After years of progressively bigger smartphone screens, the mobile-device industry might stomp the brakes on the larger-display phenomenon.
Current rumors (fueled by Apple-centric blogs such as Apple Insider and 9to5Mac) suggest that Apple is prepping a 4-inch iPhone for release later this year. If verified, the device (dubbed “iPhone 5se” by 9to5Mac) would represent a reversion to the smaller screen-sizes of yesteryear; by comparison, the displays of the current-generation iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus measure 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches, respectively.
With Apple widely expected to roll out the iPhone 7 later this year in the two larger dimensions first established by the iPhone 6, it’s entirely possible that the company will end up selling three different smartphone sizes—just as it currently offers mini, regular, and large iPads.
Larger smartphones—also known as ‘phablets’—remain popular with consumers. In late December, analytics firm Flurry estimated that 27 percent of the new devices activated in the week leading up to Christmas belonged in that category. That was a notable increase from two years ago, when phablets represented a mere 4 percent of device activations during the holiday period.
Flurry also suggested that phablets had not only begun cannibalizing the market for traditional tablets, but threatened to drive smaller phones into extinction.
If Apple does release a smaller phone, however, its position as a market leader dictates that other manufacturers could soon follow its example. If that happens, maybe the smaller-phone market isn’t so dead, after all. And if that’s the case, mobile developers may want to reconsider their approach to building smartphone apps.
From a developer perspective, if there’s one advantage to phablets, it’s how the additional screen-inches open up new possibilities for UX, and allow various design elements to “breathe.” In theory, an industry-wide drift toward larger screen-sizes also reduces the fragmentation that’s plagued the industry for years. Should smaller phones stay popular, though, not only will fragmentation remain a pressing issue, but developers will need to continue optimizing UX for smaller screens.