Your Tech Night Owl Newsletter — Issue #994

Gene Steinberg

Forum Super Hero
Staff member
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter
Issue #994

May 26, 2020


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Before I get to the meat of this column, my main question about the 2020 iPhone SE is why it took Apple so long to release it?

The original came out in 2016, and was fundamentally an iPhone 5s with most of the guts of the far-faster iPhone 6s. While it mostly went under the radar at times when mostly top-of-the-line gear received the serious attention from the tech media, a lot of customers loved them. Not just because its $399 retail price was cheaper, but because its smaller form factor, with a four-inch display, made it especially attractive to people who found the mainstream models just too large.

Indeed, Apple once touted smaller smartphone displays as an advantage, making it easier for one-handed use. But market forces aren’t always driven by logic and reason, and thus Android gear with larger displays gained sales sometimes at the expense of Apple.

With the iPhone 6 in 2014, Apple took the hint. It sported a 4.7-inch display, and its big siblin, the iPhone 6 Plus, had a 5.4-inch display. These new models, and their successors, received the lion’s share of the attention. But that still left a market that Apple didn’t fill with a new model until two years later.

Now every single year since the iPhone SE was released came and went with rumors of a successor model. But Apple kept the original in the lineup, until it didn’t, and focused mainly on selling a previous year’s model to those who wanted a cheaper iPhone.

Apple has access to a vast amount of market research that outsiders will never see. At best, there are independent sales estimates and surveys that provide at least a rough indication of where customers tastes may lie. So were they missing something?

I am not about to suggest that Apple isn’t capable of understanding the demand for cheaper and smaller iPhones. Obviously they have the data that shows the way, and they want to sell as many iPhones as possible and still keep their historically high profits.

So maybe the signs were right for a 2020 iPhone SE. That it arrived in the middle of a global pandemic and a depression-era economic situation, may seem to result from a deliberate design move rather than circumstance but that’s just silly. Despite all its advantages, Apple can’t design a new model and ready it for sale in a couple of months. The iPhone SE revision had been in the cards for months at the very least, and had been rumored with a fair degree of accuracy since last year.

What’s more, it’s a product that doesn’t require much in the way of an explanation. It’s basically an iPhone 8 with enhanced innards. In that sense, it follows roughly the same concept as the original iPhone SE that offered you the essence of the iPhone 6s.

This time, the critics have taken notice. Just the other day, I saw a comparison between today’s iPhone SE and Android gear costing up to $1,000 more. Surprisingly, it survived the comparison with few apologies.

Take performance, for example. It uses the same A13 Bionic chip as the iPhone 11 family, and is thus faster than the fastest gear from the competition.

Sure, smartphones with larger displays featuring OLED technology will yield an advantage in picture quality. The same for having multiple cameras, the Android variants to Face ID and other features. But getting a well-design, well-equipped smartphone for $399 at a time when competing gear carriy serious trade-offs is a huge win for Apple.

But at least the comparisons are being done with products that exist. Just the other day I read a report comparing how the iPhone SE “might stack up” with a product that hasn’t even been announced, the Google Pixel 4a. I’m not going to link to the article, nor list the specs that the writer expects for the rumored product. It’s not as if Google Pixel phones have done terribly well from a sales standpoint, and it’s hard to believe that people are lining up on the sidelines — at same distances from one another of course — expecting such a comparison.

Sure, if and when such a product appears, it’ll be perfectly valid to make comparisons, particularly if it is priced and marketed in the same or roughly the same category. Even then, comparisons will be abstract, based on specs alone, until shipping products can be tested.

Forgetting specs and performance, even then the products run different operating systems, obviously. So it’s not just a comparison between two pieces of hardware that may or may not have roughly similar specs and/or performance. It requires that potential customers consider whether jumping platforms — either way — is a useful move. It’s not a casual decision.

Of course, these sorts of comparisons are not uncommon. It’s one of the main problems with the testing methodology used by Consumer Reports. Gear from Apple and other companies are pitted side by side in hardware and performance evaluations and rarely by operating system, even though that remains the key differentiator.

The assumption is that people already know, or that the differences are so insignificant that customers can freely move from one to the other and back again without any disruption. And that’s obviously not true.

Consumer Reports is not a publication for the tech savvy. It is designed for people who are more interested in practical comparisons to decide which products to buy. CR won’t compare a $75,000 luxury car to a $45,00o SUV, since they intended for different markets. The same ought to be true for smartphones, tablets and, of course, personal computers.

To CR, I suppose it’s the same as comparing two TV sets from different companies with different screen sizes and technology. The comparisons between LED and OLED are legitimate, as are 4K versus 8K and any particular display size. But at the end of the day, they run the same programming. You can access Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix on any of them, even though some might use built-in apps, and others might require a special set-top box, a smartphone or a tablet. But the services are the same. Ditto for cable versus satellite.

You may be able to run the same apps from the same developer on iOS and Android gear, but they are running on different operating systems using different developer tools. Features and performance may differ substantially.

Anyway, iPhone SE sales are evidently moving at a good clip, based on published reports. Apple is reportedly taking a hit on profit margins with the iPhone SE, but here is a situation where volume may make the difference. It’s also an affordable target for Android users who want to switch or owners of older iPhones that have postponed upgrades.

While Apple doesn’t reveal unit sales for iPhones anymore, third-party estimates and Apple’s own statements going forward will reveal just how well it’s doing. You’ll also see sales breakdowns from Amazon and the wireless carriers.

In any case. Apple has assembled a decent iPhone lineup covering the mid-to-higher-price tiers. There are cheaper and, surprisingly to some, more expensive devices. But suggestions that iPhones are overpriced just don’t pass the fact check.


The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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