I have a theory about your phone.
Like all good conspiracy theories, it involves an international cabal of billion-dollar companies, hundreds of millions of components, and slowly incremented changes over the last several years, all to manipulate your relationship with the not-so-little device in your pocket.
When the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 came out in 2014, I refused to believe smaller size phones were truly dead. I swore I wouldn't get a new phone in 2015 if Apple had truly stopped making phones around 4 inches in screen size. I didn’t want to believe they’d done it—I was shocked they’d done it—but the signs were clear.
In 2015, my upgrade time came. I’d thought about sticking with my 5S, but the OS was already starting to get laggy on the two-year old hardware. Other iPhone 6 owners told me there would be an adjustment period to go from my more compact iPhone 5S to the 4.7 inch successor, but then it would be fine. I got the 6S; I hoped I was wrong, and I’d just get used to it.
Wrong. I would have an easier time using and holding onto a live fish, the way it flops around in my hand. The time I spend using my phone hasn’t changed, but now my hands go numb and wrist and fingers ache holding it. I try different grips and cases, but nothing helps.
I am the ancient mariner; this phone, my albatross. Together we are tossed on the sea of the internet as it hobbles me, slows me down, smacks me in the face (when I drop it in bed).
I am fortunate to be able to buy a new phone, as is everyone who can afford it. But it’s weird, isn’t it, how bad of a design choice this seems to be, from a company whose driving force is, if nothing else, good design? For all the shape changes that smartphones have gone through in a few short years, we get surprisingly little information about why they get bigger, or thinner. Two years ago, I wrote about how small-ish phones with current-gen hardware seemed to be disappearing. (Phones like the rumored iPhone 5se, which will be built with old hardware from Apple’s unsold inventory, don’t count.)
How did we get here? The first iPhone, released in 2007, was not a whole lot bigger than the original 2003 Motorola Razr flip phone, at 4.5 inches tall and 2.4 inches wide to the Razr's 2.1 inches. Over the next eight years, the bleeding edge of the smartphone space took whatever designers would throw at it: the tiny HP Veer, the massive Galaxy Notes, and dozens of Android phones in between, some of different shapes and sizes but mostly mimicking the minimal-button mostly-screen-surface design of the iPhone.
And then, slowly, the size range narrowed. New models ballooned. Small phones phased out through planned obsolescence. Soon, anyone looking for a new phone found themselves staring at a shelf of 4.7-inch or larger screens.
There are increasingly powerful interests that want us to drop our phones so they can fix them and sell us new ones
But in bounding after large screens, phone makers seemed to ignore the usability issues that accompany them. Small studies have shown before that 4.3 inches is about as big as a phone can get before people start struggling to use it. The time to operate the phone slows down significantly because one-hand use is awkward—and that's for average men's hands. Assuming a normal distribution, for half of men and most women, a phone bigger than 4.3 inches—like the current smallest iPhone—is too big.
An informal Twitter survey I conducted (of mostly male users; just how Twitter is) showed about half of people who responded thought their phones were too big.
“All flagships are huge now. I hate that I had to make this concession in order to get a top-of-the-line phone that I'm super paranoid about dropping,” said one owner of a 5.3-inch phone.
“I hate paying hundreds of dollars for something I know doesn't fit me because they don't make a smaller size,” reported another 5.3-inch phone owner. “I wish they'd advertise the width of the screen rather than the diagonal length. No wider than 2.5" would be ideal for my hands.”
“Can't put a case on it cause it makes it too big to hold,” one person complained of their 4.7 inch phone.
Women’s clothes also haven’t caught up to the big-phone trend. “It will not fit in my jacket or pants pockets because garment manufacturers hate women,” one woman wrote of her 5.3-inch phone. “Also, it's heavy and thus aggravates the tendinitis in my wrists.”
People were especially annoyed about their inability to use the phone safely with one hand.
“Have to shift it around to reach different parts of the screen in 1-hand operation which inevitably leads to panic-inducing drops, even with a case,” one person wrote. “I can't comfortably type with one hand anymore without being afraid of dropping the damn thing. Which means I basically never respond to anyone's texts anymore,” said another. “It's too easy to drop and I can't reach the farthest away UI elements without using two hands,” said another. “It literally makes my fucking carpal tunnel symptoms worse when I try to one-hand type,” said another. And so on.
It's baffling that Apple, and indeed any company that makes a smartphone, make a thing so increasingly integral to people's lives so annoying to use.
There is one undeniable argument for larger phones, which is that all content fits better on a bigger screen. The most desirable consumer for a smartphone is now an aging baby boomer, said Bryce Rutter, a specialist in ergonomic product design, which was a demographic that earlier smartphones were not trying to address. While software usually allows users to increase the font size on a phone's screen, a bigger screen allows for more of those fat fonts to be displayed at once, yielding happy boomers.
But even for older people—the main target demographic of a bigger phone, due to eyesight issues—a bigger device is not necessarily better, Rutter said. While phone have gotten bigger, they've also gotten slipperier, sleeker, and thinner. They're difficult for everyone to hold onto, but especially for old people who lack dexterity. "A common place for arthritis is in the hand. When dexterity and hand function is slowly eroding, we have solved one problem at the expense of the other thing," said Rutter.
That brings us to the economic explanation, and my own personal conspiracy theory to explain the rise of the big phone: There are increasingly powerful interests that want us to drop our phones so they can fix them and sell us new ones.
I've dropped my phone and broken the screen; people who haven't seem increasingly rare. A couple more minor drops later, once, the camera stopped working. The Apple genius I visited offered to ignore the fact that I'd obviously had the screen replaced earlier by a third-party shop in Chinatown, voiding the warranty, and to sell me a new discounted phone from Apple, at a cost of a few hundred dollars.
It’s certainly not inconvenient for hardware companies that I and several of the survey respondents above struggle so hard to hold onto our phones, I’d say. I don’t love conspiracy theories, yet here I am, a person holding an iPhone, and all I can see are signs.
In the early days of the Genius Bar, it primarily serviced customers with warranties. Money didn't often change hands. If you took the earlier versions of the iPhone there when they were first released, it wasn't uncommon to get a free replacement phone for one with a cracked screen, a non-functioning home button, or a number of other problems (the only problem Apple was unkind about was water damage, per the water sensors next to the 30-pin connectors). Fast forward a few years, and Apple now charges $99 to replace the screen on an iPhone 6S, *even if* the owner bought the AppleCare warranty. Without it, a new screen runs $129, or $149 for an iPhone 6S Plus.
It’s hard to know how well Apple itself is doing in this business, quiet as it is. But the third-party repair service industry is thriving, with online services and dozens of storefronts in NYC offering their phone repair services. A handful of services in New York will even make house calls. IBISWorld, a market research firm tracking the repair industry, predicts a slow rate of growth for the next few years, 2.3 percent on average annually. But in 16 months, third-party repair grew from a $1.4 billion to a $4 billion industry, according to IBISWorld.
While phone have gotten bigger, they've also gotten slipperier, sleeker, and thinner
"The cell phone repair industry has profoundly grown over the past five years due to several factors, including cheaper and more reliable mobile Internet and the exploding popularity of smartphones, which are more fragile and therefore more likely to need repairs," stated the report. This is to say nothing of how Apple's revenues may have increased over the last few years as it has ramped up its repair and services offerings outside of warranty.
Beyond repair transactions, there is the refurbished smartphone industry, where phones may be resold overseas for a profit or stripped for their valuable parts. Gartner calculated that worldwide refurb revenue was about $7 billion in 2014, and will grow to $14 billion by 2017 by handling up to 120 million units. Many retailers, including Apple, will generously accept old phones at no cost to the customer—if the condition of the unit is good, there's a vast market for resale.
As I was researching this article, Apple announced a new program that allows users to trade broken phones in for credit toward new models, when it previously accepted only models in good condition. The company is also bringing dedicated screen protector installation machines to stores.
Gartner also noted in its report that tech enthusiasts drive most new smartphone purchases, and among them, loyalty is extremely high. When planned obsolescence stops being profitable enough, of course, a device manufacturer does appear to have options, one of which is to make phones that are more droppable and more likely to need servicing. And now that phones have coalesced around this screen size point of 4.7 inches, choosing a different phone isn't a solution for solving any of these attending problems. Everyone wins. Except the customer.
Image: Lia Kantrowitz