Lately you’ve probably seen a lot of rumors about the next iPhone and how the screen will be so much bigger than the current model. Rumors have proliferated about size changes for all iOS devices since the day they emerged. Whether they’re rumored to be bigger or smaller, there’s always a cabal of pundits who are going to tell you it’s as good as given that the iPhone/iPad/iPod will get bigger or smaller. Some write it up because they actually believe what they’re saying. Some write it up because they want to draw page views, and they know rumors are good search engine fodder. Either way, time has not been kind to those who look into the crystal ball and predict a shrinking or swelling of an iOS device. In fact, any size changes to the iPod, iPhone or iPad in the last five years have been so minimal that they barely qualify as changes at all.
This is not to say that the rumors about a larger iPhone screen won’t come to pass (even if the handset size doesn’t increase). More crystal ball-gazing won’t bring clarity to the subject, but looking at why we think it has to be bigger just might. After all, the Samsung Galaxy II sports a generous 4.3-inch size — so big, in fact, that the average person’s thumb can’t travel from one side to the other when it’s cradled in your hand. And yet, the screen resolution is no bigger than the iPhone’s. In fact, the Samsung’s 480 x 800 pixel display (217 dpi) is rather humble when compared to the iPhone’s 960 x 640-pixel (326 dpi). Increasing the screen size doesn’t increase the quality of the screen one iota, and in fact, the screen quality is considerably inferior. Does the iPhone need a size boost in order to compete with the Galaxy II, its biggest rival? The superior image quality and ease-of-use for those of us with average thumbs suggests it does not.
Though I’ve heard countless arguments about the merits of a larger screen (even with a considerably lower picture quality), frankly, I just don’t buy it. The device sits bigger, which makes it a little harder to stash in, say, a business jacket or the back pocket of your jeans. It’s too small to add meaningful benefit for book-reading (as, say, a tablet would). Why would Samsung create a phone that’s bigger just for the sake of being bigger?
It turns out they didn’t. I recently was made aware of a large-screen argument that actually made some sense, and it gave context for the entire concept (finally).
Samsung, as most of us know, is a Korean company. I recently met someone who spent an extended period of time in Korea and got to know a little about their technology and how it works. There’s one thing that Koreans do with their phones that North Americans do not: They watch television on it. It’s such a common practice, in fact, that mobile phones with antennae for better TV reception are commonplace. As it was explained to me, little by little the penny started to drop: The bigger screen makes a lot more sense when you imagine watching X-Factor on your mobile. The low definition of standard television means the lower resolution of the handheld screen is irrelevant, and for that sort of functionality every inch of screen real estate is a blessing.
As Samsung is a Korean company and has deep, deep roots in that nation’s economic and cultural infrastructure, they will (obviously) always consider what Korean mobile needs are. This is not to say they do so to the exclusion of the rest of the world, but of course they’re going to create a device that Koreans can watch TV on. Apple… less so. The Korean market is not currently their biggest growth opportunity; neither is it their strongest foothold. Apple is entrenched in the North American market and culture to the extent that it’s held up by the United States as an example of American business do-goodery. To wit: Apple may not be unconcerned with who wants to watch TV on their phone, but it sure isn’t their priority. Instead, Apple wishes to steer customers towards higher definition and on-demand TV and video, which funnels the consumer into the iTunes ecosystem. Hence, small screen, but big resolution. Though both the Galaxy II and the iPhone are ubiquitous all over the world, one takes its design cues from Asia and one from North America.
Again, the iPhone 5 (whenever that happens) may see a screen size increase. There’s equally firm data to suggest it will as there is to suggest it won’t (in other words: none). What we do know, however, is that an increase in screen size is not a unilaterally accepted milestone for competition in the market. When Apple looks beyond the borders of the USA, it sees Korean tech culture as part of a large puzzle, whereas Samsung starts its design journey in Korea. It’s a very good example of how two companies can do completely different things, and in each case, it was the exactly right decision for them.