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The Wrong Size

When the iPhone 4S was released in 2011, the immediate reactions from the media and tech community were even more tepid, unreasonably disappointed, and petulant than usual. We got a much faster and dual-core CPU, a much better and faster camera, a more resilient antenna, a more reliable proximity sensor, and the introduction of Siri. In hindsight, most of the complainers would probably remember it as a great upgrade.

But it looked the same as the iPhone 4. The press and pundits wanted magic. They wanted a “real” “iPhone 5”. And they raked Apple over the coals for it.1 It was the most unreasonably brutal reaction to a major Apple announcement that I can remember.

The most frequent complaint I remember seeing (among those that were actually actionable, instead of vague demands for “something” “new” that seemingly just wanted a new case design) was that the 3.5-inch screen didn’t get any bigger. In 2011, Android phones were rapidly getting surprisingly large — high-end phones of the time usually had at least 4-inch screens, and the original Galaxy Note with its ridiculously huge 5.3-inch screen was released later the same month.

At the time, John Gruber wrote:

What sign has Apple ever given that it will ever change from the one-size-fits-all 3.5-inch screen? Every single iPhone and iPod Touch ever released has had the exact same size screen.

Now, maybe you would prefer a 4-inch screen. Or maybe a 4.5-inch screen. And maybe someone else would prefer a slightly smaller 3.25-inch screen. That’s not how Apple rolls, especially with iOS devices. There is no doubt that some people would prefer a bigger screen. But nor is there any doubt that many other people would not. I wouldn’t. I like to see things get smaller, not bigger. Bigger is not necessarily better. Apple decided on the optimal size for an iPhone display back in 2006. If they thought 4-inches was better, overall, as the one true size for the iPhone display, then the original iPhone would have had a 4-inch display.

I agreed and added:

It’s interesting that the expectations by the geeks and gadget bloggers this time were so heavily in favor of a larger screen, and so much of the disappointment was because we didn’t get one. I don’t remember any noticeable disappointment in previous years about it.

As a four-year iPhone user, I’ve never thought, “You know what I don’t like about this phone? The screen’s too small. I’d like to reduce my battery life, and I’d like my phone to protrude from my pocket in a larger and more conspicuous rectangle, to achieve a larger screen that I cannot comfortably use one-handed. That would be completely worth it.”

Not once.

Yet just one year later, Apple shipped a “real” iPhone 5 with a 4-inch screen. And a much faster processor, and a much better camera, and a battery-efficient LTE radio, in a thinner new case design that weighed comparatively nothing (remember the first time you picked up an iPhone 5?). People still complained, of course — the new, bigger screen wasn’t big enough, and they didn’t improve the rest of the phone enough2 — but they complained less, at least.

The Apple fans who had previously defended the 3.5-inch screen — myself included — got the new one, got used to it, and never wanted to go back to the smaller screens. It turned out that while the larger screen did make the phone slightly taller, technological progress also let Apple make the phone thinner and much lighter.

We had resisted the idea of bigger screens not because we hated screen space, but because we thought they’d bring major costs in size and weight. But the iPhone 5 really didn’t.

The “right size” principle was disproven. We were wrong.

Tomorrow, Apple is extremely likely to launch this year’s new iPhone in 4.7- and 5.5-inch screen sizes, blowing away even more of our previous assumptions and theories, and we can’t wait to get these bigger phones. (Well, most of us.)

How did we go so wrong before? I’d argue that we were partially just flat-out wrong, but mostly mistakenly judging the status quo with a lack of foresight. Big-screened phones were mediocre in 2011, but we failed to see that they wouldn’t always be.

In 2011, big screens came at bigger costs to size, weight, and battery life than today’s bigger-screened phones. We failed to anticipate advances in enclosure design, manufacturing, and screen technology.

Screen-size fragmentation isn’t as important as we once thought. The taller-only iPhone 5 screen was easy to adapt to because so many apps had vertically-flexible scrolling layouts. Designing for the new sizes today will also be easy because iOS 7’s aesthetic in all of our apps today is inherently far more flexible than 2011’s highly textured, pixel-specific fashion. And coding these designs is much easier today because of the introduction and rapid improvement of autolayout, adaptive view controllers, and storyboards.

People holding Galaxy Notes up to their faces to make phone calls looked ridiculous in 2011. Today, making a phone call in public on a huge phone is commonplace, and how often do you make phone calls in public anymore? We also thought it was ridiculous to hold up an iPad to take a picture — a brand new phenomenon in late 2011, as the first iPad with a camera was released only six months earlier — but that has also since become ubiquitous and unremarkable.

Tablets were still selling like hotcakes with no slowdowns in sight, we were still trying to carry both devices around everywhere, and we all assumed that you’d always just use your tablet for anything that could benefit from more screen space. Since then, tablet sales and hype have slowed down as they’ve gotten squeezed on both sides by better laptops and bigger phones. Many buyers prefer a bigger phone to a phone-and-tablet combo (and it’s hard to argue with the price and convenience of one device instead of two), so much of what we thought would be done on tablets is really being done on phones.

But mostly, we’ve continued the inevitable progression of phones becoming most people’s primary computing device, rather than a thing in our pocket that’s mostly just for phone calls and messaging. When you only do a few things on your phone and it doesn’t really matter how big the screen is, you don’t demand bigger screens as much and it’s nice for the phone to be as small as possible. But bigger screens bring such substantial benefits to so many personal-computing tasks that as these devices become more capable and we use them for more, we’ll be more willing to carry around a bit more bulk for the benefits that it brings to what we actually care about.

Today, I welcome bigger-screened phones. (I wanted one last year, too.) In today’s world, with today’s technology, making the phone’s footprint slightly larger is an acceptable tradeoff for having substantially more screen area for reading, working, watching, and playing.


  1. For the following 24 hours or so, then Steve Jobs died, and everyone paused to consider, even if only briefly, that their limited time in the world might be spent in better ways than complaining that a tiny internet-connected dual-processor pocket computer with speech and natural-language recognition that cost only 0.4% of the median U.S. annual household income looked the same as the one from the previous year. ↩︎

  2. Really. People really said that. A lot of people. This is why Apple drinks. ↩︎

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