The iPhone SE Has Found Its Niche (And It’s Fitting in Well)

iPhone SE Product Red 2020 Credit: Walid Berrazeg / Shutterstock
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It was almost four years in the making, but when Apple finally released a new iPhone SE earlier this year, the new wallet-friendly iPhone became an overnight success, even if it wasn’t the iPhone SE many were hoping for.

The release of the iPhone SE also raised another important question, however, and that’s what it might do to the sales of Apple’s flagship iPhone 11. After all, the iPhone 11 has become the world’s most popular smartphone due to its great combination of price and features, and it’s not the first time for Apple either, as the previous record-holder was the iPhone 11’s direct predecessor, the iPhone XR, which was the most popular smartphone on the planet for all of 2019.

So would the iPhone SE, at a significantly lower price point, cut into sales of the iPhone 11? It was something that analysts considered, but it’s also safe to say that Apple had thought about this as well before releasing the new model, and as great of a deal as the iPhone SE is, it’s clear that Apple struck the right balance of features and price to make the iPhone SE fit in exactly where Apple wanted it to be.

Who Is the iPhone SE For?

According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), (via 9to5Mac), Apple’s purpose for the iPhone SE was to provide an upgrade path for all of those folks who were still holding on to their older iPhone models, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

In fact, the original 2016 iPhone SE targeted the exact same market. Back then, Apple had moved on to 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays, leaving behind all of those users who preferred the more pocketable four-inch iPhone 5 form factor. Many iPhone users who didn’t want the larger screen held onto their 2013-era iPhone 5s devices for dear life.

When Apple dropped the first iPhone SE back in 2016, six months after the release of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, it became an extremely popular choice for those users, who suddenly found themselves with an upgrade path they could tolerate. They gained a faster processor and more modern device without giving up all of the things they otherwise loved about the iPhone 5s.

Apple obviously observed the same effect after the release of the redesigned iPhone X series models in 2017. While the more traditional iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus models arrived alongside the iPhone X that first year, by 2018 Apple had abandoned that form factor in favour of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. Meanwhile, users who preferred Touch ID to Face ID and liked having a home button instead of relying on swipe gestures, found themselves left behind in the same way that iPhone 5s users did five years ago.

It’s also safe to say that for some people the new iPhone X design was even more intimidating than the larger screen of the iPhone 6. Back then, users could put their fingers on what it was they didn’t like about the new iPhones — the size — but in the case of the iPhone X design, many non-technical iPhone users just weren’t entirely comfortable making the jump into an entirely new world, so it was easy to stick with the tried and true iPhone design that Apple had used for the first ten years.

iPhone SE vs iPhone 11

The iPhone SE launched at $399 for a device that delivers the same power and performance under the hood as an iPhone 11, and while it delivered some great camera enhancements over the iPhone 8, those were mostly due to the machine learning capabilities of Apple’s A13 chip, not the lens or sensor. There was no doubt that the iPhone 11 still does a way better job of capturing more sophisticated photographs, with an extra ultra-wide lens and features like Night Mode, Deep Fusion, and a more advanced portrait mode.

So except for those users who prefer the old-school design, or are on a really tight budget, it’s easy to see how the iPhone 11 is generally a much more attractive choice. While it’s $300 more expensive ($699 vs $399), most people are buying their iPhones on carrier plans anyway, which breaks the cost down over the course of a couple of years, making it much more affordable.

It appears that actual sales numbers bear this out as well, with data from the CIRP report noting that the iPhone 11 seems to have retained its crown, still accounting for “around two-thirds of sales,” in the April to June quarter. Meanwhile, the iPhone SE accounted for 19 percent of all iPhone sales, although it wasn’t available for the entire quarter. However, CIRP determined that most of the iPhone SE sales came from users upgrading from “a significantly older model” — in fact over 73 percent of those buying an iPhone SE were upgrading from a model more than three years old.

In other words, almost three-quarters of those who bought an iPhone SE had not only skipped over all of the iPhone X series models, but also hadn’t even upgraded to the iPhone 8 back in 2017. These were most likely iPhone 6, 6s, and 7 users, although it’s certainly possible it may have also included some users of the original iPhone SE who were holding out for a direct upgrade path from that model, and certainly some users of even older models may have been in the mix as well.

What’s particularly interesting as well is that many of these customers even avoided buying the iPhone 8 or iPhone XR after the price drops in later years, suggesting many preferred to stick with their existing iPhone rather than upgrading to another model that wasn’t the newest available. Prior to the release of the iPhone SE, for instance, the iPhone 8 could have been purchased for approximately the same price, and many carriers were offering both the iPhone 8 and the iPhone XR free on contract.

Of course, the age of the iPhone also factors in when it comes to longevity and the fact that the iPhone SE uses the same A13 CPU as the iPhone 11 means that it will almost certainly be supported by iOS updates for years to come, which is something that couldn’t be said for the iPhone 8, which could potentially see itself dropped off the list of supported devices as soon as iOS 16 arrives in 2022. By comparison, the iPhone SE should be good at least until iOS 19 lands in 2025, making it a much better long-term investment for those who don’t plan to upgrade their iPhones every couple of years. Even the 2016 iPhone SE remains supported to this day, and will even be capable of running iOS 14 when it arrives this fall.

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