The Japanese Apple-watcher Macotakara blog say they’ve received “very reliable information” that a cheaper iPhone with a polycarbonate housing similar in clearcoat shiny texture to the now-discontinued MacBook for Education (13-inch, Mid 2010) laptop’s case instead of aluminum and glass, but available in a variety of colors instead of just refrigerator white, and a price target of $330, in parity with the hot-selling iPad mini.
Based on what I’ve been able to decipher from a Google machine translation (which isn’t as efficient with Japanese as it is with most other languages), the new lower-priced iPhone is projected to have the same general design and display dimensions as the iPhone 5 but be somewhat thicker in form factor in order to make the polycarbonate housing adequately rugged and durable.
However, Macotakara’s sources say that release of a 4.5-inch iPhone not-quite-phablet will be delayed until 2014. The blog also claims that in the meantime, Apple apparently plans to add a dual-flash LED module on the back of the forthcoming iPhone 5S for better low-light photography capability.
Macotakara has a pretty good record for making reasonably accurate product predictions, and these ones seem like they could be plausible, although I’m not completely sold on the timelines. Apple hasn’t released a new iPhone model in June since the 3GS in 2009, but this could be the year June announcements return with 5S June release. However, there is precedent for an April announcement — albeit a minor one: the white version of the iPhone 4 in 2011.
That seems a little soon for either an iPhone 5S or a new low-end plastic housing model, but Apple needs to generate some excitement and may be doing all it can to get some new product out as soon as possible. The low-price plastic iPhone sounds as if it will be essentially an iPhone 5 in a polycarbonate case, with the same screen and internals, so if the component supply issues that plagued early iPhone 5 production have been addressed, that should be doable.
Whether an iPhone 5S is likewise depends on how much of a tweak the “S” variant gets compared with the current iPhone 5. The most recent “S” upgrade in October, 2011 was a substantial makeover internally, and one would expect something similar with the iPhone 5S. fall seems to me more likely.
And if it turns out to be fall for the 5S, then a 2014 release of a 4.5-inch iPhone 6 looks logical too, so Macotakara’s timeline makes logical sense in that context. However, I think Apple is making a serious mistake if they do opt for a 4.5-inch display instead of, say, 4.8-inches or 5-inches. The phablet convergence seems like it’s going to be an abiding trend, and 4.5-inches only qualifies as a biggish smartphone and not really what people are looking for in a phablet.
In A DisplaySearch Analyst Blog, David Hsieh observes that by releasing the iPad mini in late 2012, Apple has at least tacitly acknowledged that smaller size (7-9-inch) tablet computers will become a larger market segment than the larger 9.7-inch and 10.1-inch units. Hsieh says key aspects to the smaller tablet devices’ surging popularity are their more attractive prices and holdability in one hand rather than two, noting that data published in the latest DisplaysSearch Monthly TFT LCD Shipment Database indicate that in January 2013, tablet PC panel shipments shifted dramatically toward smaller screen sizes.
However, the market hasn’t settled out to any sort of stable equilibrium yet, with a wild card being how much 7.x-inch tablet computer sales will be affected by 5-6-inch smartphone “phablet” sales. Hsieh suggests that as smartphones move to larger sizes such as 5-6-inch, phablets – converged smartphone and tablet PC devices – could cannibalize the 7.x-inch tablet computer market. With only a 4.5-inch screen device, Apple will be ill-equipped to ride that wave.
Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt notes that even though it never attends, Apple has always a looming presence at Mobile World Congress held every year since 2009 in Barcelona — in past years Apple’s iPhone platform having set the bar by which other smartphone vendors measured themselves. But he says that’s not the case this year.
Elmer-DeWitt cites Jefferies analyst Peter Misek in a “flash note” to clients contending that 4.7-inch to 5.5-inch are becoming the new standard screen sizes for mobile devices, writing: “We think this demonstrates how badly Apple is losing the screen-size war. And while this has primarily been a high-end trend so far, we think that it could be even more pronounced as it moves to the low end and consumers do not have the money to buy a smartphone and a tablet so they migrate to the phablet form factor.”
In this dynamic, Apple doesn’t really have latitude to guess wrong about screen size trends again, but I’m apprehensive that if they insist on a 4.5-inch iPhone 6, they will have.