Will the Next iPhone Have a 4-inch Screen?

Recent rumors suggest that the next iPhone could have a 4-inch display, something which has long been suspected by my colleague Kevin Tofel. I strongly disagree, and chalk up his fantasies about Apple’s (s aapl) next smartphone to too much time spent among garishly oversized Android (s goog) devices. We decided to hash out our differences via email in order to gain more perspective on the debate. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

Darrell: A 4-inch iPhone would make plenty of sense if Apple were just about any other phone manufacturers out there. We’ve seen competing Android device-makers ramp up the screen size arms race with predictable regularity. Apple, on the other hand, went for better screen quality rather than an increase in viewing area with the introduction of the Retina Display. The Retina differentiates, while a larger screen just says, “me too!” I think Apple will focus on making screen quality even better (color gamut, viewing angle, brightness/backlighting etc.) and keep any size increases very small (if indeed it changes this at all), to maintain the existing iPhone’s form factor.

Kevin: Yup, Apple went for better screen quality and the key word is “went,” because the 960×640 Retina Display is now eight months old. Since then, the high-end smartphone market has quickly changed: we’ve gone from a few, outlier, large-screened Android devices to 4-inch phones being the accepted minimum for this device class. Every highly-touted phone from last month’s CES, for example, used a larger display — and several offer a new qHD resolution, or 960×540, which to most folks will look nearly as good, if not as good, as an iPhone 4.

You make a good point about maintaining the iPhone’s form factor, but to be honest, the larger Android devices I’ve been reviewing or using aren’t that much bigger than the iPhone. We’re talking about 2 millimeters here or there at most. An edge-to-edge screen and/or dropping the hardware home button opens up larger display possibilities. But that may not matter; it sounds like you don’t see value added by larger screen. Would that be a fair statement?

Darrell: That’s definitely fair. To me, talking about screen size is just another facet of the specs discussion; it’s understandable that device-makers do it, because that’s long been the way we talk about computers, but ultimately it doesn’t mean anything to the average phone-buyer these days. I’d be willing to bet quite a lot of money that the average smartphone owner has no idea exactly what size the device’s screen is, and think about it at most once or twice, and even then only when first weighing their purchase.

Apple knows this, and that’s why its ads and events focus much more on device features and actual usage in real-world scenarios than on an exhaustive list of numbers and specs. A larger screen might add to the next iPhone’s perceived value, but not significantly enough that I think Apple would go out of its way to make big changes in that area with this iteration. Instead, it’ll introduce something amazing the new iPhone can do, while keeping the outside look the same.

Kevin: True, the device screen size is just another spec, and many folks probably don’t know what the exact screen size is of their current phone. And I completely agree that Apple focuses on the actual usage experience for their devices; that’s why I think this is a real possibility.

Larger screen devices — without much larger form factors, I might add — can provide a better user experience for many: Text is larger as is the software keyboard, for example, as is the media experience, especially as smartphones can play back higher-resolution video. Think of it as moving from a 32- to a 40-inch HDTV set, only on a smaller scale.

It’s not really about the screen size, or even about “keeping up with the Androids;” it’s about the improved experience that such a change can bring, and that’s not something you can see from a spec sheet. Think back to your recent experience using Samsung’s Galaxy Tab [I returned the Tab after a week of use because of UI issues, but loved the size – Darrell]: The 7-inch size brought additional portability that the iPad didn’t, which is something no spec sheet can tell you. Moving to a 4-inch display can make a great experience even better, and that extra half-inch of screen won’t even affect the Retina Display marketing term that much: 960×640 on 4-inches is still a very high 288 ppi, which is far higher than that of the iPad.

Darrell: I’ll concede the point about the iPad and Tab, but tablets and phones are very different things, and people have different expectations of each. I think Apple is in the sweet spot with phone size with the iPhone 4 (except maybe for thickness, since thinner pocket presence is always appreciated). Apple didn’t choose to keep the screen size the same on the iPhone 4 as it was on the 3GS because it couldn’t create a larger screen for a similar price; it did it because that’s the size it thinks is best for smartphones.

Apple could make room for the larger screen by removing the button, as you’ve suggested in the past, and still keep the device the same size, but I don’t think they will. Consumers aren’t ready for a buttonless device, at least not with the alternatives currently available.

And while the experience of using the device may be better on a slightly larger screen (though I’ve yet to come across a device screen that looks anywhere near as good, 4-inch or otherwise), I still think Apple won’t introduce the 4-inch screen with the next release, simply because they don’t have to. Keeping the same screen simplifies production, saves costs and encourages healthier margins, the benefits of which far exceed any risk the company might incur by not moving to a larger display, since it’s not something users seem to be clamoring for. Think about how much more Apple has to gain from improving its notification systems, for example, or adding live widgets to the lock screen. Provide either of those and you’ll generate more press, and subsequently, sales than you’d ever get with a slightly larger physical viewing area. Put simply, Apple will invest where it stands the chance of seeing the greatest return, and incurs the fewest additional costs.

I’ll even grant that at 288 ppi, a 4-inch retina display would be higher than the human eye can distinguish (287 ppi, according to retinal neuroscientist Bryan Jones), so it would still carry the same benefits as the 3.5-inch screen. Even despite that, I think Apple will stick with a smaller screen for at least one more generation, frankly just because it knows it can.

Kevin: All good points from a business and economics standpoint. If Apple can continue to provide a premium brand experience while reducing costs, it’s likely to do so. But if that’s the case, then what exactly will be the big deal about the next iPhone, i.e.: where can it advance the hardware?

One could argue that the new device will be 4G-capable, so a faster HSPA+/LTE experience could be the “big reason” that folks will want to upgrade to the next iPhone. But that requires something beyond Apple’s control, namely that carriers quickly expand their mobile broadband capabilities. And if nothing else, “control” is one the top ways I’d describe Apple. It’s far more likely to me that the next iPhone has a noticeable upgrade in an area that Apple can control, and a larger screen is certainly one area where it can, especially when Apple is said to have made a massive multi-billion component investment. Flash memory is one possible component hedge, but given how many handsets are using larger displays, if Apple wants in on the 4-inch screen game, it may have to make that bet now.

Which side are you on? Continue the debate in the comments, as I’m sure Kevin and I have only just begun to scratch the surface.

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