Android Intelligence Analysis

Why Android users should applaud Apple's small phone revival

"Magical" as the marketing may be, Apple's silly-seeming return to small phones is something we should all celebrate.

Apple iPhone SE Small Phones
Credit: Viviand Nguyen/Flickr
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Well, gang, it had to happen.

As the big phone craze reached new heights over the past several months, practically squashing smaller-sized flagships out of the picture, we all knew it was just a matter of time:

And sure enough, right on cue, Apple is stepping up to the plate with something suitably "revolutionary": the iPhone SE, a new high-end(ish) phone notable mostly for its 4-in. screen size. As Apple puts it, the device is "a big step for small" -- "designed to fit comfortably in your hand" (hey, they don't call me the Oracle of Obvious for nothin').

Now, there's plenty of fun to be poked over the dramatic disappearing-and-reappearing act of the sub-5-in. smartphone. My tweet from last October was only partly tongue in cheek; it was pretty much inevitable that after exerting all sorts of energy trying to convince the world that bigger smartphones are universally better, tech companies would do a medal-worthy pivot and start selling us on the "new" idea of ergonomics again. It's not hard to see through the hype and realize this is little more than a carefully plotted marketing ploy.

But even so, it's a ploy I'm happy to see -- and I think a lot of folks will agree. From a purely sales-based perspective, the "big phones only" phase actually made a lot of sense. Smartphones have hit a plateau as of late, after all, and manufacturers are struggling more and more to make each year's model seem fresh and exciting.

So what do you do to convince people to keep upgrading to the latest shiny-shiny? Simple: You find a way to make it seem meaningfully different from the last one. And that's exactly what happened when phone-makers by and large decided that anyone who wanted a high-end smartphone was going to get one the size of a husky toddler's shoe. "This is the new thing; it's what everyone wants and is going to have! Buy one now or be left behind. Your pocket-sized phone is so two years ago!"

(Side note: Yes, I realize that Sony has been making pretty slick compact versions of its flagship for quite a while now. But here in the good ol' U.S. of A., they're expensive, dumbed-down, delayed, and difficult to find. Not exactly a winning combo -- sadly for us.)

Don't get me wrong: I've got nothing against plus-sized smartphones. Heck, I've been carrying one myself since late last year. But I didn't pick the Nexus 6P because it was a big phone; I picked it in spite of the fact that it was larger than I would have liked. It's true that manufacturers have gotten a whole lot better at designing big phones that don't feel absurdly unmanageable, but as I said when explaining my decision to hop on the XL bandwagon last fall:

The size of this phone is something I'm accepting, not something I'm cherishing. ... Given the fact that there's no smaller device out there that provides all the same qualities I want with no meaningful downsides, I've recognized that the 6P is as close to my ideal as I'm going to get.

Some people love carrying plus-sized smartphones; others simply accept it. I fall firmly into the latter camp. And I suspect a fair number of you do, too.

Apple certainly isn't the only company to offer a sub-5-in. smartphone at the moment -- but among big players in the U.S., its iPhone SE is definitely kicking off the "what's old is new again" trend in the high-end device department. And while the marketing side of that move is obviously a little obnoxious, the move itself is one that'll be hugely beneficial for us as consumers.

Why? Because as those of us who use Android know well, smartphones have never been a one-size-fits-all kind of item. I've heard from countless people over the past months who have shared my frustration with having to accept a larger-than-desired device in order to get a top-of-the-line product. These are the people for whom a smaller flagship-caliber option will shine.

With any luck, this is just the beginning of what'll be a silly but ultimately beneficial move back to a spectrum of size options within the high-end phone realm. Heck, if even the typically-choice-limiting Apple sees the benefit in providing such diversity, it surely won't be long before others follow suit.

So, abracadabra and so forth. Let the magical revolution begin.

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