Good iPhones can come in small packages

Is the rebirth of the 4-inch iPhone on the horizon? Just look towards the iPad Pro, and it's not as far-fetched as it may seem.

iphone 5 6 6plus comparison

Guess what time it is?

If you guessed “just two months after the release of the latest iPhones, so time for a rumor about the next iPhone,” somebody will be handing you your prize shortly.

The latest speculation comes courtesy of KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who predicted recently that a new iPhone with an A9 processor would appear sometime in the first half of 2016. The real kicker? It’s not a giant smartphone, but a smaller 4-inch iPhone of the iPhone 5/5s variety.

We’re well into the days of the 4.7-inch and more smartphones, which left me wondering: is there still room in our lives—and our pockets?—for a smaller iPhone.

One size fits all?

Until 2014, Apple’s iPhone philosophy was “We make one size, and gosh darn you’ll like it.” The size remained more or less unchanged from the 2007 original iPhone to the 2011’s iPhone 4s, then jumped to a slightly larger screen with the iPhone 5 in 2012. In 2014, we got, for the first time, two different iPhones in two different screen sizes, a trend that continued this past fall with the release of the 6s and the 6s Plus.

That wasn’t a tremendous surprise, given the aggressive push towards larger phones coming from competitors like Samsung. The smartphone industry seemed to be pretty clearly on a “bigger is better” trend, and though Apple isn’t always the most reactive of companies, it still opted to jump on the smartphones-the-size-of-a-boat boat.

And yet, dissatisfaction with Apple’s line-up remains. I know plenty of folks who have been happy with the 4-inch form factor of the iPhone 5 and 5s, for a variety of reasons. For folks with small hands, it’s easier to reach every part of the screen with one hand. (As a representative of those with larger hands, even the 6s is a stretch; the 6s Plus pretty much impossible.) Want to keep a smartphone in a pocket? The 6s fits in my jeans pocket just fine, but I certainly wouldn’t call it pocket-friendly—especially with the meager ones that many women’s pants have. Some people also find the 6s form factor easier to drop because of its large size, and would prefer a phone that feels a little less unwieldy and cumbersome.

So there may still be a market for 4-inch phones out there, even if it’s only a niche one. But the bigger question is will Apple revisit the smaller phones of yesteryear?

The iPad approach

For comparison’s sake, let’s consider another of Apple’s product lines: the iPad. When the original iPad debuted back in 2010, it also came in just one size: a 9.7-inch model. In 2012—two years before the company adopted the two-size iPhone approach—Apple released the smaller, 7.9-inch iPad mini.

When the iPad mini debuted, I jumped at the chance for a smaller iPad, and I was a fervent supporter of the more diminutive model. I liked that it weighed less—so I could, say, comfortably hold it with one hand while reading, or not worry about dropping it on my face while reading in bed—and that it was small enough to fit inside a compact bag. (I will admit that I have since foregone my iPad mini for an iPad Air 2, as it has more real estate for the Split Screen feature...but I’m not ruling out going back to the mini at some point.)

Just this past year, though, Apple threw a wrench in by announcing a third iPad: the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The company seems to be primarily positioning it to compete in business and creative markets, as the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil accessories suggest—and therein I find hope for a smaller iPhone. In part, that’s because the multipronged iPad approach Apple has shown that it’s willing to experiment with different screen sizes to capture every single niche of the market.

Something for everyone

But there’s a far more pragmatic reason Apple might consider a smaller iPhone. Consider that the iPad, which has been suffering from dwindling sales of late, does fairly small business compared to the iPhone. In the most recent quarter, Apple sold 9.9 million iPads—and 48 million iPhones. Almost five times as many. If Apple’s willing to explore a niche market by making a larger iPad—of which it might sell a few million—then a smaller iPhone might be an equally, if not more, viable product.

Granted, there are plenty of other considerations, such as whether or not Apple would make as much of a profit on smaller iPhones, and whether the company thinks it will provide as good an experience as the larger models. I’m not wholly convinced that a smaller iPhone is actually in the offing, but the idea doesn’t seem as eye-roll-inducing to me as it did upon first glance.

Of course, iPhone rumors are themselves a bit like the weather in my home of New England: Don’t like it? Wait around five minutes and it’ll change.

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