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iPhone SE: The Long-Term Outlook

I’ve been complaining since the introduction of the iPhone 6 that I am no fan of the larger iPhone trend. I truly disliked my 6 when I owned one, and I wasn’t shy about saying it. I dislike my 6s Plus considerably less (if you’re going to go big, just go big), but I’d still much rather go back to a 4-inch screen.

I’ve been so vocal about my disdain for the current crop of flagship iPhones, in fact, that pretty much every one of my friends has assumed that I’ve already ordered my SE. But here’s the thing: I haven’t.

The SE packs all of the most important functionality of the 6s into a smaller shell. There are a few tradeoffs, of course, but all of them are acceptable to me. It almost seems as if Apple designed the SE just for me. But it’s not that simple.

For one thing, I just got myself into a contract last September via the iPhone Upgrade Program for the 6s Plus. (I recognize that this is was my choice, by the way, so I’m not blaming anyone but myself.) To buy out the remainder of my contract on the 6s Plus and get myself an SE, I’d be out around $900[1]. That’s a lot of money to get myself a smaller phone.

Things don’t get better in September, either, as I reach my 1-year milestone with the 6s Plus. The iPhone Upgrade Program does allow me to upgrade after only one year, but the program doesn’t include the SE. So while I can trade up to the iPhone 7 (or whatever Apple calls the new phones at that time) I can’t trade down to the SE. I’ll be in the same boat. Wait another year, or buy out the remaining contract. It’ll cost less at that time, but it’s still a pretty high price to go back to 4 inches for those of us who were too impatient to wait last September.[2]

And if I wait out the full 18 months for my iPhone 6s Plus to be completely contract free, will I still want an SE at that time?

Well, a lot depends on what Apple’s future plans are with the SE.

Greg Joswiak mentioned during the introduction of the SE that there were two groups of people the SE is meant to address: 1) people who just want smaller phones, and 2) people who were buying their first iPhone. The way I see it, these two groups of people overlap a bit, but there are also plenty of people who belong to one group but not the other.

The SE is trying to serve two masters, in other words. And it does a much better job of meeting the needs of those first-time buyers than it does of the smaller phone lovers. At least in the long term.

So what happens six months from now? A year from now? 18 months from now? The answers to these questions would be helpful for someone like me to make an informed decision whether or not to invest in an SE. But we can’t answer any of those questions given our current information. We can, however, venture a few guesses, as long as we’re careful to re-evaluate as we get new information.

Six Months from Now

Apple will release some new flagship iPhone this fall. Call it the iPhone 7 for now. (I’m hoping Apple drops the number in the name, but we don’t know that at the moment.) The question is whether or not there will be a 4-inch variant of this new flagship phone. A 4-inch iPhone 7 would mean that Apple is serious about serving those who want smaller phones, and the SE is simply a stop gap on the low end to serve more budget-conscious customers. This is my dream scenario, but I think the chances of it happening are slim. Even if it were to happen, that would be an argument against buying the SE now, since I’d want to change phones again in just a few months.

A Year from Now

Maybe Apple will release an update next March to the SE to keep it up to date with the internals of the iPhone 7. A new processor, maybe the faster TouchID, and so on. But what would this phone look like? Would it still be in the 5s shell? I love the 5s design, but isn’t that case going to get a bit limiting eventually?

Ben Thompson has rightly pointed out that part of the problem with the iPhone 5c was that it marked the buyer as having bought the “budget phone”. The SE eliminates this issue by looking like a former top-of-the-line phone. It’s cooler, after all, to be driving a five-year old BMW than a brand new Toyota. But in tech, that only gets you so far. Old is old. You’re going to look behind the times carrying around a phone that appears several years old, even in Brooklyn. More importantly, being tied to that form factor is going to limit Apple’s ability to add newer technologies, such as 3D Touch and whatever else is coming after. Apple is torn between adding features and keeping their margins with this device. The 5s shell simply can’t be Apple’s 4-inch offering forever. So the SE can’t be a long-term product.

What does Apple do, then? They don’t have a newer form factor of a 4-inch device. If they design a new one, they lose all the tooling and manufacturing benefits of putting new innards in an old body. They might as well just make a 4-inch variant of the flagship. So let us consider this update scenario unlikely as well.

Like it or not, putting the SE in a 5s shell is a signal from Apple that this phone is more about grabbing the low-end customer than it is about making smaller screens.

More likely, then, the SE will not be changed a year from now, and Apple will continue selling it as it is today. Which means 4-inch phone lovers who want the latest features are stuck with no upgrade path for at least 18 months from today’s SE, which is already six months behind the 6s.

Eighteen Months from Now

Apple will introduce the iPhone 7s (or whatever they end up calling it) in the fall of 2017. It would normally be an “s” year, so if they follow the usual pattern a new form factor is unlikely. Which means if there were no 4-inch variant in 2016, there will likely be none in 2017, either. New rumors are suggesting that Apple will break with tradition, however, and make a major shift in 2017, but even those rumors mention nothing of a smaller, 4-inch screen. They talk instead of an even larger 5.8-inch screen.

SE owners will likely be stuck then for at least another 6 months with nothing to buy. Their phones will be feeling rather crusty at that point. All the new shiny features of two generations of iPhone will still be unavailable to people who love the 4-inch form factor.

Two Years and Beyond

Nothing really changes in the math two years from now. Apple might update the SE with some new innards, but the case will still have to be a 5s, which will be getting really long in the tooth by then. The tradeoffs for wanting a smaller phone will increase. And even that update is somewhat unlikely, because six months later, the iPhone 8 will be arriving. And this is where I believe it may finally get interesting.

You’ve likely heard the rumors by now of the edge-to-edge iPhone: imagine an iPhone 6 that has a true edge-to-edge screen on all sides. No chin, no forehead, even less space on the sides. Just screen right up to all four corners. At that point, the device would be smaller overall, if maybe just a little wider, than the surface area of an iPhone SE. The screen might not be exactly 4.7 inches, but I can at least imagine a phone with a true edge-to-edge screen satisfying people who currently like the 4.7-inch 6s and those who prefer 4-inch phones. The Plus size would remain for those who want the giant screen experience, but an edge-to-edge screen would eliminate the need for a third size altogether.[3]

I believe this is Apple’s long-term play for people like me who want smaller phones. Rather than making a flagship 4-inch phone, they will shrink the body of the 4.7-inch phone enough to satisfy everyone. It’s just a shame it’s going to take so long.

No matter what, I’m likely looking at 2 and-a-half years before I get a flagship phone from Apple that I’ll actually like. That leaves me in a tough spot in the interim. I could spend the $900 now and just live with an SE for 30 months, or I could continue to buy Plus sized phones for a few more years and deal with not loving the size. The SE would certainly cost me less in the long run. But I still make my living building apps and services in this ecosystem. Not having access to the latest features would put me at a disadvantage to understanding many of my customers. And not taking advantage of Apple’s latest technologies is a lost opportunity for making my products as good as they could be.

Not to mention, I just like having an up-to-date phone. The SE would serve me well for a brief while, but I believe in the long run I’d be left going back to the larger size at some point in the middle just to get newer features.

I wanted a smaller phone. Not a budget phone. If I were still using a 5s or even my 6 from last year, I would make the jump. If the SE were part of the iPhone Upgrade Program, I’d probably get it this fall. The SE is a great solution for a lot of people. It’s just not for me at the moment.

I’ll re-evaluate my decision this September, when we find out if the first of my many guesses ends up being accurate. Meanwhile, I’m reluctantly sticking with my 6s Plus. The SE is awesome, but I don’t think Apple had me in mind when they designed it.

  1. $750 remains on my contract. If I were to sell the phone after that, I’d likely only get around $380 for it. (Check Gazelle, if you don’t believe me. The 6s Plus has an absolutely lousy resale value for an Apple product.) Then I’d have to buy the SE outright at $500 (for the 64 GB model). Add tax, and we’re over $900. The alternative is to pay $49 for the SE and saddle myself for another 2 years on Verizon, but I’m not willing to do that, either. The whole point of the iPhone Upgrade Program is to get away from carrier obligations.  ↩
  2. In my defense, exactly no one expected Apple to release the SE when I bought my 6s Plus last fall. When I suggested that Apple might make a 4-inch phone again someday, I was laughed out of the room on several occasions. If I had known the SE were coming this spring, I would have at least considered not getting the 6s Plus. And even when rumors started about the SE, I imagine most people assumed the SE would be included as part of the Upgrade Program. But it isn’t.  ↩
  3. I’d love to see this happen sooner than 2018, but most of what I’ve read suggests that it’s at least that far out. I have no doubt Apple is working to make it happen, though. Maybe this is part of the new 2017 OLED all-glass rumors, but I’m not getting my hopes up. More likely, the 2017 phone will merely be a step in that direction.  ↩