Initial iPhone growth was in leaps and bounds. Adding lower up-front prices via carrier subsidies, adding international carriers, adding Verizon and additional U.S. carriers, experimenting with pop-art colours and packaging, adding China Mobile, and adding larger display sizes.
Now that the iPhone is one of the most popular products on earth, growth is a matter of steps. Adding payment plans — essentially low-cost leasing — helps make the flagship iPhones as affordable as possible. Adding a smaller iPhone helps expand addressable markets.
The demand for diminution
Apple sells iPhones to people who are buying their first phone or smartphone, to people who are upgrading from a previous iPhone, and to people who are switching from a non-iPhone smartphone (mostly Android phones).
If low price is the most important feature to a new buyer — if all they're looking for is the modern equivalent of a free-on-contract feature phone — then they're probably not going with Apple, at least not for their first smartphone. If ease-of-use is a primary concern, though, then iPhone is hugely attractive, including the entry-level models. (Which are typically older hardware running current software.)
Upgrades are driven by new features, like better cameras and more desirable display sizes. Conversely, the lack of a feature — including a desirable display size — can postpone an upgrade.
Incredibly compelling features can also drive switching, as can sharp pain or prolonged frustration experienced by those contemplating a switch. Lack of timely updates, security concerns, and the absence of smaller display sizes could all cause a switch.
Enter the iPhone 5se.
The current iPhone Plus models all cost $100 more than the regular models. Bigger meaning more expensive is easy for consumers to understand, but comes with the equal and opposite perception of smaller meaning less expensive.
So, if you're going to make a smaller iPhone and people are going to expect it to cost $100 less that the regular iPhone, unless you want to work really hard to change those expectations, how do you do it?
Previously, Apple kept the older generation models around and dropped their price by $100. That let the iPhones 5 occupy the entry-level slot for the last couple of years, including the iPhone 5s as of September 2015.
Following that pattern, though, the iPhone 5s would drop off this year, in 2016, and the iPhone 6 would take its place. That would be a feature improvement but it would leave Apple without a smaller, more highly differentiated phone in the lineup.
Again, enter the iPhone 5se.
... Is newish again
Instead of price-dropping the iPhone 6 or coming up with a variant of that platform, like an iPhone 6c, Apple would simply update the iPhone 5s. Depending on how much differentiation and margin Apple wanted to maintain, the company could go with an A8 "Typhoon" processor like the iPhone 6 or an A9 "Twister" processor like the iPhone 6s.
Given the relatively low pixel count on a 4-inch iPhone, performance and power-efficiency likely wouldn't suffer much, even on the older platform. (The most observable customer-facing difference would be the always-listening "Hey, Siri!" enabled by the integrated coprocessor on the A9.) Likewise memory and camera components could keep costs down, even if an iPhone 5se does include some splurging on design and the addition of NFC for Apple Pay.
The rumored release date of the rumored device — this March instead of the traditional September — would then have several benefits:
- It would bifurcate iPhone launches. So, instead of a massive September spike and then a slow drop off for the rest of the year, there'd be something of interest in March as well.
- It would get a newer 4-inch device out sooner. That could prompt upgrades during what's traditionally been the slower mid-cycle period for iPhone.
- It would clear the September event, allowing Apple to focus on the iPhone 7 story without any complications or distractions.
- It would help the 4-inch iPhone seem fresher, since its specs would be compared to the previous flagship rather than the next one.
It's a growth step rather than a leap, and it doesn't serve those who want a 4-inch iPhone flagship. At the bleeding edge, though, smaller isn't cheaper. It's often more expensive.
iPhone 5se bottom line
If updating the 4-inch iPhone size gets even a small percentage of the market to upgrade or cross-grade, that's a large amount of sales at iPhone scale.
If it gets a significant percentage, then it's huge.
If you've been waiting for a smaller, perhaps less-expensive iPhone with more modern specs, would an iPhone 5se interest you?