It used to be so simple. Steve Jobs would take the stage and tell us all exactly what it is that we'll desire and buy over the coming months. Choice was an unnecessary evil. There was just one iPad, one iPhone, and fewer customization options across the entire Mac line than you'd find on a single Dell PC order page. In one of his more humorous presentations, the Apple chief even poked fun at Microsoft's tiered Windows pricing by detailing five "different" versions of Mac OS X Leopard, each one costing $129. "Seriously, we have one version of Leopard, it's got everything in it," said Jobs, "and we hope you love it as much as we do." But now things are different.
Pay a visit to Apple's online store today and you'll find four distinct iPhone options to choose from. There are the brand new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus — measuring 4.7 and 5.5 inches, respectively — and there are the 4-inch iPhone 5S and 5C models, distinguishable by the quality of their materials and some internal specs like Touch ID. Factor in the full array of color and storage options, and picking your iPhone becomes a choice from no fewer than 29 different variants.
Going further up in size, the 7.9-inch iPad mini bridges the gap between Apple's smartphones and classic 9.7-inch iPad tablet. But even there you'll find segmentation: there are mini iPads both with and without Retina displays, and there's an extra-lean iPad Air option for those willing to spend more for a thinner device.
From the Apple Watch to the iPad, Apple's mobile portfolio has never been broader
Throw in the 4-inch iPod touch, the 2.5-inch iPod nano, and the freshly announced Apple Watch — which has two sizes: 1.5 and 1.65 inches — and you've got Apple's widest range of mobile screen sizes to date. This more varied product portfolio is bringing the Cupertino company closer to the practices of its most direct competitor, Samsung, which has a reputation for unthinkingly spamming out devices in every size and shape.
Though it may seem ill-considered, Samsung's machine-gun approach with new devices has proven successful. One of its more daring moves came in 2011 when it introduced the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note — a device that was well built and specced, but didn't seem to have a real reason for existing since the space between phones and tablets seemed too small to need filling. Since that point, every newer generation of the Note has sold better than the preceding one, and each year has seen sales exceeding 10 million units.
Apple hasn't been deaf to the customer demand for phablet-sized devices and has clearly learned to embrace choice. The American company may still have its own beliefs about the ideal phone and tablet size, but like its Korean nemesis, it's decided to try and sate user demand rather than steer it the way it used to. The Apple Watch is an entirely new product from Apple, but it already has two different size options, three choices of case materials, and a broad set of matching straps and watch faces to allow for customization. It's no accident that Tim Cook describes the Watch as "the most personal device" Apple has ever built.
While Apple has always celebrated the personal in personal electronics, its products have historically been antithetical to the act of personalization. You could put a fun decal on your MacBook or accessorrize your Mac Pro with a nice display, but that was about it. Today's announcements from Apple show it is much more willing to dance to the tune of its customers — both present and potential — and to give them greater choice.
Market share statistics will tell you that the 4-inch iPhone 5S, even while being dwarfed by its Android and Windows Phone competitors, has maintained its growth in sales and popularity. There's no immediate pressure on Apple to keep up with the race for bigger screen sizes, however the company has recognized that's where user preferences are heading and is acting before it's forced to. The same is true of the Apple Watch, which will enter a still-developing smartwatch market at the beginning of next year.
The months of development work still remaining on the Watch are likely just the tip of the iceberg of a years-long project to bring a wearable Apple computer to life. Similarly, today's expansion in screen size options is the product of a gradual shift in the company's approach. As iPhones and iPads become more commoditized — and less distinguishable from their competition — Apple is having to rethink its old ethos of delivering one ideal device for everyone. On the evidence of today's new iPhones and Apple Watch, the Apple of the future looks like it will be more responsive to what users want than prescriptive about what they need.