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Smaller Display and no LTE may Hamper iPhone 4S

October 10th, 2011 by | 19 Comments »

It has been a historic week with the passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs who was an unrivaled genius of our time.  Mr. Jobs and his team of engineers, designers, and company radically transformed the manner in which information is accessed by the human race.  The iPhone revolutionized the computing and wireless communications industry and launched a fierce race for smartphone supremacy.

Four years ago, RIM and Microsoft ruled the smartphone world.  Two years ago, the iPhone rocketed to the number two spot with an almost nonexistent Google Android market.  Today, Google Android devices rule the world and outsell Apple iPhone by a margin of 2-to-1, bucking the notion that Apple’s dominant App Store and seamless product integration is an unbeatable differentiator.  More smartphone buyers seem to prefer a more open platform like Android, wider range of devices, and the ability to add MicroSD flash storage cards.

Some buyers may prefer the larger widescreens available on Android devices.  The larger housing also allows Android devices to support the additional chips needed for the faster LTE carrier wireless networks while Apple has to wait for LTE chips to shrink.  The combination of faster network access, larger display, wider hardware selection, and open platform might explain the success that Google Android is having over Apple iOS.  Apple, on the other hand, chooses incremental upgrades on an annual basis and strictly adheres to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Some like Dustin Curtis are defending Apple’s approach saying that the 3.5″ form factor is the only one that makes sense, since larger phones are harder to operate with one hand, and the thumb supposedly can’t reach every part of the larger display.  But Curtis drew a non-scale diagram that falsely skews the benefits of a smaller phone by illustrating a smaller thumb on the larger phone.  I also checked this physically on a larger smartphone and my average size thumb can reach every part of the display and beyond.

In reality, larger Android phones like the upcoming Samsung Nexus Prime are only around 8.6% wider as seen in the illustration below.  However, the Prime’s widescreen display has 57% more viewing area and widescreen movies or videos will appear more than double the size of an iPhone movie.


Credit: Illustration by George Ou. Photo by Veijo Vilva

When looking at the two displays drawn to scale side-by-side, the difference in viewing experience is astounding, with only a minimal increase in the width of the Nexus Prime, so it won’t be noticeably more difficult to grip.  This is a massive 2.1-fold improvement for movies and television programming and for virtually all the videos recorded smartphones including the iPhone.

The movie and video industry has standardized on the widescreen format while Apple has stuck to the more squarish display format relevant 15 years ago.  Most software applications are more agnostic about aspect ratio since they can accommodate different resolutions and display shapes and web pages can benefit from reduced scrolling.  Video, on the other hand, cannot change aspect ratios without destructive cropping.  While Apple’s overall design genius is undeniable, the display size and form factor of their iPhone will keep them from meeting the needs of consumers who care about video playback and network performance.

UPDATE 10/12/2011 – The reviews for the iPhone 4S are glowing.  Daring Fireball, Gizmodo.  The Siri functionality appears to be something genuinely revolutionary and not just some glorified voice dictation software.  It almost looks like a front-end to a simplified version of IBM’s Watson super computer with its ability to parse and respond to human speech.  With Siri being exclusive to the iPhone 4S, that could easily offset some of the shortcomings with the screen size and lack of LTE.

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Reader Comments

  1. I have a number of problems with this post. First, it’s “4S”, not “4s.” Next, your support for the claim that Android outsells iPhone “today” is based on year-old data and doesn’t compare apples-to-apples. Android is an OS, not a phone, so if you want to compare it something relevant, that’s iOS, not the iPhone. By most estimates, iOS has a larger installed base than Android. This is partly due to the success of the iPad. It’s also the case that Apple certainly could sell more iPhones if they wanted to; they could sell to T-Mobile and MetroPCS, for example, but they’ve chosen not to. So it’s not particularly relevant to compare a platform exploited by multiple vendors with one that’s not (by choice.)

    Next, you have to consider the size and nature of the app stores. Some people predict that some day the Android app store may be larger than the Apple app store, but these projections consider paid apps and free apps the same. Apple has a huge lead in paid apps, and there’s no doubt that the developers of high-quality apps find the Apple store much more lucrative. See: http://www.androidguys.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/installbase.png . Android has a lot of catching up to do as far as the best apps are concerned. Apple appeals to quality, while Android appeals to the budget shopper.

    Screen size for the iPhone doesn’t need to get very large because Apple has very nice tablet, the iPad. There’s not a decent Android tablet, so Android builders are trying to stretch their screen in hopes of doing double duty. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an iPhone user say “Gee, I wish my iPhone were bigger and clunkier.” It’s the perfect size and weight for a smartphone, and that’s part of the reason that it’s the biggest selling single smartphone.

    Finally, Apple took a million orders in the first 24 hours they took orders for the 4S, making it the fastest take-off in their history. Check the numbers in three months and you’ll see some worrying on the Android front.

  2. First, thanks for catching the error. 4s is now 4S.

    Second, I would agree that the iOS App Store will remain in the lead for the foreseeable future. My point was that the App Store lead won’t necessarily stop non-iOS devices from selling more units. It will allow Apple to charge a premium on Smartphones and Tablets, but I don’t think it’s a sure lock-in.

    Third, guilty as charged. Android buyers are stingier with money which means they’re less attractive to large title App developers. On the other hand, a lot of niche developers are targeting smaller App platforms like Windows Phone 7 because there are more customers per App.

    Fourth, I would disagree that the iPhone doesn’t need a larger display. Some people want bigger displays, others want smaller, but people want a choice. On iPhone there is none, and not everyone is going to carry or buy an iPad.

    Fifth, I would also disagree that there is no decent Android tablet. The Asus Transformer is quite nice at $399 and it has higher resolution than the iPad (at least for now). The Tablet market will be quite competitive in 2012 and 2013 with Apple iOS, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows 8. That competition a good thing for innovation and for consumers.

    I’d also agree that the iPhone 4S will sell well and result in a boost in iPhone market share. But I think that this is now essentially a leapfrog game like the game console wars where new models will temporarily surge until the next model.

    I think technically speaking you’re right that HSPA+ and LTE probably don’t matter that much, especially when some flavors of HSPA+ are slightly faster than LTE (http://www.anandtech.com/show/4943/the-iphone-4s-hspa-when-hspa-is-real-4g). But on a marketing front, I know plenty of people who are swayed by the availability of LTE, just like there are plenty of people swayed by the larger 4+ inch displays of Apple competitors.

  3. Also, I don’t think Apple will kill the non-iOS tablet market. What Apple will do is kill margins on the non-iOS tablets.

    Well equipped 7″ Android tablets are essentially worth no more than $199 with Amazon and Lenovo leading the charge. Well equipped 10.1″ Android tablets are quickly headed towards the $299 price range. Apple will likely justify their $499+ price tag with exotic quad-pixel resolution in 2012 in addition to their lock-in on the world’s biggest App Store.

  4. I believe Apple is perfectly happy to have all the low-margin competitors in the world as long as they can keep their (ridiculously) high margins, control over the platform, and their lead in the most desirable apps the best developers. The hardware specs are insignificant for the vast majority of users, who probably don’t know how many pixels their screen has or whether their device runs HSPA+ or LTE. The market for these devices is built on the perception of quality, ease of use, and application choice, and nobody has a strategy that’s going to undermine Apple’s lead. Essentially you have one company leading in wireless innovation and a number of low-cost imitators. It doesn’t have to be that way, but Google seems disinclined to take control of the Android UI and push it to the extremes that Apple has gone to with iOS. But that’s fine.

    If these were cars, Apple would be BMW and Android would be General Motors. Lots of profit on both sides, and every consumer has a choice.

    I think LTE is going to be essential toward the end of the two year lease cycle that 4S buyers are signing up for today. Potentially, LTE will usher in a whole new era of mobile innovation like nothing we’ve seen so far. It’s kinda sad for all of us that ole Steve Jobs won’t be around to help usher it in. I guess us non-vegetarians are on our own now.

  5. It is a good point that Apple voluntarily took a lower market share with carrier exclusivity. This improved their margins at the expense of market share. But this is a double-edged sword and it could cost Apple long term. The carrier exclusivity of the iPhone allowed competitors like Android which were brutally immature in 2007 to 2009 to gain a foothold. By 2010, Android had gone from a bleeding edge buggy alpha state to an OS good enough to threaten Apple iOS.

    Margins are a two way street. With the inevitable onset of very slim margin inexpensive quality non-Apple tablets, Apple will be forced to put in more expensive components like a 2048×1536 pixel LCD panel while maintaining or even reducing prices.

    We already saw this in effect with the Macbook Air where the Air sells at $999 which is a very slim margin by Apple standards. That margin is so slim that it’s making it nearly impossible for PC makers to compete anywhere close to the $1000 mark.

    So adamant supporters of Apple products should be happy about the competition because it’s getting them better Apple products at less astronomical prices. People who want Apple alternatives should also be happy about the intense pace of innovation from Apple because they’re getting better products at low prices.

    As for display sizes, I think the benefits are even obvious to non-technical users. You don’t need to be an uber geek to appreciate larger displays with minimal increase in device width, especially when we’re talking two times the pixels. Moreover, the video cameras on newer smartphones are so good that they can take surprisingly good quality 1920×1080 1080P video. A device like the Samsung Nexus Prime will be able to render these 1080P videos at 1280×720 while the iPhone 4/4S is limited to 960×540. More importantly, the video will be shown at more than double the area which looks better to the eyes even if those eyes are better than 20/20 vision.

  6. There’s no doubt that competition is good for consumers all around.

    Regarding pixel densities, they’re already insanely high for devices that you hold a few inches from your eyes, so I don’t see much value in increasing them any more than they already are. When I transcode movies for my iPad, I never go to full resolution anyway.

  7. I didn’t say anything about pixel densities. I think there is too much priority among some of the more staunch advocates of iPhones to focus on the density rather than pixel count. A larger screen with the same pixel count but obviously lower pixel density looks better to people which is why people buy larger HDTVs.

    For mobile devices, we’re limited in form factor. However, the screen should be as large as possible with a minimum bezel size and black bar size and this is where the iPhone falls short. The iPhone does a relatively poor job rendering widescreen video because of its form factor compared to widescreen competitors.

    The iPad or any other 10″ device can benefit from higher resolution and this is where notebooks have become stagnant over the years. The iPad is also falling behind 1280×800 resolution competitors. People don’t ask for higher resolution, especially when the fonts and icons aren’t optimized for it, but Steve Jobs and Apple’s genius was its ability to deliver goods that nobody ever thought they wanted, but wanted after they saw it.

  8. The iPhone isn’t trying to be the optimal movie watching platform, (that’s the iPad’s job in the Apple product line) so it’s more or less irrelevant to most people that some other smartphone might have a bigger screen with more total pixels. The iPhone form factor doesn’t seem to be hurting sales any, is it?

  9. 1. I don’t think tablets are relevant to the discussion of phone screen size. The iPad is not an optimal movie viewing platform, especially with a 4×3 aspect ratio. The $399 Asus Transformer with 10.1″ 1280×800 IPS panel is far more suited on the tablet front. Laptops are even more optimal given their built-in variable angle base stand and larger displays. But people choose to use the iPad with an extra base stand over a 15.4″ laptop sitting next to their leg at the airport presumably because it gives them the benefit of saying “I own an iPad”.

    2. It’s not just movies, but the high quality 1080P videos these new smartphones are taking.

    3. Looking at the success of Android competitors like the Galaxy S, and Apple’s desperation in the courts to block these competitors, I think the screen size and form factor is hurting Apple. Steve Jobs is undoubtedly one of the brightest geniuses of our time and overall he has made some very intelligent design choices. Screen size and form factor along with carrier exclusivity are not two of his better design and business decisions, but that’s my opinion.

  10. Opinions aside, Apple took a million orders for the iPhone 4S in the first 24 hours. That answers the question that your post asked: Will the smaller display and no LTE may hamper the iPhone 4S? Not so far as can be measured.

  11. Looking at the market share, it seems like Android is gaining, though mostly at the expense of non-Apple companies. iPhone seems to have flat-lined.

    http://www.asymco.com/2011/10/12/windows-phone-a-year-on/

  12. General market share trends don’t address the specific status of the 4S any better than pixel counts do.

    The specific information says the 4S is a runaway success. Here’s Bloomberg News:

    “Apple, based in Cupertino, California, said this week that it received more than 1 million iPhone pre-orders on the first day, a record. Mike Abramsky, an RBC Capital Markets analyst in Toronto, estimated that 3 million iPhone 4S units were sold on the first weekend.”

    And here’s AllThingsD:

    “As Brian White of Ticonderoga Securities observed earlier this week, “While the unveiling of the iPhone 4S received a muted response, both from the market and tech blogs, the customers have the final word, in our view, and they have spoken with resounding enthusiasm for the iPhone 4S.””

    It seems that consumers aren’t put off by the screen size and network connection.

  13. Interesting, Galaxy Nexus is apparently thinner and lighter than the iPhone 4S despite having a full 720P 4.65″ AMOLED display versus the 3.5″ LCD on the iPhone, and having LTE. I would have thought the larger display and the additional LTE silicon and larger battery would make the phone weigh more.
    http://1876.voxcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/galaxy-nexus-by-the-numbers-4.jpg

  14. How big is the battery? That’s where most of the weight comes from.

  15. http://www.androidauthority.com/galaxy-nexus-specs-official-press-shot-27679/

    135 grams on the Nexus Galaxy versus 140 grams on the iPhone 4S.

    1,750 mAh or 6.5 watt hours on Nexus which is more capacity than the iPhone 4/4S.

    That’s pretty incredible considering the larger batter, larger display, and additional LTE silicon.

  16. You’re confusing the HSPA+ Galaxy with the LTE model. Samsung says the LTE version is both thicker and heavier: http://www.engadget.com/2011/10/19/samsung-the-lte-version-of-the-galaxy-nexus-will-be-a-little/

  17. OK, my mistake. But the iPhone 4S is also HSPA+ so that’s an even spec. The fact that they can get it thinner and lighter despite a much larger and higher resolution AMOLED display and larger capacity battery is still incredible.