Why the Next iPhone Won't Be Huge

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It's been about six months since Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) took the wraps off its iPhone 4S. That means it's about time for the rumor mill to start talking about the next iPhone.

Reuters is relaying a rumbling from the Far East, where most rumors finds their origins thanks to the region's proximity to the world's gadget supply chain. The report quotes a South Korean news outlet that Apple will use a 4.6-inch display on the next iPhone. Samsung is one of Cupertino's biggest suppliers and is located in the region, which is presumably why this rumor has made it this far -- a rumor I intend to obliterate.

That would make the next iPhone downright huge. I'd wager my new iPad that this won't come to fruition and the only thing that will be huge is the number of sixth-generation iPhones that Apple ends up selling.

Unless Apple wants to be like Android
It all ties back to the biggest weakness that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android has, which Apple hasn't hesitated to vocally point out over the years: fragmentation.

Android's ubiquity adds a plethora of various hardware layers from a slew of OEMs that can use different processor architectures, including Intel, ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) , and MIPS Technologies. ARM takes the lion's share, but even within that camp, developers for CPU- and GPU-intensive apps like 3-D games need to optimize their apps for different chips from ARM's various partners.

For example, mobile developer Mika Mobile, the maker of popular games like Battleheart and Zombieville USA, recently detailed some difficulties that it faces with Android's platform. The developer said that its Android apps "aren't making money," primarily because of the extra costs that go into supporting those apps.

Mika said it spent roughly 20% of its total man-hours last year working on its Android apps, yet they contribute just 5% of its total revenue. Here's where all that time and money went:

I would have preferred spending that time on more content for you, but instead I was thanklessly modifying shaders and texture formats to work on different GPUs, or pushing out patches to support new devices without crashing, or walking someone through how to fix an installation that wouldn't go through. We spent thousands on various test hardware. These are the unsung necessities of offering our apps on Android.

Source: Mika Mobile official blog.

This is just one example of the problems fragmentation creates. Even something as simple as screen size can add fodder to the fragmentation argument as well. Adding another screen size for iOS developers to accommodate would make iOS a wee bit more like Android.

Unless Apple wants to be like Dell
If Apple were to move up to 4.6 inches, then it would be approaching the awkward 5-inch enormous-smartphone/mini-tablet threshold reminiscent of Dell's (Nasdaq: DELL  ) Streak 5. That's a space that no one wants to be in -- not even Dell.

Well, actually Samsung does, as its Galaxy Nexus features a 4.65-inch display, and its Galaxy Note has a monstrous 5.3-inch screen.

Source: The Verge. Size comparison of Galaxy Nexus (4.65 inches) and iPhone 4S (3.5 inches).

Source: The Verge. Size comparison of Galaxy Nexus (4.65 inches) and iPhone 4S (3.5 inches).

Source: The Verge. Size comparison of Galaxy Note (5.3 inches) and iPhone 4S (3.5 inches).

Source: The Verge. Size comparison of Galaxy Note (5.3 inches) and iPhone 4S (3.5 inches).

A numbers game
Let's take this a step further and entertain the rumor a bit more before we shut it down completely. Apple makes a big fuss over its incredibly high-resolution Retina Displays, but it uses the "Retina" term somewhat liberally in its marketing.

The iPhone has always carried a 3.5-inch (diagonal) widescreen display with a 3:2 aspect ratio, with Apple doubling its pixel dimensions two years ago to 960 x 640 pixels at 326 pixels per inch, or ppi. Increasing the screen to 4.6 inches would be a big jump and would cause some problems with its Retina claims.

A 4.6-inch screen with the same 960 x 640 resolution would spread out those pixels and result in approximately 251 ppi. That's a big decrease in density that would hinder Apple's ability to call it a "Retina" Display. The new iPad's screen comes in at 264 ppi, but Apple justifies this by saying people view the iPad from further distances, which is somewhat reasonable.

That would mean that a 4.6-inch screen at 251 ppi would be lower density than the iPad that's read from farther away. Tough to call it Retina there.

Another alternative would be introduce yet another screen resolution to the platform. If Cupertino wanted to keep roughly the same 326 ppi and aspect ratio on the bigger screen, that would result in a resolution of approximately 1248 x 832.

At that point, we're talking about five different resolutions for iOS developers to deal with: 480 x 320 (iPhone 3GS and older), 960 x 640 (iPhone 4/4S), 1024 x 768 (iPad 1/2), 2048 x 1536 (iPad 3), and then 1248 x 832 (rumored 4.6-inch display). Hello, fragmentation.

The current two pairs of resolutions are a little easier to deal with, since the larger dimensions are exactly double the smaller ones in each direction, but a fifth wheel would throw iOS off balance.

3.5-inch 4-ever?
There have separately been rumors of a 4-inch screen, which is somewhat more believable. That would imply 288 ppi (same resolution) or 1086 x 724 (same ppi). If Apple ever increases the iPhone screen size, a 4-inch display could happen, but likely with lower ppi and same resolution to fend off fragmentation, with Apple marketing coming up with some clever way to still call it "Retina."

The next iPhone will be huge, just not physically.

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Fool contributor Evan Niu owns shares of ARM Holdings and Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio .The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Apple, and Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Intel, and Google, writing covered calls on Dell, and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2012, at 12:09 AM, Foolorama wrote:

    Actually, if you look at the iOS SDK, you will see that the way that xCode is designed makes other size targets considerably easier than it must be for Android developers. Plus, remember that we are not dealing with fragmentation on the processor and other areas. Your marketing points however are a different matter. Then again, since when has Apple tried to sell us "on specs..."

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2012, at 1:18 AM, demodave wrote:

    I call this a weak effort, Evan. If the screen is a little bit bigger, you can hold it a little further away.

    1024 x 768 will still look really nice on a 4.? inch screen, and/but it's best for Apple to stick with what it already knows from a software standpoint.

    The only way to "do better" would be a 2048 x 1536 screen. The possibility is there that yields for such a small screen could still be profitable for the manufacturer (as opposed to a larger 9+" screen), so I wouldn't write it off.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2012, at 1:53 AM, haysdb wrote:

    There is no way in hell the next iPhone will have a 4.6" screen. None, nada, zilch. 4" maybe. It's the size it is for a reason, not because they couldn't make it bigger. This rumor is just incredibly lame. Right up there with the one that said the new iPad would have haptic feedback. No way, that'll be in the NEXT iPad. LOL.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2012, at 9:34 AM, TMFNewCow wrote:

    demodave, the issue with 1024 x 768 on a 4-inch screen is the aspect ratio and proportions. 1024 x 768 is a 4:3 aspect ratio, while the iPhone uses 3:2, although it would result in roughly 320 ppi (Retina-worthy).

    -- Evan

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2012, at 5:57 PM, winklerf wrote:

    The Mika Mobile story is a non-story. Their problem with Android is that they aren't making revenue on the platform. It takes quite a lot of effort to support more than one platform for any piece of software. Why do you think Wintel has been so dominant in PCs? The niche players are best served by supporting only one platform because they usually can't duplicate the lucky breaks in the second market that they had in the first.

    Spending 20% of your development time porting code to a new platform is a bit high, but it isn't outrageous considering your core competency is with the platform you first developed on. No doubt there are idiosyncrasies with iOS that Android developers hate too.

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