Being an avid Android user and this being an Android-focused site, a new iPhone was never going to get much love around here. However, the newly announced iPhone SE (Special Edition) is a little bit different as it comes boasting (probably the wrong word but as this is the selling feature “boasting” it must be) a 4-inch display. And that is certainly something worth paying attention to and talking about. It was not that long ago that most smartphones were in or about the four-inch marker. Some people will tell you they remember when smartphones were under four-inches, but in truth I don’t. In terms of Android, I started off with The Galaxy S II (late starter to some) and that was already beyond the four-inch marker, albeit just. Before that was a string of BlackBerry’s which certainly never felt that small and before them a long string of Nokia’s including the banana phone (a la Matrix) and of course, my staple Nokia 3310 – quite simply the phone that cannot be killed.
In fairness, some of the screens on these phones came with a display which is significantly smaller than four inches. Looking back, the display on the Nokia 3310 now feels as though it was only about an inch big. It probably is bigger of course, but that’s what memory is like. But the phone itself was larger than four inches and that is the point here. While the iPhone SE comes with a four-inch display, as is the case with modern smartphones it is a device that is pretty much all display. And while the iPhone SE is larger than a number of the Nokia and BlackBerry options name-dropped, as its overall size comes in at 4.87-inches, the overall size difference between the old Nokia/BlackBerry phones and the iPhone is negligible. And to be clear, this is not an attack on the Apple as even if this was not an iPhone, I don’t have time for a four-inch display (or a 4.8-inch device) in any shape, way or form anymore. In fact, there is virtually no argument you could put forward to convince me that there is any benefit to a smartphone of that size anymore. For what I consider a smartphone to be for nowadays, four inches does not even begin to accommodate the most basic of smartphone needs. At that size, even the number buttons on the Dialer are too small and if they are big enough then the speaker, hold or end call buttons are too small. It is just not enough screen real estate. Speaking of which, real estate is a very good analogy for smartphones as most people seem to have come to the conclusion, like me, that bigger is better.
Just like when purchasing a home, you don’t want your smartphone to be too big that it is no longer manageable, functional or useful. But you certainly need one that is big enough to make use of the additional space when needed and that is the key. A phone that can double as a media player when needed, as a browser for surfing when needed and as an actual call-and-talk-to-people-like-in-the-90s phone when needed. These are all things which are easily achievable with the current market size standards, but are all things which are arguably not so easy to do on a four-inch display. Yes, you can watch videos on a display that size, but would you really want to? Yes, you could browse the internet (even in “request desktop site”) but again, would you really want to? And as mentioned, even for its most fundamental purpose – making calls…you can, but do you really want to? However, like any good commission-based real estate agent, Apple is looking to convince the market that people want (or should want) a smaller unit, one which is ‘cosy’, ‘manageable’ and ‘full of amenities’. One which comes with all the power and performance of a bigger unit like the iPhone 6S, but in a much smaller form and of course, one which is much more affordable. The power of a larger phone, without the price (or size) of one. And here is where Apple has been very clever. What Apple is doing is essentially cementing a price position for their larger iPhone variants. After all, if the smaller iPhone SE is a $399 priced device, then this essentially guarantees the much inflated higher price for the larger iPhone models that exist and more to the point, the ones that have yet to come.
Some will be auguring that what Apple is doing is filling a gap in the market. Some will argue that under 5-inches is still the majority of phones sold worldwide. And while this is true, that does not automatically mean there is a demand for that particular feature. After all, feature phones are still sold in massive numbers and it is unlikely anyone will be arguing that as evidence for a return to feature phone standards. You will also hear some stating that this is a move to further embrace select regions like India and China or those who are “asking for smaller phones” and while the regional aspect is likely to also be true, it still falls under the same ‘price’ umbrella for Apple. India and China are becoming a race to the bottom market when it comes to price and this is Apple’s way of ensuring they are not left out of the race. Albeit, you are still paying a premium for the iPhone SE in these regions. So while they are now technically present in the budget market, they are certainly right at the top of it. Just like their flagship ones will remain at the top of flagship phone pricing. What this small phone is doing is locking in a price structure for the iPhone range. And here is the fundamental difference between iOS and Android.
In contrast to the world of iOS, Android is seeing a far wider change when it comes to smartphone pricing and especially for flagship and top-tier devices. While the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5 can still command a higher than normal price, the rise of the mid-range devices…or better described as the mid-price devices (as smartphones like the OnePlus 2 have forever altered what specs are now expected on a sub-$399 smartphone), these devices are affecting the value of flagship smartphones. Other manufacturers who used to charge higher prices are finding it increasingly difficult to use their name as a sole means to command higher prices. To some degree, even Samsung. The biggest Android smartphone maker did away this year with their 128GB model and presumably because it was just too costly with not enough takers. Likewise, in the U.S. you cannot even opt for the 64GB model, a move which again is likely to be because Samsung wasts consumers to perceive the price of the Galaxy S7 as cheaper. If you think it is because of the microSD card slot that has returned, then ask yourself why a 64GB Galaxy S7 model even exists? Bigger storage would command bigger prices and all manufacturers are currently looking to be perceived as lower, except Apple. In fact, the arrival of the Galaxy S7 Edge and its more premium edges means that you can actually pick up the ‘standard’ Galaxy S7 for $100 less than the Edge variant. If the Edge variant did not exist, then the standard S7 would be aiming for the same price that the Edge currently asks for. The name is no longer solely enough, the specs are no longer solely enough and even the mighty Galaxy range is no longer solely enough, due to the value of a smartphone changing in the Android world. Now to command bigger prices, devices need to have direct and unique selling points. For Samsung, a smartphone that is as innovative and unique as the Edge to justify that top tier pricing. For LG, a smartphone that is modular in nature to command that top tier pricing. In contrast, Apple has just made sure that without the need to actually introduce innovation, the issue of pricing never materializes for them. To return to the real estate analogy -if the next iPhone is too costly then you can always buy this lovely studio sized iPhone. It still has all the mod-cons you would expect and a great view, it just might be a bit of a tight squeeze.
Price aside, the size is the bigger (pun intended) issue here. While some Android smartphone manufacturers have looked to decrease the size of their smartphones over the last few years, they have not proven to be the wisest of moves. Many smartphone manufacturers have tried unsuccessfully to bring a “mini” or a “Compact” or a “Lite” version to the market and on nearly every attempt it has been seen as a lesser variant. Yes, it is true that they tend to come with lighter specs, but that in itself is telling of how the Android market thinks. If you are going to sell a smaller phone then it may as well be a lighter spec phone as either way – it will be seen as a lesser phone. Size has become a spec in its own right now and generally speaking, specs go up and not down. While the iPhone SE comes as a fully fledged flagship spec device, in the Android world, cramming specs inside is not enough to justify the size of the device. Again, you only have to look at the current most popular smartphone, the Galaxy S7 to see how evident this is.
On paper, there is no difference between the S7 and the S7 Edge. They are spec-identical. However, you would be very hard pressed to find many consumers who would actively choose the S7 over the S7 Edge. The $100 price might force some to make that choice but that is not the same as making the choice. Of course, the Edge functionality is one of the clear reasons why the S7 Edge is more in demand, but I would wager that size is another reason. It is not just a coincidence that the Galaxy S7 Edge is only available in a 5.5-inch size. It is designed that way as Samsung knows that is what the market wants. In fact for many, 5.5-inches seems to be the sweet spot. Do you not think that if they could have sold a 5.1-inch Edge version in the same amounts they would have made one? The fact that the Galaxy S7 is only available in a 5.1-inch is designed to be a buffer to pick up those consumers who do not want such a big phone… not for those who do not want an Edge variant… as everyone seems to want the Edge. It is designed for those who want a smaller phone. And note, by Samsung’s understanding – a smaller phone is one which comes with a 5.1-inch display now. Which to manufacturers like HTC, Sony and many others, 5-inches (or thereabouts) is what they view as a normal size of a smartphone. Coincidentally, it seems to be the OEMs who view five inches as the new norm, that have also pushed hard with smaller mini, compact and lite versions, ones which typically do not fall much below 4.7-inches in size. I would find it very difficult to believe that any Android manufacturer currently believes that they could sell (in decent numbers) a 4.5-inch device, let alone a 4-inch device. It is just not where the Android market is or where it is going. There is far too much choice available and to gamble on what is largely considered to be too small, would be a gamble few would be willing to take. Regardless of this being an iPhone, four inches in the Android world, is just too small nowadays.
Of course, for iOS users the landscape is a little different. They do not have the scope of choice that Android users do. They are resigned to buying a smartphone from the singularity and only making use of the features that the singularity offers. So it is likely that some iOS users would like a smaller iPhone. Not to mention, this is not the first time in recent memory that Apple have offered such a small phone. Back in 2013 they did release the iPhone 5C with its 4-inch display and it seemed to sell well. So by Apple’s logic the iPhone SE is likely to sell well too…and it probably will. However, from an Android perspective, at least from this Android owner perspective, four inches is not doable anymore, with an industry which is just starting to branch out into multi-window support and a more engaging experience, four inches is just no longer a viable or even… a wanted option. If iOS users want it, fine, that does not mean that Android users want to return to circa 2012/2013.