The Wall Street Journal, of all publications, published a report today stating that Apple is working on a smaller, lighter, and cheaper iPhone with an edge-to-edge screen to compete with low-end Android phones. The Journal claims that the iPhone nano, as they term it, would sell alongside the full size iPhone and would be priced so that it could be offered for a low price, or even free after contract. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t believe this one. I have several reasons, one of which is the smaller screen.
How small would the “smaller” screen be? The current trend in the mobile phone market is larger screens, not smaller ones. While Steve Jobs has stated that Apple is happy with the size of the iPhone’s 3.7 inch display, he hasn’t indicated that it should be any smaller. I can’t really imagine a touch-based iPhone with a screen much smaller than it already is. Apple would probably maintain the same pixel resolution as the iPhone 3GS (480 x 320) so as not to drive their developers crazy with yet another screen resolution to support so the screen would have to be physically smaller. There are already situations where a 3.7″ screen doesn’t have enough room for finger travel or application UIs, an issue that is only exacerbated by reducing physical space.
A smaller screen would also pose usability issues. Being an application developer, it can sometimes be a struggle to ensure that text, buttons, and graphics are large enough for the user to read and interact with while also fitting everything that is necessary on the screen. If Apple reduced the physical size of an iPhone’s screen by just 25%, applications could become unreadable for some users. In addition, multitouch gestures, which are very dependent on the physical space available to them, would behave differently. Imagine an application that requires a user to swipe left or right to navigate. From the application’s perspective, the gestures would work the same: the finger moves X points from one place to another and that means to navigate in a certain direction. But with less physical space, the gesture might be triggered more quickly than the user anticipates and might make navigation difficult.
The Journal’s additional note about the screen reaching edge-to-edge raises questions as well. How would cases be designed? Most cases are designed to wrap around the front of the phone just a bit to prevent the screen from hitting the ground if the phone is dropped. While I’m sure the case could still wrap around the front of the phone somewhere, it may make the phone more susceptible to damage by reducing the protection a case can offer. Even more interesting is what the user experience might be for a phone with a screen that expands across the entire width of it. What happens when you have to drag something to the edge of the screen? Your finger falls off the phone. Bezels, as much as Apple hates them, serve a purpose (why do you think the one on the iPad is so big – you need somewhere to hold it). They provide a buffer for the edge so that a user can safely move off the screen without their finger falling off a cliff.
If implemented the way that I describe, I think the screen on the iPhone nano would be a usability nightmare. That is one reason while I believe that the iPhone nano is simply a rumor. It certainly may exist somewhere deep inside Apple’s R&D lab, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing a smaller-screened iPhone any time soon. However, if anyone is going to release a phone with a smaller screen that goes edge-to-edge and do it right, that company definitely is Apple.