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The Apple iPhone SE smartphone was unveiled during the Peek Performance virtual event in New York on March 8. Picture: BLOOMBERG/GABBY JONES
The Apple iPhone SE smartphone was unveiled during the Peek Performance virtual event in New York on March 8. Picture: BLOOMBERG/GABBY JONES

When Steve Jobs led Apple, the company was famous for making products that would impress and even “delight” its customers. The uninspiring iPhone SE unveiled on Tuesday shows how far Apple has strayed from that standard.

The Apple iPhone SE, introduced in its current form in 2020, was designed to appeal to budget-minded consumers who might otherwise gravitate to competitors such as the Google Pixel. At $399, the SE costs about half the more popular flagship models. But for that price, consumers got a smaller screen and a weaker camera.

On Tuesday, Apple revealed its newest update to the phone, one of several new and upgraded devices rolled out at a product event. The new SE features a faster processor and higher-speed 5G wireless capability instead of the 4G used on the prior model, among other incremental improvements. But that’s about it. The phone has a similar design to its predecessor, and Apple raised the price to $429. 

Overall, the SE will be a letdown for Apple customers who have been waiting for a while for an updated affordable iPhone

A snappier experience from new chips and better wireless network access is welcome. But most SE users will barely notice the change. Nearly all the commonly used mobile apps — including TikTok, Instagram and YouTube — work nearly as well on 4G networks, and there aren’t yet any killer apps that require the faster speeds.

Overall, the SE will be a let-down for Apple customers who have been waiting for a while for an updated affordable iPhone. The design, based on a five-year-old configuration, feels stale. It’s clear that Apple isn’t prioritising customers at the lower end of the market, which is disappointing for a company with an annual research & development budget of $22bn.  

Apple could have been more aggressive with the SE either by sharpening the design, improving the screen or camera or even cutting the price. iPhones account for just 28% of the global smartphone market, compared with 71% for Android-based phones, according to StatCounter. A superior SE phone could have made significant inroads with the competition.

Why did Apple opt to do so little with the new SE? The company presumably expects its sticky ecosystem of software and services, including iMessage, enhanced security and reliable customer service, to keep users in the Apple fold.

Apple also might be worried that a dramatically improved iPhone SE would eat into demand for the more expensive iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro Max. Those two models cost about $800 and $1,100, respectively, for the base phones. Wall Street analysts estimate that the SE will account for only about 30-million out of the annual 245-million iPhones expected to ship this year.

But Apple probably wasn’t in much danger of cannibalising its higher-end phones. Most iPhone users are likely to keep buying premium models no matter what Apple does with the SE. Meanwhile, Apple customers who want an affordable, full-featured phone either have to put up with the lack of innovation or take their money elsewhere. And some might.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion.

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