After the Apple Watch, will we see the iPhone6 mini?

Last week, after several years of build-up and hype, the world had the opportunity to place their pre-orders for the Apple Watch.  It hasn’t generated the queues outside stores that have come to typify recent Apple releases, and despite some options “selling out” we have no idea what that means in terms of total numbers ordered, as supply is obviously constrained.  Slice Intelligence reckon that over a million people signed up on launch day, but I suspect that’s over-optimistic.  Nor I am I convinced by other analysts predicting sales of 19 million this year.  However, over the course of the rest of this year I expect several million people around the world will spend between $349 and $20,000 each to acquire one.  It will be the start of an interesting experiment which is far more than just about what we wear on our wrist.  I see it as a similar, but larger scale experiment along the same lines as Google Glass, albeit a much lower risk one in terms of social acceptance.  But it is still an experiment.  To succeed it will need to change user behaviour – it’s not enough that it’s just a new Apple toy.

It may turn out to be an experiment which will indicate whether our love affair with the smartphone has a best-before date.  That may seem an odd statement, but we’re already seeing some interesting feedback from people who have had the opportunity to trial the Apple Watch.  Matthew Panzrino at Techcrunch has interviewed a number of these, reporting that the biggest recurring theme from those lucky few is how little they use their iPhone once you have an Apple watch.  People he spoke to that have worn the Apple Watch said that they take their phones out of their pockets far, far less than they used to.  One user told him that they “nearly stopped using their phone during the day; they used to have it out and now they don’t, period”.

Last month at the Apple presentation Kevin Lynch echoed the same point remarking that “you can put your iPhone down when you get home – you don’t need to have it with you all of the time”.  For the VP of Technology at Apple to say that sounded almost heretical, but it highlighted an important point – Apple connectivity products, like the iPhone and Apple TV could become invisible hubs for connectivity to more personal products which Apple may produce in the future.  That could have an important bearing on the way we use smartphones.

Apple is doing a lot of interesting things in its product ranges and we’ve yet to see how they fit together, or what that will mean for the future of the Apple ecosystem.  But it’s important to get past the hardware and understand how they could work as an ecosystem to change behaviour.  This is my view of where the iPhone may be going.

Over the past few years we’ve seen smartphones consistently evolving in one direction, which is bigger, as exemplified by the iPhone6 plus and Samsung Note 4.  Manufacturers have been chasing the percentage of daily finger time, whether that’s due to games or social media apps – the name of the game has been keeping the phone in our hands for an ever increasing portion of our waking hours.  In contrast, the initial experiences from Apple Watch users, which matches what I’ve heard from a number of Pebble watch wearers, tells an interesting story about how a smart watch is changing that.  It appears that moving notification to the wrist could be one of the most effective ways of breaking smartphone addiction.  Without the impulse to glance at the screen and then use the keyboard the phone may start to take up a lot less of our lives.  I’m not denying that a smart watch doesn’t want us to glance at it just as often, but the response is different.  Its size removes the Pavlovian response of typing a reply, instead shifting the user’s behaviour to a pre-programmed reply, a voice message, or just noting it and moving on with their life.

The result is that finger time goes down.  Voice time may go up, particularly as voice assistants like Siri continue to improve.  That may have a major effect on where social media like Facebook and Twitter need to evolve.  Equally, it plays to services like Uber. But it also starts to split the smartphone into two different categories of usage model.  A simple one which is effectively a connectivity hub for a smart watch and a larger one which is predominantly used for gaming or mobile video.

That raises a big question, which is what a future smartphone will look like, as these two requirements are divergent.  If we use the phone less and our wrist more, then the drivers for the current evolution of bigger and bigger may start to fall away.  I’d argue that there is a logic to introducing a smaller physical form factor.  If we respond more with a touch to our wrist, all a smartphone will need is a screen for the odd occasions where a user needs more text displayed than can be sensibly done on a watch.  That means it could be small.  We could contemplate a return to the 3.5″ screen of the original iPhone. Or even smaller.

How small?  Well, one of the neat features of the Apple Watch is Apple Pay – its ability to securely store your credit cards, so that you never need to get them out.  That should leave the average pocket or wallet with an empty space where half a dozen credit cards used to live.  A space around 86mm x 54mm x 6.0mm.  (The original iPhone was 115mm x 61mm x 11.6mm.)  So why not introduce an iPhone6 mini that can discretely take up the room you used to dedicate to your cards?  Instead of a smartphone which is constantly being caressed, it evolves into a pocket phone which spends most of its life as an accessory to the watch. Not the other way around, which has typified so many of the abortive attempts we’ve seen in the smart watch arena over the past few years.

There’s no reason an iPhone6 mini can’t be made.  A phone which is not constantly being fingered has some significant performance and cost advantages.  As the screen is off for most of the time its battery life could extend into days.  Many of the sensors could disappear as they’re duplicated within the watch.  It’s unlikely to be used for gaming, so its processing power can be scaled back, further improving battery life.  And of most interest for network operators, it could be the source of a second contract.

I see the second contract as vital both to Apple and the operators.  To Apple it is essential, because an iPhone6 mini would be cheaper and make them less money, so it has to be an additional purchase.  Users would need to be persuaded to buy it as a second phone, so that Apple can sell you an iPhone6 plus for gaming or video streaming and the iPhone6 mini as an everyday pocket phone.  That has the secondary advantage of locking customers into two phone replacement cycles.  It’s attractive for network operators because it gives them a chance to get more revenue from each user be supplying a new contract for two phones.

However, to make it work for the consumer, both Apple and the operators would need to work together to find a way for a user to have a single number for two phones with intelligent routing, so that calls could be initiated or received on either, but with the one closest to the user being the default phone at any point in time.  Both would work with the Apple Watch – the watch would notify an incoming call as well as the nearest phone, and the user could either answer that phone, or more likely use their watch or a headset.  The challenge is providing a single number for two phones.

Although some operators have provided a single number that is shared between multiple phones in the past, they normally require all but one of them to be turned off, which limits the usefulness.  That technology dates back to the era of separate carphones in the early 1990s and we’ve not seen much change since then.  But we’re now on the cusp of seeing more advanced ways of sharing numbers.  The reason for that is the way that SIMs work.

The SIM card is the part of your phone which the network operator continues to own.  It authenticates your phone on the network, allocates its number and tracks which cell your phone is connected to.  As cellular networks have become more advanced in their evolution from 2G to 4G, so have the SIMs within them.  A little known aspect of these SIMs is the SIM toolkit, which lets the SIM run applications under the operator control.  The latest 4G standards include a uSIM application which can run secure applications provided by the operator.  The mobile industry have great hopes for this as a way of wresting more control back from phone vendors and Over The Top applications, although it’s greatest promise may be in developing joint applications with phone manufacturers like Apple.

Apple has already played with this functionality in recent iPads, which in some countries come preloaded with network operator options, so that the user can pick and choose who to place their contract with.  The promise behind this feature was that users could change operators at will, typically when they roamed to a different country.  The reality was that provide to be a step to far for most operators who limited the consumer to a one-time choice of provider when they turned the iPad on.  But it was a low key foray, as few iPads sold with cellular contracts and it served to break the ice and show what could be done.

In the last year the ability to interact with these new uSIMs has developed even further, with companies like Morpho developing uSIM applications which allow phones to interact with fundamental network features.  If we consider the Apple Watch as a location device using Bluetooth Smart, it can detect whether your iPhone6 plus or iPhone6 mini is closest to you and set that as your default phone.  An application on the phone then talks to the uSIM application which informs the network to allocate that phone to its Home Location Register and use it for all calls.  As you move around the house or pick up another phone the same process repeats itself, so that you’re always connected to the phone closest to you.  When you’re not wearing your Apple Watch, movement sensors in your phones can take over so that an incoming call always comes to the right one.

Technically it’s possible.  It needs Apple and the network operators to work together to make it happen, but if they can make it work they each win.  Apple sells you another product and the network operator makes money on your secondary contract each month. It also solves the problem of how to subsidise the Apple Watch, and by extension other wearables, as the second contract can subsidise the combination of Watch and iPhone6 mini. Today the only option I’ve seen operators taking is giving wearables away free to try and bribe subscribers.  That’s not a very innovative business model – at the moment it seems mostly about moving unwanted stock.

Experience has shown us that Apple understands Bluetooth and Wi-Fi better than any other company.  They’ve realised they are essentially transports which can be set to the purpose of enhancing the user experience. It will be interesting to sniff wireless packets from the Apple Watch when it comes out to see exactly what it does, but I expect to see continuing innovation in the way they use the two standards.

After the Apple keynote earlier this year Jonathan Goldberg made the eminently sensible comment on his Digits to Dollars blog that “There is no reason to think that the smartphone is the pinnacle of mobile computing”.  It’s not clear that the manufacturers have any comprehension of where the pinnacle might be.  At the Mobile Work Congress there was little evidence that the mobile phone vendors were aiming for anything other than the plateau of commoditisation.  An iPhone6 mini could change that by distributing usage, so that smartphones reform user behaviour, rather than confining it.  If it happens, one of the most exciting outcomes is that it moves the whole industry.  Not just phones, but a new generation of social media.

Horace Dediu at Asymco has written a telling review of the Apple Watch.  In it he says that “Cynics may say it does too little. Philistines may say it does too much. But for me it does just what I want it to do when I want it done. The things which are not done stay out of the way. This discretion is just as important as the effectiveness of action.

Even more remarkably, this tasteful minder is offered not to a fortunate few but to millions of people of average means. In the true sense of technological democratization, Apple Watch is a phenomenon for mass consumption.”

Discretion is an interesting concept for a smartphone experience, but is potentially transformative.  Introducing an iPhone6 mini and the ability to subsidise it through a new contract could usher in as major a change as the original appearance of the iPhone.  And if Apple makes it, I’ll buy one.