Smartphone Evolution

Smartphones have been evolving rapidly since the original iPhone arrived, and they will continue to move forward with faster processors, better screens, better batteries etc… However the smartphone form factor appears trapped in an evolutionary dead-end. Evolution and the sequence of events over the last 8 years have defined where we are today with the smartphone and why all the smartphones have ended up looking the same. I will walk through this evolution using the iPhone as the example and make some suggestions on how we can approach getting out of the form factor dead-end we have found ourselves in.

The iPhone was a pioneer in setting the start point of the current smartphone evolution with the original iPhone in 2007, but many aspects of the evolution since then did not show up first on an iPhone. I will still use the iPhone evolution to tell the story since it provides the clearest way to explain the evolutionary steps. As well, once the iPhone adopted a particular attribute it cemented that attribute as part of the smartphone evolution.

Original iPhone with the iPhone 6 Plus, image from www.cellclinic.ca

If we look at the original iPhone and the iPhone 6+ we see a massive difference in size of device and screen, a 3:2 screen ratio (aspect ratio) gave way to 16:9 and the thickness of the phone has been significantly reduced.

iPhone evolution, image from atmac.org

The two iPhones on the right represent the current form factor (the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s have effectively the same formfactor) with an option between a 4.7" screen or 5.5" screen (the double quotes denote inches). I contend that the 4.7" iPhone 6 model represents a natural and logical evolution path from the original iPhone, but the logic breaks for the iPhone 6 Plus formfactor. The iPhone 6 Plus(and iPhone 6s Plus) find themselves hampered by the desire for a uniform design with the smaller model and a lack of imagination to escape the formfactor deadend.

If I were to recommend an iPhone to someone it would be the iPhone 6s Plus. The reality is that the larger screen provides significant benefits even though the user is trading off some significant attributes like comfort in pocket, one handed use, and lighter weight. It’s time to redesign the formfactor to acknowledge the importance of the display.

Let’s look at the evolution. The original iPhone had a huge screen at the time at 3.5". The width of the device was optimized to allow it to be used with one hand (resting the phone on your fingers and operating it with your thumb). One handed use was a critical component of mobile phones and smartphones at the time with user’s thumbing out messages on T9 and small Qwerty keyboards. The 3:2 aspect ratio does not feel cramped in either portrait or landscape and at 3.5" it allows a user’s thumb to reach all parts of the screen. Apple maintained this basic formula for 5 years and through many iPhone generations while improving all other aspects of the smartphone by getting thinner, faster, higher resolution etc…

In 2012 Apple released the iPhone 5 with a 4" 16:9 screen that ran on 4G mobile networks. There are a few reasons why a 16:9 screen made sense at this time:

  • The iPhone could move to a larger screen but maintain the same screen width; allowing them to maintain the one handed grip and typing experience. A user would have to reach a little farther to reach all of the screen but that was a minor issue.
  • A larger screen allowed for a larger screen-to-body ratio. This is a metric that measures the screen area to the profile area of the front of the device. Providing a larger screen and reducing the screen to device edge borders would produce a better ratio and this was a metric used to help describe how state-of-the-art a new smartphone model was.
  • One of the best demos of 4G technology is a streaming video service like Netflix. A 16:9 screen is the best format for landscape video.
  • The most basic reason for a 16:9 screen is that the iPhone 5 needed to be taller to make the 4G technology work. 4G requires a diversity antenna, where antennas are located at the top and bottom of the device with a minimum separation between them.

An interesting aspect to the switch from 3:2 to 16:9 is that at first the iPhone 5 with the 16:9 screen looked awkward with its tall display, but very quickly as you become exposed to the new model it begins to look normal and the old one with a 3:2 display looks quaint. This is the same perception shift that happened when TV’s and computer screens transitioned from 4:3 to 16:9.

As time went on it became clear that users wanted larger and larger screens. With the iPhone 6, Apple hedged their bets with two models. The 4.7" iPhone 6 offered a bigger screen but for most people it could still be used with one hand. The iPhone 6 Plus has a 5.5" screen in the same format but the device has grown to a point where one handed use doesn’t work for most people and the device is so tall it can become an issue in pocketability. The reality we must recognize is that for most situations the bigger screen is worth the compromises that come with it.

The iPhone 6 Plus has evolved past the original attributes that informed its design. For a moment we should give up on the concept of one handed use and re-imagine the formfactor. The challenging dimension of the iPhone 6 Plus is the extreme device height and the frustrating dimension of the screen is that it still is too narrow. A 3:2 format screen is much better for content (video being the one exception) and in a 5.5" screen size you get more screen width and a reduced device height. Most apps benefit greatly from a wider screen and two handed typing improves as well. Web browsing, reading (Medium is a great example), maps, and productivity apps like google docs are significantly better with a wider screen.

So why don’t smartphones with a 5.5" or larger screen in a 3:2 format exist?

The answer comes back to the perception issue. Even though a device in this format would be an improvement in almost every way the problem is that in a traditional smartphone configuration it looks awkward, distorted and outdated. The perception issue is powerful and real. To get past the perception issue you need to create a new visual reference, something new that doesn’t carry the baggage of perceptions around the current smartphone configuration. So this leads us to a different question.

Why hasn’t a smartphone manufacturer attempted to change the traditional smartphone configuration to accomodate a large screen in a 3:2 aspect ratio?

It’s ridiculous that with all the creativity available to tap into that android manufacturers mostly just make devices that all look the same when at the same time they are dying for some distinct point of differentiation to give them relevance.

Android smartphones, Image from Gizmodo

The problem statement isn’t that complicated. You start with a 5.5" screen in a 3:2 screen ratio and you frame it in a manner that is unique and new so that you can start with a blank slate in regards to a user’s perception. A traditional smartphone layout has thin borders on two sides of the screen and then has a forehead and a chin with large borders above and below the screen. One approach for a new configuration would be to frame the screen with three thin borders. Two potential configurations are shown below.

Simple configurations designed in Onshape — a 3D CAD system that can run on your smartphone

For the asymetric configuration on the left the smartphone would be rotated through 180 degrees to switch it from a left hand grip to a right hand grip. Like a tablet, the large border provides a landing area to grip the device. This rotation to change the gripping hand was seen in a tablet from Sony from 2011.

Sony Tablet, Image from Amazon.com

For the configuration shown on the right you maintain the symmetry and relatively slender profile that smartphones have today but it is a new reference and that is why the screen ratio doesn’t make it look awkward or distorted.

Sharp Aquos Crystal, Image from Engadget

Sharp made a smartphone in 2014 with this configuration but they used a 5" display size in a traditional 16:9 screen ratio. Although the design has a unique look there is no point going down that path if you don’t plan to take advantage of the opportunity a new visual reference gives you.

I’ve talked a lot about screen ratio but why does it matter? Let’s take a closer look at the numbers. When we reference screen size we are referring to the diagonal length of the screen from one corner to the opposite corner. In the image shown below the two screens have the same size (measured diagonally).

The first thing you will notice is that the blue one with the 3:2 screen ratio has more surface area (so it is truly a larger screen). As well the surface area is more valuable since it goes towards providing a wider screen. With a diagonal screen size of 5.5" a 3:2 screen ratio provides 0.35" more width than a 16:9 screen ratio and this is a larger width increase than the iPhone 6 had over the iPhone 5. Here’s another interesting way to look at it; a 5.5" screen with a 3:2 screen ratio is slightly wider than a 6.2" screen with a screen ratio of 16:9. A 5.5" screen with a 3:2 screen ratio provides a screen height that is slightly larger than a 5.2" screen with a screen ratio of 16:9, so watching video on this screen would still be a great experience.

Once we accept that the basic configuration is a two handed experience we can innovate on ways to provide a comfortable grip and solutions to make interacting with the screen in a one handed configuration usable. I have developed solutions for this; if any manufacturers are interested they can reach me at jason@snappeadesign.com

Maybe Apple could go in this direction with an iPhone Pro and certainly one of the Android licensees could benefit with a design that provides valuable differentiation. However another way to look at the opportunity of a new smartphone configuration is to provide relevance to another platform. Amazon could use this configuration for a new Kindle smartphone since it provides a much better reading experience, Microsoft could use it for Windows 10 since it will provide the best experience for Office apps, or it might be the right path for Google to try a ChromeOS Smartphone.

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Learn more about Snap Pea Design’s thoughts on design strategy, product development, innovation and our process at www.snappeadesign.com

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