Apple's hazy, big-screen iPhone ambitions

Apple's Phil Schiller says the challenge is not to make bigger products but to make better, smaller ones. Still, is Apple ready to create a bigger and better iPhone?

Apple may break tradition and offer more than one screen size for its next-generation iPhone. Apple/CNET

The suspense is building. After Samsung and HTC upped the game with their recent Android phones, the Galaxy S4 and the One respectively, the focus is shifting to what comes next from Apple.

Various analysts who track Apple and mine information from its supply chain are predicting an early summer debut for a new flagship iPhone. Brian White of Topeka Capital Markets is expecting more. He is predicting that Apple will offer the new iPhone in at least two and possibly three screen sizes.

His call is underpinned by the growing demand for larger displays, and the belief that Apple may be falling behind as competitors consistently come out with new products featuring big, gorgeous displays. The Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One are the latest marquee products to boast super-sized screens, and they won't be the last. Sure, the next iPhone will come with the usual upgrades -- faster processor, improved camera, a new version of iOS -- but that may no longer be enough.

Apple, of course, is silent. The company has no incentive to give people reasons not to purchase an iPhone 5 today or to spoil a big reveal. While iPhone sales reportedly have slowed , the iPhone 5, which launched seven months ago, helped Apple sell 47.8 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2012 and garner 39 percent of the U.S. smartphone market in February.

Apple, however, can't ignore the trend. Already Android phones command more than half of the U.S. market share. Outside the United States, they have more traction than Apple's iOS. Whether Apple likes it or not, the big screen is a factor. Its move to a 4-inch display with the iPhone 5 last year -- the first time it changed its display size -- was a step in the right direction. But it may need to get more radical if its to keep pace with the ever-increasing screen sizes churned out by the likes of Samsung and HTC.

Whatever the actual specs and whenever Apple decides to debut a new phone, it will most likely be hailed as the "most beautiful product we have every made, bar none." That's what Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller said when the iPhone 5 was introduced on September 12. Or, it will be the "most amazing iPhone ever," as Apple CEO Tim Cook called the iPhone 4S at its October 4, 2011, debut.

In the post-Steve Jobs era, Apple continues its discipline of developing products imbued with what design chief Jony Ive calls an "extraordinary level of fit and finish," with Apple's engineers obsessively focused on reducing cost of materials and the iPhone's size and weight.

"What makes iPhone so unique is how it feels in your hand," Ive said in a video describing the virtues of the iPhone 5.

Schiller praised the iPhone 5 as the world's thinnest and lightest smartphone, which was "designed and built to an exacting level of standard, unlike anything or anyone in our industry has made before."

At the iPhone 5 debut, he talked about Apple's design aesthetic: "This is the monumental challenge the team had: Can you make a phone that has everything the iPhone 4S has -- before even talking about new features -- in a design that is thinner, lighter, and smaller than the previous product?" he said. "It is really easy to make a new product that's bigger. Everyone does that. That's not the challenge. The challenge is to make it better and smaller."

Apple's Phil Schiller rolls out the iPhone 5. CNET

The iPhone 5 managed to pack more into a smaller body. Compared to its predecessor, the iPhone 5 was 18 percent thinner, 20 percent lighter, up to twice as fast, and slightly longer to accommodate the half-inch-larger screen.

We get it. Apple is not just going to slap a larger screen on an iPhone body. It has to be better than what came before, smaller (at least in thickness), and lighter. At this juncture, how much thinner, smaller, and lighter can Apple's engineers go on the iPhone? How much longer can Apple wait to give users the option of an even larger screen?

The Samsung Galaxy S4, with a 5-inch screen, is 5.38 x 2.75 x 0.31 inches. The iPhone 5, with a 4-inch screen, is 4.9 x 2.3 x 0.3 inches and weighs 4.59 ounces. Does the next iPhone have to be 0.28 inches thick and 3.8 ounces to claim victory over Samsung and HTC? Without a bigger screen and better battery life, will people even care that it's smaller?

If White's prediction is correct, Apple finally will match its competitors with an iPhone sporting a sharp, 5-inch, 1080p high-definition screen. Call it the 5X, 5S+ or iPhone 6. Whatever the name, Tim Cook and his lieutenants at the launch event surely will talk about how they are introducing the thinnest, lightest, and most beautiful and amazing phone. And even though it has a larger screen and dimensions than its antecedent iPhones, they undoubtedly will boast that it feels great in your hands.

Perhaps, bigger can be better.

 

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