Apr 1 2014, 3:12am CDT | by Forbes
Tim Cook once cautioned against reading too much into any one report about Apple's supply chain. But Reuters in Japan today was talking about the rumored 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screens for Apple’s next-generation iPhone 6, due later this year. Significantly, per Cook’s admonition, this wasn’t just one report. Instead, it was the latest in a series dating back at least to October that Apple will bring the size of its smartphone in line with those of flagship competitors from Samsung, HTC and others. While tantalizing details remain elusive — will Apple launch the iPhone in two sizes? what resolution(s) will it choose for the display? — there is increasing reason to believe that the iPhone will no longer be limited to a 4-inch screen, among the smallest smartphone displays on the market.
Why trust the supply chain at all?
When iPhone sales were small relative to today, it was much easier for Apple to keep key details under wraps. But these days, with the company selling north of 150 million phones a year, it’s no longer so simple. Parts suppliers need months before the phone’s launch to ramp up production of components. And Apple has increased the challenge in recent years by launching the phone on more carriers in more countries simultaneously. Last year marked the first time the iPhone went on sale in China contemporaneously with the U.S. launch but it was months later before Apple reached a deal to sell the phone on China Mobile, the world’s largest carrier. In 2014, an iPhone launch will require more phones than ever.
The display industry is a relatively small and closely tracked one. Small in the sense that it has few producers that can meet the need for tens of millions of screens. According to the Reuters report, Apple will be sourcing screens from LG, Japan Display and Sharp — all suppliers it has worked with in the past. While all are doubtless bound by confidentiality agreements, the number of people who know about a project to make displays for Apple is likely in the hundreds. That word could have leaked out is not surprising. Given the number of reports since January, the story has gained credence.
What do the rumors suggest?
Consistently, sources have suggested the iPhone 6 will be available with a 4.7-inch display and a narrower bezel than the current model. The idea would be to provide as much screen space as possible without increasing the size of the phone itself by very much. A Wall Street Journal report from January also reported what Reuters did today: that Apple was additionally looking at a larger 5.5-inch model, a phablet-sized phone/tablet hybrid. Reuters suggested today that the phablet wouldn’t launch simultaneously with the iPhone 6. Again, that report is consistent with what others have suggested over recent months.
It’s worth noting that discussions about the phablet have met with more skepticism in the analyst community, though rarely have those discussions actually involved anyone in the supply chain. Further, while launching a larger iPhone phablet model months after the iPhone 6 would represent a break from recent Apple tradition, so would the larger phone itself. The idea that Apple can’t break from tradition is more far-fetched than the notion Apple can keep secret what commodity parts it’s using at this point.
What key questions remain?
Even if this all proves correct, there are significant unanswered questions that may remain unknowns until the launch of the iPhone 6, which is most likely going to follow recent patterns and occur in September. The Reuters report has the screens entering production in May, which wouldn’t allow a launch before July under any circumstances and that early feels very aggressive.
What resolution(s) will Apple use? The current iPhone 5s and 5c use a 1136 x 640 screen at 326 pixels per inch. While a number of competing phones offer “full HD” 1920 x 1080 at sizes similar to 4.7 inches, it’s possible Apple will deliver a 1280 x 720 resolution at that size, as Motorola did with the Moto X. The screen on the Moto X wasn’t considered very good due to contrast and sunlight-visibility issues, but the issue of resolution rarely came up. Apple’s iOS has historically been difficult to work with in multiple resolutions, but iOS 7 made things simpler in that regard. And things like text buttons without explicit outlines makes scaling user-interface elements for different screen sizes even easier.
If the phablet does materialize, it’s possible Apple will offer that model in a different resolution from the iPhone 6. On the other hand, it’s possible both models would offer the same resolution of a 1920 x 1080 (or some other unique value chosen by Apple, but almost certainly a 16:9 ratio).
Where does the 5c model fit in? Rumors have also suggested the 5c, whose sales have disappointed Cook and Apple, might not survive in its current form for the next generation. But Apple will certainly offer a variant of the current best –> less good –> lesser still lineup it has been selling the last several years. The 5c broke with recent tradition of the “less good” model simply being last year’s while “lesser” was still the two-year-old 4s. How this plays out in 2014 is very much up in the air, especially if the newest models come with a larger screen. Perhaps the iPhone 5s will become the midrange model, mainstreaming the TouchID fingerprint sensor and the 64-bit A7 processor. In the meantime, the 5c could become the least-expensive iPhone.
While the wait for the iPhone 6 is likely still another 5 months, it’s very possible more information from the supply chain will emerge sooner to shed further light on the product. If more substantive information becomes available, expect an update.
Source: Forbes Apple
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