Smartphones have been getting bigger for a long time. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 has a 5.8-inch display. iPhones have been swelling steadily from their original 4-inch screens. Back in 2014, when Apple announced the iPhone 6 with its larger 4.7-inch screen, my colleague Robinson Meyer wondered how people with smaller or even normal-sized hands, especially women, might be able to hold these massive objects. “These are huge devices,” Meyer wrote, “and they will require big hands.” Now they seem comparatively modest.
I still use one of those 4.7-inch models, and it feels too big to use comfortably. And that’s as a man with normal-sized (not small!) hands. If I hold the device in my palm, I can’t easily reach its opposite corner with my thumb. At one point, I became concerned that I was contracting a repetitive-stress injury from reaching across my device so much. It’s not as if Apple didn’t know this was happening. The company even installed a software action, “reachability,” that brought the screen image down for easier tapping. The only reasonable conclusion is that the swelling smartphone represents a deliberate plan.
The iPhone is dead. Long live the rectangle.
For years now, I’ve been proposing metaphors to characterize the various iPhone generations. In the early days, as a gadget, the iPhone was like a toy dog: an accessory that took center stage, that users tended to and doted upon. Soon, the curiosity faded and the device became an obsession, like a cigarette. Eventually, the obsession normalized into ritual, and smartphones worked like a rosary, an amulet through which information flowed. Once the phone started to offer access to all information, it became a generic, blank window, a rectangle through which the entire universe can materialize.
That brings us to today. The next logical step for the rectangle is to enlarge it, so it takes up more of the user’s vision and attention. More search results per page. A bigger digital map. A grander scroll of endless social activity. Who needs an 80-inch television in the den when a 6.5-inch smartphone inches from your face offers a larger effective field of view? Bulky, dorky virtual-reality goggles are unnecessary when infinite alternate universes can be made accessible just by raising a thin, glass rectangle to the face.
The new iPhones are hard to use one-handed because they represent the beginning of the end of one-handed smartphone use. That’s a relic of an era when there were alternatives, when a phone could be tapped or tousled in-between unrelated, external actions. Now, instead, there will be two ways to hold a phone, rather than dozens.
First, in the fist, around its width, in a ready state, as if gripping the hilt of a sword. Even this will be a challenge due to the devices’ wider girth, whitening the knuckles in the process. Get ready to deploy your iPhone, for soon you will need it.