Android taught Apple to follow, and that’s a great thing

Everything’s obvious in hindsight, but Apple’s radically different take on the smartphone represented a paradigm shift in how consumers would harness technology.

As Jobs walked me through using the iPhone, it was easy to see that the trail Apple was blazing would serve as inspiration for the pocket computers people would inevitably carry with them in the years ahead. Things we take for granted were huge: People applauded when they saw how you could use your finger on the screen to scroll through text and images.

The revolution continued. Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone platforms took inspiration from the iPhone and created viable, competing platforms that looked and behaved quite differently than their original designs. Tablets took the desktop-class operating systems popularized on the iPhone and created a new class of device that sits somewhere between the smartphones in our pockets and the PCs on our desktops. This movement was once again led by Apple

Apple is expected to unveil the next generation of its iPhone platform today, which includes new, bigger displays. The apparent new form factors are, in a sense, a reversal of the formula where Apple led and others followed. And Apple’s decision to follow what Android has done so well will likely benefit those of us who use our smartphones as gaming devices.

THE REVOLUTION CONTINUES

Apple spends its considerable design muscle typically creating one smartphone per year and releases a model that it believes is the right size for the largest number of users. In 2007, Apple believed that was a 3.5-inch phone. Beginning with the iPhone 5 in 2012, the iPhone began growing when Apple released the 4-inch iPhone 5.

The pattern was always the same: Apple poured its energy into creating the phone it believed would satisfy most users. Yes, it kept the old phones on the market, but those have always been legacy devices and treated as such.

Its competitors, however, were under no such self-imposed constraints.

For the last several years, Apple’s competition saw an opportunity and differentiated itself with, among other things, screen size. Companies like HTC, LG, Nokia and Samsung manufactured smartphones that ranged from iPhone-sized screens to products that blurred the lines between smartphones and tablets. The term “phablet” entered the lexicon in the wake of devices like the Galaxy Note, which debuted in 2011 with a 5.3-inch screen.

Suddenly, some people didn’t need a phone and a tablet. They just used one device in between.

Rumors swirled for years about Apple producing iPhones with even larger screens. Perhaps the most convincing evidence was an internal document released earlier this year during Apple’s trial with Samsung. In it, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, acknowledged, in reference to inexpensive and larger-screened phones, that “consumers want what we don’t have.” Apple, by its own admission, was being left behind.

As today’s announcement may prove, whether through internal discussions, market pressure or some combination thereof, Apple became convinced that larger phones better served its customers. And the company won’t be getting to that space first.

ANDROID SHOWS ME THE WAY

I’ve been nestled comfortably in the iOS ecosystem since 2008. For most of that time, my only experience with competing platforms has been playing with friends’ Android devices. I liked what I saw, particularly the way Android allows apps to communicate with each other at the operating system level, a feature that will arrive in Apple’s ecosystem with iOS 8.

I began wondering whether Android might be the better operating system for me, though I was hesitant to dump the ecosystem I’d become so comfortable with. There’s a lot of power in the inertia we gain by sticking with our devices.

Last year, after Google unveiled its latest flagship tablet, I saw my opportunity to see how the other half lived. Though I’ve owned an iPad since the original 2010 version, I headed to my local Best Buy to purchase the Nexus 7. Since last summer, I’ve used it nearly as much as I’ve used my 9.7-inch iPad. Switching between the two has always felt to me like the difference between reading a hardback book and a trade paperback, and I’ve increasingly been more interested in the Nexus 7’s trade paperback status.

I’m happy that I invested the money and the time to learn a new operating system. I think having that experience makes me a better consumer — and, I hope, a better reporter.

Though the Nexus 7 hasn’t convinced me to jump ship and buy an Android phone, it has taught me an interesting lesson: Just like there’s room for a device that sits between a computer and a smartphone, there’s room for a device somewhere between a relatively small smartphone and a tablet.

Nowhere is the benefit of a larger device more obvious than with games.

In those early Nexus 7 days, I searched the Google Play store for games. One of the first I downloaded was Robot Unicorn Attack 2, the heavy metal-infused endless runner from developer Pikpok. I fell in love immediately with its over-the-top design and simple, two virtual button gameplay. I wanted the multiplatform game on my iPhone 5, but I found out something surprising after I downloaded it: It’s far more exciting to play on a 7-inch screen than a 4-inch screen.

In fact, not only was I was barely interested in playing it on a smaller screen, but I was barely interested in playing most games on my iPhone. Like the original iPhone announcement, a larger screen on a lightweight Android device showed me the future and kind of made my other devices feel too cramped and too cumbersome.

Based on the apparent leaked pictures and video, the new, 5.5-inch iPhone — and even the 4.7-inch version — look to me like the perfect mobile gaming devices, small enough to fit in my pocket but large enough to give games more room to breathe. Of course, I’ve only seen it in videos. I haven’t held it in my hand or felt it in my pocket. But I can see its potential in its size. Coupled with technology like iOS 8’s graphics-focused Metal, iPhone games are primed for an evolution of their own.

And I can see all of this, in part, born of experience on a competing platform that, I have to believe, also convinced Apple to go bigger. Because sometimes bigger is better.

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