When Apple in 2014 released its largest-ever iPhones — the 6 and 6 Plus — it followed a trend set by Samsung and other Android phone-makers.
Since then, big has become the new normal.
But with the rumor mill buzzing about Apple’s supposed plans Monday to unveil a new, lower-cost iPhone measuring just 4 inches diagonally — 0.7 inches smaller than the iPhone 6 and 1.5 inches smaller than the 6 Plus — app developers and analysts suspect a change of course is underway.
If the hype is accurate, Apple’s new direction will be one that almost any customer can grasp.
“While people like the bigger phones, there are devotees of the smaller phones simply because of different-sized hands and pockets,” said Frank Gillett, a Forrester Research analyst.
With each new phone, Apple has abandoned support for an earlier model. And as iPhone screens grew to keep pace with Samsung — which had won a younger crowd with phones so big they could be tablets — the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant did away with the 3.5-inch screens from the iPhone 4 and earlier models.
But just because Apple added bigger phones doesn’t mean everyone has chosen to upgrade. Mobile advertising agency AppLovin parsed through its user data in February and found that 37% of iPhone users still use smaller-screen devices.
That’s a problem for Apple because it suggests customers aren’t buying new phones and are instead holding onto devices ancient by tech standards.
“By taking the electronics from a newer phone and moving most of it into a smaller phone, they can update the look and preserve the choice for consumers,” he said.
The new phone is rumored to have the same dimensions as the iPhone 5 line, but with updated features akin to the iPhone 6 or 6S — a better camera, faster processor, more power and probably improved battery life too.
The release of a smaller device could help Apple retain customers who simply prefer smaller gadgets — cyclists who want to tuck their phones into their jerseys, runners wary of extra size and weight, or those who simply don’t have big hands. It could also appeal to customers who reluctantly transitioned to the iPhone 6 line but are unlikely to go any bigger.
“I’ve gotten pretty used to the size of my iPhone 6, but I do have to stretch my hands pretty far sometimes,” said Adam Rippon, 35, a software developer and Apple shareholder from Oakland. Despite having what he describes as “normal-sized” hands, he says he misses his old 3.5-inch iPhones because he “never had that problem” with those.
Rippon isn’t the only one who finds the iPhone 6 line unwieldy.
“It’s much easier to use the iPhone 5 because you can reach the entire screen with just your thumb,” he said. “Now picture the iPhone 6 Plus — who actually needs a phone that big? Godzilla?”
Reed also prefers to carry his phone in his front pants pocket; he has no problems with the iPhone 5, but the iPhone 6 doesn’t fit.
“I’ll just shove my iPad Mini down there while I’m at it,” he said.
For Apple, the issue may have more to do with the size of customers’ pocketbooks than their pockets. If the company can offer a smaller iPhone at a lower price, it may win shoppers in emerging markets, for whom larger iPhones are too expensive.
“There are a lot of places around the world that don’t enjoy what we have here in the U.S. in terms of economics and infrastructure,” said Brian Blau, an analyst with research firm Gartner. Apple, he said, has built its reputation on premium devices with prices that are commensurate with that, “but it doesn’t meet everybody’s needs globally.”
With iPhone sales in the U.S. and Europe flatlining, the company is now eyeing emerging markets. Of Apple’s $234 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, $60 billion came from China and only $1 billion came from India. In a recent meeting with shareholders, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook expressed optimism in overcoming economic problems in China and infrastructure issues in India.
With these global ambitions, the company must offer products that enable it to adapt to different markets, Blau said. Unlike the iPhone 5c — a small, lower-cost iPhone with a plastic case that was widely regarded as a flop — the rumored new 4-inch iPhone could succeed if it retains the premium quality of Apple’s top-of-the-line products, he said.
Big phones, however, aren’t going away anytime soon. Samsung launched its Galaxy S7 phone this month. It measures 5.1 inches. Then there’s the upcoming iPhone 7.
But those don’t appeal to smartphone users like Angela Gou, 29, of Sydney, Australia, who would buy a 4-inch iPhone if Apple were to release a new one.
“No one considers the little people,” said Gou, a petite woman who described her hands as small. “They all think bigger is better.”