Apple is rumored to be releasing a new, smaller-screened iPhone — the 6c, according to 9 to 5 Mac, as well as a next-generation Apple Watch in March. Watch-wise, that would put things right on track with the company's normal habit of releasing products every year.
But the report about the introduction of a 4-inch phone is particularly intriguing because it fits into a sort of trend from Apple that's emerged over the past few years: The company appears to be listening more closely to its customers.
Apple is famous — or notorious, depending on whom you ask — for eschewing the wisdom of the crowd when it comes to its products. Instead it opts to follow its own vision. One could argue -- and many have argued -- that such a strategy has helped Apple be innovative rather than iterative. The company's biggest products came from a place largely devoid of focus groups or market research. Apple, particularly co-founder Steve Jobs, really seemed to take to heart that old apocryphal Henry Ford chestnut: that asking "the people" what they wanted would have produced a faster horse instead of a car. The iPod, iPhone and iPad have all been hailed as products we didn't even know we wanted.
Lately, however, there seems to a little more reactivity going on in Cupertino. Otherwise, why build a smaller phone right now when every market analysis tells you that the way to growth is with larger screens? Likely, the answer is because there are vocal Apple customers out there who don't want a phone with a screen more than 4 inches. I know, because they email me. These are people who don't care much about visual media and who want phones that fit in their darn pockets. And there may also be more practical reasons. With Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty predicting that Apple could see its first smartphone sale slide (in actual sales, not just sales growth) it may make some sense to appeal to that segment of the market even if it's not the hot one to pursue.
Being reactive can be a good thing. Apple was late to shift its phone design to incorporate larger screens, but it finally introduced larger screens after seeing how consumer use was shifting. More time watching video, making videos and taking pictures means that a big screen became more useful to the general consumer. Shifting to a larger screen helped Apple continue its trend of record-breaking sales for the bigger-screened phones.
It can also have its drawbacks. As Will Oremus at Slate wrote last week, Apple's latest battery case — a somewhat unsightly accessory — could also be taken as a reactive move to complaints about the battery life on the iPhone 6s. And if this is what Apple listening to its customers looks like, he says, he could do without it:
Yes, you hear a lot of moaning about the iPhone’s battery life, but guess why? Because people keep buying the things anyway. To the vast majority of iPhone buyers, a shortage of power is an annoyance, but not a deal-breaker. If Apple stopped making the prettiest phones, that would be a deal-breaker.
The same is arguably true of the iPhone 5c, a lower-end iPhone that investors and analysts clamored for Apple to make to serve "emerging" smartphone markets. It (relatively) flopped, after the company found that consumers weren't that interested in getting a practical iPhone — they wanted the halo of the brand.
Expanding Apple's carefully edited product line by adding another into the mix likely isn't something the company takes lightly. It's a point of pride for Apple chief executive Tim Cook to say that all of the company's products could fit on one table. (He may have to amend that statement if the company's rumored car ever comes out.) It can't get too far afield from that.
In a 2012 Harvard Business Review article, Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson said that one of the co-founder's lasting lessons of leadership was focusing on product, not profit. Jobs himself told Isaacson that companies decline when a desire for profit overtakes a desire for good products:
“I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies,” Jobs told me: They make some great products, but then the sales and marketing people take over the company, because they are the ones who can juice up profits. “When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when [former CEO John] Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when [former CEO Steve] Ballmer took over at Microsoft.”
That's not to say that going back to a smaller screen is going to be the end of the world for Apple. It could be a great hit. But what Apple has to balance, perhaps more than any other company, is its desire for mass-market appeal and its reputation for carefully-curated quality.