Last year, the iPhone 12 mini flopped—a setback for lovers of small flagship phones designed for one-handed use. But as anyone who has been following Apple for years knows, former CEO Steve Jobs was an advocate for small phones. Now, thanks to an email written by Jobs in 2010, we know that Apple was at one time working on an “iPhone nano.”
This year, Epic Games and Apple have been locked in a legal battle over the future of the iPhone’s app ecosystem. During those legal proceedings, several emails sent within Apple over the years have been made public. Most of the press coverage about these emails so far has focused on various statements by Apple executives decrying sideloading, but we all knew Apple leaders’ feelings about that subject already.
Now, though, we’ve learned something about the company’s one-time product plans in an email first discovered and analyzed this week by The Verge. Jobs wrote and sent the email, which shows an agenda for an executive meeting about Apple’s 2011 product plans, in 2010. Here’s the relevant excerpt, with an explicit reference to an iPhone nano at the end:
3. iPhone – Joz & Bob
– “plus” iPhone 4 with better antenna, processor, camera & software to stay ahead of competitors until mid 2012
– have LTE version in mid-2012
– create low cost iPhone model based on iPod touch to replace 3GS
– Business & competitive update
– show Droid and RIM ads
– Verizon iPhone
– schedule, marketing, …
– iPhone 5 hardware
– H4 performance
– new antenna design, etc
– new camera
– iPhone nano plan
– cost goal
– show model (and/or renderings) – Jony
Apple used the “nano” moniker for an ultra-small variant of the iPod, so those last bullets apparently suggest that the company was planning an iPhone even smaller than that year’s flagship, the 3.5-inch iPhone 4. (It’s unclear whether the “low-cost iPhone model based on iPod touch to replace 3GS” mentioned earlier in the email is the same device as the iPhone nano.) The email also seems to suggest that Apple design lead Jony Ive would show a model or a render of the new device in the meeting.
There were rumors in the press at the time about a potential iPhone nano, so this email seems to confirm those rumors years later. Unfortunately, the email doesn’t include any insight into the design or features of the device.
But the “nano” name makes clear that the phone was expected to be smaller in some dimension or another than the iPhone 4. The iPhone 4 was already minuscule by today’s standards, with Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro flagships now measuring in at 6.06 or 6.68 inches. Even the iPhone 12 mini—the iPhone nano of 2020, you could say—has a 5.42-inch screen. It goes to show how much the smartphone landscape has shifted over the past decade.
Today, there are reliable reports that Apple plans to discontinue the poorly selling iPhone 12 mini, though the lower-end iPhone SE (which is based on the design of the iPhone 8) is likely to stay. The market has spoken: one-handed flagship smartphones are dead. We’re just curious if the iPhone nano was canceled because Jobs saw where the winds were blowing.