What Is the Market for Smaller Than 4.7-Inch Phones?

Samuel Axon, writing at Ars Technica:

All that is to say that while some smartphone buyers might say they want a small smartphone, a big chunk of those who say that might change their tune when told that means worse battery life and poorer-quality photos.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that, though. The way Apple’s iPhone lineup has shaken out over the years, device size has correlated to camera quality to some degree. Maybe better said as camera capabilities, rather than quality — recall that in the 6/6S/7/8 era, the Plus-sized models had additional lenses and image stabilization features the non-Plus models lacked. And battery life — I think that argument is off base. Yes, bigger phones have bigger batteries, but they also have bigger displays and the display is the biggest consumer of energy. On the iPhone side of the fence at least, smaller phones have not had worse battery life.

Companies like Apple do market research and adapt their product lineups accordingly. This isn’t something former CEO Steve Jobs was known for, but Apple’s current lineup seems to suggest Tim Cook is not so averse to that approach to product development. And market research is probably telling smartphone makers that the great majority of consumers want big phones — either because they want big screens, or because other desires like longer battery life are easier to deliver in larger devices.

There is surely still a niche audience for small phones, though, and it’s not being served very well. Part of that may be because supply lines can only produce so many components in a given time frame, and it may make sense in many cases for Apple and its partners to focus those supply lines on products that have the widest possible appeal.

This is a profound misunderstanding of Jobs-era Apple decision making, or at the very least a conflation of market research (what people are buying) and focus group research (asking people what they think they want to buy). Jobs was famously averse to focus group testing, but I don’t think that’s changed. Focus groups would not have told Apple to remove the home button and Touch ID. Focus groups would have thrown chairs at the two-way glass if asked about removing headphone jacks.

But Apple has always done fanatically detailed market research. They don’t talk about it because by any company’s standards for trade secrecy, market research is a trade secret, and Apple is, we all know, more secretive than most companies. I think what makes truly small phones — let’s say iPhone 5S-sized phones — hard to gauge the demand for is that no one has even tried making a good one since the original iPhone SE 4 years ago.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020