In 2020, the company’s second-generation model achieved a major milestone when it received identical 4.5-star reviews from two different Macworld editors (here and here). It was an attractive offer that required little thought or effort: make some concessions to an older design in exchange for top-notch functionality at a rock-bottom price.
The 2020 SE wasn’t for everyone due to its mildly retro styling, but it was highly recommended to those in need of a reasonable vehicle on a tight budget. In the words of my coworker Jason Cross: “Not Apple’s best iPhone, but its best value by a mile.”
The problem, as is so often the case with sequels to successful series, is that the creator failed to remember what initially made the series so appealing. Customers appreciated the affordable price and modern components, and they were willing to settle for a design that was two years old.
By contrast, the 3rd-generation SE was a mixed bag last year, and it really put customers to the test when it stuck with the same design from 2014 (including the same single camera and no night mode) and raised the price by $30. Apple also did not improve upon the most disappointing aspect of the prior model, which was its short battery life. The iPhone SE flubbed its opportunity and missed the mark.
The next opportunity will come along eventually. So, there’s that.
The iPhone SE 4 could correct past mistakes, but all signs point to Apple taking things in the wrong direction. To add intrigue, rumours have it that the next SE will be based on the iPhone 14, which will still be a relatively new device. The iPhone 14 is expected to retail for $699 in 2019, while the iPhone 13 will cost $599 unless Apple drastically changes its iPhone strategy. And the iPhone 13 mini, assuming Apple keeps it around, will slip in at $499.
There won’t be much room for the iPhone SE, so expect a significant price increase. OLED displays are expensive, and Apple’s prices have been rising, especially in markets outside the United States. The value of the obsolete design, if any, will disappear along with it. Perhaps Apple can keep the price of the new model below $500, but it certainly seems more like a $549 phone. That’s too much money for a phone that’s bound to be lacking in some way, much like the 10th-generation iPad.
It’s understandable to wonder why Apple would keep developing the iPhone SE after failing to achieve the same level of cost-effectiveness and power in 2020. The phone’s combination of speed from the state-of-the-art A13 processor, retro style, and reasonable price made it feel like a limited edition.
However, there was a brief window of opportunity when the iPhone SE made sense, after Apple had shifted to all-screen phone designs but before the previous design became offensively dated. Once upon a time, Apple could appeal to those on a tight budget who yearned for a Home button by recycling the chassis it had used before the release of the iPhone X. This shift has been finalised for quite some time, and while all-screen designs have been in high demand, home button-less interfaces have fallen out of favour.
It’s possible that favourable conditions for the SE’s continued success will return in the future. For example, if a folding iPhone is released in the future, a non-folding design might be released as the iPhone SE 7. (The timeline is something about which I have serious doubts.) Yet, that seems like a murkier case.
Phones that don’t fold will remain available alongside folding ones until everyone is satisfied that the latter won’t break in half. There will always be a sizeable demographic that prefers the tried-and-true method of purchasing an iPhone flagship and is prepared to pay full price for the privilege.
The lack of a Dynamic Island could be a simpler example that could be used to differentiate the next generation of SE models (although my own experiences with the iPhone 14 Pro suggest the Dynamic Island has some way to go before it becomes anywhere near as significant an upgrade as the switch from the Home button to the Home indicator in 2017).
Or the iPhone mini’s size and shape, which Apple could easily bring back in 2024 with an iPhone SE. For example, for $599, you can get the iPhone 13 mini, which has the same A13 chip as the current iPhone SE, a larger screen, twice as much storage, a dual camera, an OLED display, and Face ID. It’s possible that Apple’s rumoured SE 4 could be outclassed by a $100 price cut and rebadging as a SE model the following year.
The SE currently makes no intuitive sense. A couple-year-old iPhone is always preferable to a “newer” phone with a 2020 processor, 2018 camera, and 2015 design if one is looking for a cheaper iPhone. Apple’s silicon lasts a long time, and you’re more likely to have problems with an out-of-date camera or a tiny screen in your day-to-day life than with an out-of-date processor.
At any rate, the budget market the SE was intended for doesn’t seem to be a priority for Apple. Stop trying to force it, Apple. Stop using the SE and start supporting your favourite flagship models.