Every year it's the same rumour: "the new iPhone will have a 16:9 display". It even circulated before the first iPhone came out. And it happens with the iPad too. This year isn't different. But does it make sense? Would the next iPhone really have a 16:9 screen?
What are the benefits?
This is the main question you should ask yourself. What good would a 16:9 screen bring to you, the user?
First, proponents of the 16:9 iPhone say that this is the "format of the future". It's the resolution of HD video, be it 720p or 1080p. TV shows are filmed in 16:9 format. Home video is filmed in 16:9 format. They claim that people want to see all this video without letterboxing — that people hate black bars on the top and bottom of their displays. They argue that a 16:9 format will allow the iPhone to use the whole screen when watching video of this kind.
But while a 16:9 screen would fit this content perfectly, it would also push that "problem" elsewhere. It will actually make it even bigger. There are tens of thousands of movies and videos filmed in other formats (both 4:3 and all kinds of panoramic aspect ratio). More importantly, there are hundreds of thousands of apps and video games that are not designed for 16:9. Even if scaled, that will bring letterboxing to a much broader range of content.
Advocates of a 16:9 iPhone also argue that a larger screen would also allow for more pixels and more information. This is true. But you don't need a 16:9 proportion to get more pixels; you can have a 4-inch screen with more pixels that is still 3:2.
What are the drawbacks?
The only thing that would make sense for a 16:9 display is a 1280x720 resolution, to match the standard 720p. Keeping the current 3.5-inch format, the resulting display density would be completely impossible to achieve with current technology. Pushing it to four inches, as some of the rumours say, would also result in an insane pixel-per-inch count: 367ppi. No other phone gets anywhere near there. There are 720p Androids out there, but they are 4.3-inch skateboards.
But let's keep on going with this scenario and assume Apple's suppliers can secretly produce a 367ppi, 4-inch 720p 16:9 display by shredding virgin unicorn ponies and compressing them inside their secret artificial black hole. What will be the cost in terms of battery life? As with the iPad, the impact of this display in the battery life of the iPhone would be monumental, thanks to the increase in graphic power demands, pixel activation and backlighting.
Would you be happy to switch black bars in TV series for less battery life or a thicker, heavier iPhone? I'm sure Apple wouldn't like to make that trade-off.
That new screen format would also introduce fragmentation into a platform that doesn't have any right now. Zero. None. One iPhone format to rule them all will suddenly be divided and Apple will suddenly lose one of its key advantages over Android.
Developers would have to rework all of their apps to work in both the new 16:9 phone and the huge installed base. There are gazillion units of iPhones 3G, 3GS, 4 and 4S out there. And their owners all keep buying new apps. A sudden change in aspect ratio will double developer costs for years to come. And, like I said before, letterboxing old apps is not a good option. They will look like crap and defeat the whole purpose.
So, for years to come, developers would have to maintain two user interface layouts, greatly increasing their costs. This is not like creating new higher-resolution art to accomodate the increased density of the retina display. That's easy. Making new layouts for all current and future applications, however, would be much more dramatic.
The iPad conflict
The iPad and the iPhone have different aspect ratios now: 4:3 vs 3:2. That's not much of a problem, as the iPad apps have completely different layouts. It's also not a big difference. Games, which are the apps that are more similar between platforms — are easily adaptable for both aspect ratios.
But if the iPhone goes 16:9 for the sake of adopting the 720p standard, it would make sense for the iPad to go 16:9 — or somewhere near that — too. If you adopt one logic to one product, you may as well adopt it for the other.
The problem is that a 16:9 iPad would be absolutely ridiculous.
Steve's golden goose
That's an idea that was repeated many times by Steve Jobs. He — and Tim Cook, for that matter — expressed his disgust with the 16:9 format one the iPad and the iPhone, saying that it doesn't make much sense from a design point of view. Except for movies, it's a format that doesn't bring much benefit. And it's actively bad for things like books and magazines.
The iPhone and the iPad, as Jobs said, happened after many years of brainstorming, planning and development. At the time, they truly believed they had found the magic formula. The market agreed and still agrees. Despite the variety of formats in the Android platform, despite the fact that big-screen smartphones have found an audience, iOS keeps selling more and more, its sales increasing at a staggering rate. Even after so many years in the market, Apple's formula keeps winning.
Why change it?
A sign of a new Apple?
I can't really think of a solid reason for such a change. The benefits of a 16:9 iPhone are little. The drawbacks for users and developers are many. So I can only only see two scenarios for this happening.
The first: Tim Cook sold the soul of all Apple employees to satan in order to obtain a magic phone that defeats the limits of existing technology plus artificial intelligence to reformat all apps on the fly. That way, Apple will maintain the values that made the iPhone such a big success in the marketplace.
The second: Tim Cook and his cronies just went crazy. Maybe, in a misguided display of independence and change over the previous regime, Cook would make this drastic change, one that could kill its golden goose in the name of a feature that nobody is really demanding, neither consumers nor developers. For what? For escaping Jobs's shadow? Does anyone want to escape Jobs's shadow? If anything, I would imagine they are conducting ouija sessions in order to get advice from him from wherever his soul is now.
I don't think Tim Cook is that kind of man. He is not crazy. And he wants to keep making easy money.