Posted by David Price 14 November 2014
The handbag theory: Why the iPhone 6 Plus hasn't got a size problem
I got in trouble with a colleague recently (those who follow me on Twitter may know the gentleman as 'Office joker Sung') after making what I thought was an innocuous remark on the subject of iPhone sizes. The iPhone 6 Plus was so big, I thought, that it must be aimed at women. Because they've got handbags.
Perhaps - as another colleague used to say whenever a joke was met with stunned silence - that isn't a fashionable point of view; and you're always on thin ice when drawing generalisations about half of the world's population. But Apple's massive new smartphones signal a switch in strategy so radical that I can't help coming up with theories, and asking questions.
Why does 5.5 inches make sense now, when 4 inches was the ideal for so long? (Behave.) What made Apple suddenly decide to ditch the habits of seven gloriously successful iPhone generations and balloon upwards into the world of phablets? Will Apple keep making 4-inch phones? Have the company's fans evolved into slab-handed troglodytes in the space of a year?
The thing about smartphones, more than any of the computing devices that came before them, is that they are inextricably linked to your person. (The coming wearables revolution, of course, will take things further in that direction.) Your smartphone holds an incredibly intimate place in your life, which is why relatively minor malfunctions, glitches and slowdowns can be so profoundly upsetting. It's like your own hand has stopped working.
And because it spends so much of the day in your hand, a smartphone's physical dimensions are vastly important. (I recently upgraded, at almost the same time, both my iPhone and iPad, achieving similar reductions in thickness in each case. Needless to say, I barely notice the change in my iPad, but my iPhone 5s is a continual surprise and a physical joy.) Changing a smartphone's dimensions is like resizing your wedding ring. Millimetres matter.
Which makes me curious about Apple's latest bet-the-company moment, its decision to go big or go home (or, to put it another way, its concession to user demand and Android pressure): the long-predicted but somehow still surprising launch of the big iPhone 6 and the bigger iPhone 6 Plus. Surely Apple realises that anyone who is used to an iPhone 4- or 5-series iPhone is going to find these devices grossly oversized and murderously unfamiliar - almost physically incompatible? Indeed, after spending a little time with the 6 Plus and a lot of time with the 6, I'll come out and say it: I greatly prefer the 5s.
Well, there are some issues to overcome. But I think Apple's strategy with the iPhone 6 series makes sense, when you consider the segments of its target audience.
For a start, you've got the hardcore: the Apple devotees who upgrade each portable device on a yearly basis, and who will give the new iPhones a try based on loyalty alone. They're safe; and while some will never grow to love the larger form factor, many will spend enough time with the devices to recalibrate their expectations. The hardest part about switching to a drastically different device is the early days, and loyalty will get many of this group through that period.
(I hasten to add that I'm not interested in the tired cliches about the 'cult' of Apple and its disciples. Hardcore Apple fans are early adopters but they're not fools. Apple has built up user loyalty through years of ruthless quality control and customer satisfaction, not by brainwashing anyone out of their critical faculties.)
In any case, those hardcore users who do switch back to a smaller model are unlikely to go for Android or Windows, because the iPhone 6 series handsets are still fundamentally well-made products - the concern is with the size of the phones, not their quality.
Then you've got the people who upgraded last year, and have iPhone 5s or 5c handsets, but in general upgrade less regularly. I wouldn't expect them to upgrade this year, but I wouldn't have expected them to do that anyway. The standard for a lot of users is a biennial upgrade, and some even upgrade every three years. Apple will work to get them next year - and I expect it to do this with a new range of 4-inch devices.
Because this could be Apple's thinking from now on. If the company gets into a cycle of upgrading its large phones every other year and the 4-inch phones in between, it'll start to sync with users' upgrade cycles. In the case of slower upgraders, it could even speed them up a little.
And then you've got the lost souls: the people who abandoned the iOS ecosystem some years ago, or never tried it at all. This is a big market: Android users often boast of the size of the platform's user base, all of them potential Apple customers. By offering something different, something that Android users often talk about as one of the advantages of their platform, Apple is giving itself the best possible chance of making the case for switching.
(And by targeting them with its latest and costliest products, by the way, it's ensuring that any customers it does skim off will be from the premium end of the Android market: the ones who are more likely to spend money on apps and future upgrades. They're the customers that Apple actually wants.)
For these users, needless to say, Apple doesn't need to worry about unfamiliarity. They aren't used to iPhones of a particular size, because they're not used to iPhones at all. And some will be familiar with larger phones anyway.
I could be wrong in all this, of course. Maybe Apple's days of 4-inch phones are behind it - although I think that would be a mistake. And maybe it really did expect iPhone 5s owners to leap at the chance to switch to a 5.5-inch phablet.
But my theory is that Tim Cook planned this year's iPhone refresh with a different market in mind. And that the reason so many of us don't love the latest products the way we exected to is because, well, they're aimed at someone else.