battery life. Giant-sized phones have room for giant-sized batteries.

For people interested in reason 1 — those who want a 5.5-inch iPhone because of the large screen — reason number 2 is just icing on the cake. They’ll get the phone for the display size, and enjoy the longer battery life as a side benefit.

For people interested primarily in reason 2, though, it might be a mixed bag. What if the 4.7-inch iPhone gets the same “10 hours of talk time” battery life as previous iPhones, and the 5.5-inch iPhone gets, say, 18 or even 20 hours? There are going to be people who will buy the 5.5-inch iPhone despite the size of the device, not because of it, just because of the battery life. It’s for these people that I think Apple will indeed have a one-handed mode that shrinks the UI.

Legacy Apps on the New iPhone Displays

How will existing apps that have not been updated to support iOS 8 adaptive layout and multiple display sizes render on-screen on the 4.7- and 5.5-inch iPhones? Zoomed to fill the screen, I say.

I know, when the iPhone 5 changed the aspect ratio from 3:2 to 16:9, existing apps ran letterboxed, with black bars at the top and bottom. But you can’t scale to accommodate an aspect ratio change. (Well, you could, but it would be gross.) You can scale to accommodate a size change with the same aspect ratio. Those apps will look a little blurry, but they’ll look better than they would in the middle of a black box on all four sides. Think back to when the iPhone first went retina — old apps ran pixel-doubled. That looked way worse than current apps will scaled to the 4.7- and 5.5-inch displays.

Plus, people who just spent hundreds of dollars on a huge new iPhone don’t want to see tiny apps.

Why I Think Only the 5.5-inch iPhone Will Go to @3× Retina

The bigger battery also explains, partially, why I project that the 5.5-inch, and only the 5.5-inch, iPhone will get a super-high resolution screen (461 PPI, I’m guessing, give or take a pixel or two per inch) and will run at @3× retina resolution. More pixels consume more power. Joshua Ho, in an excellent piece for AnandTech earlier this year, “The Pixel Density Race and Its Technical Merits”:

For both OLED and LCD displays, pushing higher pixel densities incurs a cost in the form of greater power consumption for a given luminance value. Going from around 330 PPI to 470 PPI for an LCD IPS display incurs around a 20% power draw increase on the display, which can be offset by more efficient SoC, larger batteries, improved RF subsystem power draw.

Battery life aside, sure, @3× retina would be just as great on a 4.7-inch iPhone as on a 5.5-inch iPhone. But we can’t leave battery life aside — it’s an essential factor that guides all design decisions. I suspect an @3× 4.7-inch iPhone today, in 2014, would get unacceptable battery life — perhaps worse than the battery life of the iPhone 5S. That 20 percent power draw increase would be too much for its battery.

The 5.5-inch iPhone has room for a battery that is way bigger than the one in the 4.7. According to purported supply chain leaks, about 50 percent bigger. So it can provide energy for the power-hungry 461 PPI display and still have plenty left over to give the large iPhone unprecedented (at least for iPhones) battery life in real-world usage.

Also, consider that the super-high resolution display might be one of the reasons that the 5.5-inch model is supposedly lagging the 4.7-inch one in production. If those displays are constrained, it’d be far worse if both new phones used them, rather than just one. (I suspect the 4.7-inch phone uses a 326 PPI display, exactly the same pixel density as the retina iPad Mini and all retina iPhones to date.)

The Wrist Wearable Thing

I don’t know if it’s a watch. But as we get closer, everyone is saying it’s a watch. So for the sake of clarity I’ll call it a watch here, but I want my Being Right Points if it winds up being something that goes on your wrist but isn’t a watch.

If it has a screen, I’ll bet it’s square. And if it’s square, 320 × 320 pixels sounds about right to me. But here’s the thing I don’t understand: LCD screens are power-hungry. Watch batteries are necessarily tiny. I don’t see how a watch with a 320 × 320 display could get acceptable battery life, unless the screen is almost never on. And if the screen is almost never on, how is it a watch?

Perhaps even if they use the word “watch”, it may no more be a watch in the traditional sense of the word than the iPhone is a phone in the traditional sense.1

Everyone else has gone skeuomorphic. The Moto 360 is earning kudos for being the Android Wear device that most resembles a traditional watch. Motorola explicitly states that this is why they based it on a circular design. The Moto 360 watch faces are mostly skeuomorphic; they mimic the look of analog watch faces. That sort of mimicry of real-world analog objects is exactly what Apple has just spent the last two years eliminating in iOS and OS X. I expect Apple to go some other way. I’ll be very disappointed if this is just a device that shows a fake analog watch face, displays notifications from a tethered iPhone, and tracks your footsteps and heart rate.

In short, I don’t expect to see Apple’s take on the sort of thing Android Wear is trying to do. I expect Apple to do something different, and quite possibly something less but deeper.

And whatever it is, I think it will be controversial. Perhaps it will be expensive. Perhaps it will have far, far fewer features than do Android Wear devices. Perhaps it will appear under-powered at first.

But there will be something, or several somethings, that will cause it to be misunderstood by those who are only able to frame new creations in the context of what came before them. Apple’s watch won’t fit in an existing mold. It won’t be a phone on your wrist. It won’t be a watch as we know it. We already have excellent phones. We already have excellent watches. For the Apple watch to be worth creating, it must be excellent at something else.

(What if it’s a revolutionary iPod — with an “o”? An iPod whose form factor is naturally meant to just get out of the way while you wear it, including when you wear it to exercise. Max Child imagined just that, it sounds like something a lot of people would buy. I would. And it would fit with both the “health” angle of fitness tracking sensors and HealthKit in iOS 8, and Apple’s traditional September “music event”.)