Sam Holstein

It’s Time For Smaller Smartphones

Over the last year or two, Silicon Valley has woken up to the dangers of screen time. From possible links between screen time and teen suicide, to raising everyone’s anxiety levels, to destroying our circadian rhythms, it’s clear that staring into a blue light all day isn’t the best thing for our brains.

Software manufacturers like Apple and Google have not let this pass unnoticed. Features like Airplane Mode and Do Not Disturb are helping us focus more on the world around us, and features like Night Shift and Screen Time are helping us manage the time we do spend at our screens in a healthy way.

Yet for all their talk, I can’t help but notice phones just keep getting bigger. Phone size has been climbing precipitously for the last several years, finally leveling out in phone offerings that are, on average, the size of an adult male’s hands. Phones are so large now that I, a petite woman, cannot text with my thumbs on larger smartphones because the screen is simply too large1.

At the same time, every time a feature like Night Shift or Screen Time is introduced, following quickly on its heels is another feature or product which simultaneously demands more of a user’s time. Apple did this last winter when they released Screen Time in September only to introduce entertainment services in March:

But if there was any pretense that Apple really wanted to help you move your eyeballs away from the iPhone with Screen Time or any other digital wellness feature, it was washed away on Monday, when the company unveiled a suite of offerings designed to lock you into its services: Apple News+, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and even the banking app attached to the titanium Apple Card all demand your attention… on screens made by Apple. Faced with slowing iPhone sales, Apple is emphasizing its services business. For these subscription-based services to be worth anything, people have to use them; to use them, people need to look at their screens. Time spent staring at screens may not be good for a user’s digital wellness, but it will increasingly make Apple money.

Damon Beres, Apple’s New Strategy Erodes ‘Screen Time’

It’s hard for me to believe tech companies like Apple care about our digital wellbeing when they give with one hand and take away with the other.

There’s one thing they could do that would simultaneously…

  1. Convince me they care about user wellbeing
  2. Make me a stark-raving-mad lifelong-fan again

…and that’s make a smaller iPhone.

When Screen Time was released amidst all the breaking news about the dangers of screen time, I set it up to find I was using my phone six hours a day. No wonder I never had time to pursue my hobbies. Over the past year, I’ve reduced my phone screen time from 40 hours a week to just under 82.

It’s been fantastic. My life has noticeably improved, and I’m quite sure reclaiming five hours of every day has something to do with it. If your phone screen time is 3+ hours a day, I highly recommend taking some steps to change that.

But there has been one glaring downside. Now, carrying my phone is annoying. Back when my phone was in my hand six hours a day, it hardly mattered. Now that I’m no longer scrolling through content most of my day, my phone spends a lot more time put away, and size has become a problem. It’s too large to fit in my pockets, takes up an entire pocket of its own in my bag, and takes up more space than my keys and wallet combined. For something that’s in my hand less than an hour a day, it’s a regular inconvenience3.

The first thing I thought to do was switch to the iPhone SE. My parents happened to have an iPhone 5s that was going unused, so I loaded a phone backup of my own to see how it would perform. It was… slow. Painfully slow. Unusably slow. I may use my phone less, but the things I do use it for (taking down todos, calendar events, article ideas, texting friends, using my GPS, checking calendar events, using Yelp to find a good Indian place) are important, and I don’t want to be encumbered by eye-watering amounts of lag.

So I did the minimalist thing and researched minimalist phones. I considered switching to a Light Phone (it can’t text, so that is out). I considered switching to a Verizon Palm (at the time, I was on AT&T and switching to Verizon wasn’t an option, so that was out).

I briefly considered switching to Android. But some research revealed that late-model Android phones aren’t any smaller either. The six-inch form factor is the smallest smartphone factor available on the market. And anyway, I don’t want to give up iMessage. Texting from my computer is just too damn convenient.

I’m not the only nerd to write an entire article about why we need this. M.G. Siegler, Medium’s personal tech columnist, wrote a great article called The ‘iPhone Mini’ Revisited going over why Apple would profit from such a product decision. It would simplify their product lineup, make their offerings very clear and understandable to consumers, and simplify the mess of acronyms and product differentiation littering the smartphone market, for starters.

Even with all those benefits, though, there’s one clear reason Apple will not make a new small iPhone, and that’s because people with smaller phones use their phones less. Apple used to be a hardware provider and therefore screen-time agnostic, but as Apple moves into services, they’re incentivized to make products that trick us into spending more time on our devices just like the rest of the tech companies. The very fact which makes a small screen appealing to me, the fact that it’s less pleasing to use and less easy to get lost in, is what makes it economically disadvantageous to any company making its money from user screen time.

Apple could do it as a marketing shtick if they wanted to. They already service the iPad Mini product line, having updated it to the iPad Mini 5 just last year (to which I upgraded from a Mini 4 immediately), so it’s not like they can’t support a niche offering. The iPhone Mini could be a digital wellness marketing play and a downmarket offering just like the iPhone SE was. The only danger for them there — and this is a real danger — is that it may cannibalize their “proper” iPhone sales. Every person who would purchase an iPhone Mini is more than likely someone like me, someone who would have purchased a 6-inch iPhone instead.

All in all, while you can come up with reasons it’s a good idea, it likely just wouldn’t be of enormous benefit to Apple’s bottom line.

I’m happy for their bottom line, but what’s good for people isn’t always good for the bottom line.4 It’s good for their bottom line to suck us into our devices as much as possible and trap us in a treadmill of working hard at our jobs only to turn right around after work and give them all our money in exchange for their devices and services, but it isn’t good for us. We know it’s bad for us, but we’re not paragons of willpower, we’re cognitively biased habit-based biological creatures whose environments have far more power over us than we ever want to admit. And when billion-dollar corporations band together to strip us of our free time and our willpower, there’s only so much we can do to stop them.

I’m a great example of this. I’ve deleted my social media, most of my apps, switched to encrypted cloud services, installed all kinds of privacy-oriented tools on my computer, made my phone black and white, and watch my screen time like a hawk, and still I spend an hour and a half per week texting. In the course of writing this article I had to do research, and every time I tabbed over to my browser to do so I got distracted for twenty minutes by some barely-related article that popped up in a sidebar. As users, we’re constantly fending off companies large and small that want to feed on our attention like vultures.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the Amazon Kindle. People who buy Kindles buy them because they want undistracted long-form reading with the convenience of having your entire library in your pocket. But when you buy a Kindle, they come with ads, which you have to pay an additional $20 to remove. Talk about opportunistic.

Maybe this is a little utopian of me, but we shouldn’t have to do this. We should be able to purchase tools and use them for their intended purpose without constantly fending off ads.

This is already how it works in most of the world. When I go to Lowes to buy a table saw, I purchase said table saw with the expectation it won’t audibly prompt me every hour to go back to Lowes and also buy a hand planer. If it did, I’d probably rip a Lowes sales associate a new one.5 But for some reason, when tech companies do this, we all just… accept it. Like dealing with ads, privacy violations, and attention-sucking vampirism is a natural part of purchasing a tech tool.

What can be done about this?

I don’t know. We could, as consumers, all band together and do things like #deletefacebook and turn our phone screens black and white and create market conditions such that it would be profitable for tech companies to create products that are good for us. We could call in the government and have them do some gut-busting regulating. I’m not sure how likely either of these things are, and I’m not sure if they would even really solve the problem or not. I would love it if Apple, for starters, just made a smaller iPhone.

  1. This isn’t what this article is about, but I can’t help but notice that perhaps this has something to do with feminism. It is quite curious that phones stopped growing when iPhones grew too large for the hands of the male designers, not the hands of its female users.
  2. At one point, it was under 5 hours a week — a high score I’ll now forever be striving to beat.
  3. My screen time use is slightly above one hour a day, but much of that use is setting up Google Maps or iTunes in my car, so my phone-in-hand time is under an hour.
  4. Actually, no, I’m not, because the billions of dollars in cash reserves they have could be put to far better use than just sitting around waiting to be used by Apple…
  5. A totally blameless sales associate, by the way, since it wouldn’t be their fault some department head seven levels above them made a shitty product decision.