There is an iPhone you forgot about. We’re not talking about an Apple Store special menu item only available if you turn up with a special handshake and a Tim Cook baseball cap. We’re talking about the iPhone SE.
This phone was released in March 2016. It took the 2013 iPhone 5S’s design, smaller size, and plugged into it what were, at the time, current components.
There’s talk Apple will update the series with an iPhone SE 2 this year, possibly as early as WWDC 2018. Those who agonise about whether to buy an iPhone X or iPhone 8 Plus may not understand the series’s continued existence. Why is Apple maintaining a range that has become a phantom?
However, it makes sense from a number of perspectives…
First, we need to consider who the iPhone SE is for. It’s the one iPhone that can be bought new at what, at a stretch, may be considered an affordable price. John Lewis currently sells the iPhone SE for £279. Apple charges £349. This is half the cost of an iPhone 8. It also has a tiny 4-inch screen.
The tech press was littered with stories of journalists switching to the small-screen life with an iPhone SE at its launch, but many of those are likely to be among the people who have forgotten the phone exists. According to a 2016 report by Slice Intelligence, 48.7 per cent of early iPhone SE buyers had not purchased a phone in the previous 24 months. Real-world iPhone SE buyers are not all tech hounds who follow new releases, or track the months until their next available handset upgrade.
By that metric, original buyers may be thinking of upgrading around now. And according to IHS Markit, that audience is not tiny. It reported 9.8 per cent of all iPhone sales in 2016 were iPhone SEs. (Apple doesn’t release broken down sales figures of its devices).
This is peculiar to Apple, a company that controls both the hardware and software of its ecosystem. A maker of budget Androids cannot guarantee its phones will feel good in two years, with updated software and core apps. Apple can.
There’s more to appearing “current” than just making sure a phone does not run poorly. The iPhone SE needs to be updated. In 2018, almost all Android phone manufacturers switched to an 18:9 screen design for all but their sub-£100 phones. It’s not a gimmick. It is a change in the design language of mobiles. Place a 16:9 phone like the iPhone SE next to an 18:9 one and it appears dated. A longer screen aspect allows a larger screen-to-surface ratio, changing its visual impact.
Apple has made such a ratio change before, too. Look at a 2011 iPhone 4S and its 3:2 ratio appears archaic. It is this above anything else that makes the design look old. All 16:9 phones will soon look old.
Early, presumably fake, renders of an iPhone SE 2 show the phone with an extremely high display-to-surface ratio and an iPhone X-like notch. But a notch is by no means a prerequisite for a change in screen ratio. As a lower-cost model it may simply have a slimmer surround that holds the front camera and earpiece speaker.
This raises an issue for the wider iPhone range, though. In the future how long can Apple sell the 16:9 iPhone 8 and iPhone 7 as legacy models, as it currently does with the 7 and 6S, if they are shown up by the iPhone SE 2? The iPhone 8 design was already somewhat dated at its launch.
Apple’s iPhone range is in danger of becoming a mess. A, perhaps unlikely, clean-up or full refresh would not just be beneficial for us consumers, but Apple’s software engineers, too.
Two iPhones that use the Apple A9 chipset are currently sold at the Apple Store, the iPhone 6S and iPhone SE. Apple is renowned for its long software support. Simply by selling them, it is informally guaranteeing iOS support for this 2015 chipset for years to come.
Apple traditionally supports its lead iPhones for five years from their initial release. The iPhone 6S has two years left, and as the iPhone SE has the same core hardware, its support is certain to be discontinued at the same time.
It is time for Apple to stop selling the iPhone SE, as a phone that may only have two years of iOS updates left. The astute will point out the still-available iPad Mini 4 has the even older Apple A8 CPU, but we still find that baffling. Its chipset is almost four years old.
Ranging products for too long will either tether iOS development or diminish Apple’s reputation for reliable longevity and performance. And that is already under threat after it was revealed the performance of older iPhones is throttled based on battery health. iOS 11 now lets you disable this.
The iPhone SE 2 also offers Apple an interesting new angle, one Google will explore in its next version of Android. Android P has “digital wellbeing” features designed to address the mental health problems associated with obsessive smartphone use. Newsflash: spending every spare moment poring over Facebook and Twitter probably isn’t making you happy.
The next Android will let you turn the phone display greyscale at night to remind you not to use it too much. It’ll nudge you if you spend too much time watching YouTube videos, and in the software’s settings menu you can monitor how you use your phone, to see exactly how your life is being wasted.
Apple arguably bears less responsibility in this area than Google. Its attempt at a social network, Ping, was a failure. iTunes video does not have a binge-happy subscription service. And no-one seems to be suggesting Apple Music streaming is making us depressed, yet.
However, a revitalised small iPhone SE could successfully be marketed at a younger audience interested in reducing their smartphone dependency. This is one reason we might see an iPhone SE 2 at WWDC 2018, which has been strongly rumoured. If Apple adds similar features to iOS 12, set to be detailed at the conference, they could be a perfect fit for the smaller-screen phone.