When More is Less: China’s Perception of the iPhone X “Notch”

I recently saw a Forbes article citing rumors that the iPhone X is being cancelled this summer. Assuming the article is correct, it claims that a “lack of interest in China” is the main reason for the relatively early cancellation of production. They’re hoping that 6.1″ and 6.5″ versions of their phone with a less pronounced Face ID notch would excite Chinese customers.

The notion of a “less pronounced” Face ID notch is what got me — Apple embracing the notch as iconic, and worth carrying forward to future models, rather than simply making the top bezel a bit larger and eliminating the notch altogether. Historically, Apple has taken a “less is more” strategy, meticulously eliminating even the tiniest design facets: replacing radii with splines, polishing off injection mold parting lines, even eliminating the headphone jack. Putting a notch on the iPhone feels a bit like watching a woman painstakingly apply face whitening cream day after day to remove tiny blemishes, and then don a red clown nose.

Like the red clown nose, the problem with pushing the notch is that anyone can put one on, should they decide it’s a feature they want to copy. Xobs recently showed me an app on his Xiaomi Mix 2 that does exactly that. Below is what his Xiaomi Mix 2 looks like normally.

It’s got a screen that goes right up to the top bezel, without a notch.

Interestingly, there’s an app you can run called “X out of 10” that simply draws in the notch (including subtle details like a simulated camera lens). Here’s the app in the off state:

And now in the on state:

Once activated and given permission to draw over other apps, Xiaomi Mix 2 users can don the red clown nose and experience the full glory of the iconic Apple notch all the time:

This glass-half-empty situation is a parable for design leadership versus market perception: if a market previously lacked a smartphone with a minimal top bezel, the notch is perceived as “How innovative! I’ve got extra pixels to the left and right of my earpiece/camera assembly!”. But once a market has seen a smartphone with minimal top bezel, the notch turns into “Hey where did my pixels go? What’s this notch doing here?”. It’s a case where the additional design feature is seen as a loss of function, not a gain.

Thus it will be interesting to see if Apple’s bet to introduce a phone with a larger screen that can compete head to head in China against the likes of the Xiaomi Mix 2’s 6″ screen will pay out, especially if Apple retains the notch.

Of course, as the design space for phones becomes more and more crowded, Apple’s room to maneuver becomes increasingly limited. The minimalist design space is winner-takes-all: the first company to elegantly remove a design facet wins the minimalism race, and now that Xiaomi has planted a flag in the bezel-less top space, it may be that Apple has no option but to sport the top-notch, or run the risk of being seen as copying a Chinese company’s design language.

Edit (added Feb 12, 17:43 SGT):

Several comments have been made about the iPhone X still having a greater amount of screen real estate than the Xiaomi Mix 2.

To clarify, the key point of the article isn’t about comparing active area. It’s about running out of options to place a sensor cluster, because the smartphone design space has gotten a lot more competitive. To spell it out explicitly, there are three main ways this can play out:

    1) Apple can’t hide a camera underneath the display, and so there always has to be a “dark area” that’s an affordance for the camera (and more significantly, the multitude of sensors that comprise FaceID).
    2) Apple (or perhaps someone else!) figures out how to hide a camera under the display and creates a true bezel-to-bezel phone.
    3) Apple convinces us all that the notch is truly iconic and it’s hailed as one of the greatest design innovations of this decade (hey, they did it for the headphone jack…).

In the case of 1 (Apple can’t hide the sensor cluster), these are their options:

    (a) Continue to push the top notch as iconic – status quo
    (b) Lose the notch by increasing top bezel area for sensor cluster — that’s “taking a step backward” – so not really an option
    (c) Move sensor cluster to the bottom, with no notch. This is copying the Xiaomi Mix 2 almost exactly – so not an option
    (d) Continue to push the notch as iconic, but put it on the bottom. Risks the top-half of the phone looking too much like a Xiaomi Mix 2 – so probably not an option

So in the race for minimalism, because Xiaomi has “claimed” the minimal bezel top-half design space, Apple has far fewer options for backing out of the notch, should it be perceived by the market as a loss of real estate, rather than a gain. But this is the world Apple has created for themselves, by patenting and litigating over the rounded rectangle as a phone design.

In the case of 2 (Apple figures out how to hide all the sensors), Apple can really win the minimalist design space if they can do it without reducing functionality. However, if they could have done this, I think they would have done it for the X. They certainly have the cash to throw the equivalent budget of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket program into eliminating that notch. Indeed, perhaps in a year or two Apple will come out with some crazy fiber optic wave guide assembly with holographic lenses to wrap light around the bezel into a sensor assembly stashed in the body of the phone. I wouldn’t put it beyond them.

But until then, it seems Apple is looking at option (1) for the next generation at least, and the point of this article is that the competition has robbed Apple of at least two options elegantly to back out of the notch and create a phone with greater appeal to markets like China.

13 Responses to “When More is Less: China’s Perception of the iPhone X “Notch””

  1. baffling says:

    It’s not clear what point you’re making here given that the phone in the pictures has a large bottom bezel, approximately the same height as the notch, but obscuring more of the screen. I don’t really understand this article at all, to be honest.

    • baffling says:

      Oh, okay. Your point makes somewhat more sense with the update, but it’s predicated on one sketchy report about China sales which was made before their earnings report came out, which didn’t show any signs of a rejection by China. The concept that Chinese people particularly don’t like screen notches and prefer fat bezels on the bottom of the display seems like poorly supported speculation.

  2. Hubert says:

    Oferty pracy it dla specjalistów z całej Polski

  3. aki009 says:

    Bunnie, can you turn the Xiaomi phone upside down so the black bar is on top, and then do a comparison between the two?

    I don’t particularly care for the X, but it’s a bit cheap to fall for a marketing gimmick that seems to ignore the fact that the X has a higher percentage of the frontal area dedicated to the screen than the Mix2.

  4. I hear Apple is going to bring all its iphone manufacturing to the US.

    • aki009 says:

      I doubt it. But they might bring in “high end” devices like the X to reduce the “leaking” of know-how to the competition.

      • bob says:

        If they bring manufacturing to the US, to be remotely competitive, they will need to hire as cheaply as possible so leaking will happen anyway.

        • Henry A. Eckstein says:

          Not necessarily! Steve Jobs (one of the founders of Apple!) originally left Apple (i.e. was actually fired!) in 1985 to start a new computer company called NEXT which made their high end workstations in the USA in a FULLY AUTOMATED factory that literally had NO PEOPLE in it…just the quality assurance people and shippers!

          And Tim Cook being an EXPERT in procurement and logistics, has no problem with understanding HOW to make a fully automated lights-out factory in America which would protect the high end intellectual property of Apple.

          I suspect that Apple is in fact going to design and build a NEW factory probably in the Las Vegas area which is near a major Airport and rail system AND which has LOTS of cheap land in the outskirts! This factory will PROBABLY have no humans in it as it will be full of high end auto-chip placers and motherboard assembly, vast pools of wave-base single-pass motherboard soldering gear, machine vision for Quality Control and probably even automated shipping and receiving lines.

          I suspect that that the new factory will make the new high end 13 inch and 18 inch pro-level tablets, new pro-level Mac Pro towers systems and the ultra high end iPhones that would have the new multi-zoom sapphire lenses (from Zeiss?) and the larger “Half-Inch” full 6k resolution (6144 by 4096 pixels) sensor (probably a Sony) with 10-bits or 12-bits per colour channel (i.e. HDR video) at 60 fps and possibly up to 120 fps!

          BIG NEWS FROM APPLE:

          I have heard through the grapevine (it’s on here FIRST!) that Apple is TESTING in-the-wild 4K DCI format (4096 by 2160 pixels) VR glasses that use a FIBRE-OPTIC connector for handling the bandwidth. I have ALSO HEARD that the refresh rate on the SINGLE screen face of this 4K VR headset will be a FULL 120 frames per second to prevent dizziness and strobing effects. Sound reproduction is said to be built-in closed earmuff-style noise-cancellation and Apple Beats extended dynamic range technology (12 Hz to 22 KHz at less than 0.02% THD — Those are the quoted specs!). I have been told that the screen will be the first curved OLED system in a VR headseat. If it TRULY IS OLED, then it means Apple is REALLY SERIOUS about HDR video which means image quality will be utterly SUPERB!

          This also means that on newer and larger macbooks, towers, iPads and iPhones, an additional low-profile multi-mode (i.e. plastic) fibre optic cable and connector will be included for high-bandwidth 120 fps 4K VR video.

          Soooooo….You Heard that Here FIRST!

  5. aki009 says:

    (commenting on the edited article)

    Bunnie, I seriously doubt Apple would move sensors to the bottom of the device. It’d be a stupid move, given that the nostrils-up view of people in video chat is definitely not the best way to go.

    Can’t wait to see if they figure out a way to hide the sensors, but given their display pixel density and move to OLED, I kind of doubt it. Plus it would mean permanently fusing yet another major subsystem to the display (OLED, captouch, fingerprint (TBA) and now this); the yields could start to s*ck big time.

  6. Jarek says:

    “(c) Move sensor cluster to the bottom, with no notch. This is copying the Xiaomi Mix 2 almost exactly – so not an option”

    This won’t happen, but not because someone else hasn’t done it first. That’s never stopped Apple from copying a good idea and getting a good amount of press for putting it in the mainstream. But even Apple wouldn’t try to pass off a bottom-bezel selfie camera as suitable for selfie purposes.

  7. olternat says:

    Apple has screwed themselves. They are quickly becoming the new IBM.

  8. denmike says:

    I am never going to understand why they chose that “iconic” notch instead of making the background around the notch black and still showing the icons. Then the notch would essentially be invisible, and people would think that the screen went all the way to the edge.

  9. Kaleberg says:

    Given how many iPhone Xs Apple has been selling, I think they are just fine with the notch until technology comes along that makes it unnecessary. It’s basically the status bar which most apps leave for system status information, so it only affects apps that hide the status bar. (The phones shots with the post show that most phones just use that area for the time and other status information. Apple has just eaten the middle of it.)

    I’m sure Apple is looking at ways to make the notch smaller or putting it behind the screen somehow. I seriously doubt they are even thinking of moving the camera to the base. They go through so much trouble to get good portrait shots. As others have noted, they don’t want a nostril-cam.

    What I find interesting is that there are phones with a fake notch. The notch is now a status symbol. It’s like those 17th century fake pocket watches that people wore when they wanted the status, but could not afford an actual pocket watch.

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