Why does Apple hate budget products?

The way Apple reports its sales figures makes it hard to be sure how well a specific product is doing, but one gets a sense that the iPhone SE (2020) has been a hit, based on the positive reviews and the high web traffic whenever we write about it. So why aren’t we getting another iPhone SE until the autumn of 2021? What’s Apple got against its popular budget line of phones?

Before we dig into this, I should qualify that. The second-gen iPhone SE came out in April 2020, and with most Apple products – particularly successful ones – we’d expect the follow-up one year later, which would mean the spring of 2021. Yet the pundits are unified in their belief that it will launch considerably later, with reliable Ming-Chi Kuo pointing to autumn 2021 and some even saying we’ll have to wait until spring 2022.

This would be a strange strategy at the best of times, and 2020 is very much not the best of times. When the SE came out in April we all commented on the combination of luck and good sense that led Apple to launch a budget phone in The Worst Year (with respect to the volcanic eruption and mysterious fog of 536), when people were losing their jobs left, right and centre and few had the money or confidence in the future to be splashing money on a top-end flagship phone. Those things are still true, yet Apple ploughed ahead with its lavish four-handsets plans for the autumn, and doesn’t seem to be prioritising the next SE at all.

To be fair, we should acknowledge the fact that being brand-new is less of an issue for cheaper devices, and going 18 months or even two years between SE launches may not be as much of a problem as it would be for a high-end iPhone. The average SE customer, if we can generalise for a moment, is looking for value for money, not state-of-the-art components; and if they wanted to show off the latest thing to their mates they’d be shopping in a different part of the Apple Store.

But I think Apple’s seemingly confused priorities on the SE front speak to a larger culture of… perhaps disdain is too strong a word, but certainly reluctance when it comes to the development and marketing of budget products. Once upon a time the company set out with a mission to make computers affordable for everyone, but it hasn’t been run on those egalitarian grounds for a long time. Apple products in the 21st century have consistently aimed at the upper end of the consumer space, leaving Android and Windows manufacturers to fight it out at the budget end.

Everyone remembers the excitement when Apple was rumoured to be making a budget iPhone. And then the iPhone 5c came out, with a set of garish plasticky colours (what did that say about the company’s opinion of budget buyers?) and, crucially, a price tag that wasn’t especially cheap. The iPhone SE itself isn’t exactly a bargain-basement device, much like its Apple Watch namesake. Apple doesn’t do ‘cheap’.

There are different ways to rationalise this, but I think it mostly comes down to image. Like perhaps no other company in history, and certainly no other tech company, Apple sells an image as much as it sells a product. And everything it does is in service to the perpetuation of that image.

If you’ve got an image as a maker of beautiful and high-quality things – which I think Apple deserves, by the way, I’m not saying this is pure marketing – then you can charge pretty much what you like. But conversely, if you allow the image to weaken, everything else crumbles, and cheap phones and laptops and tablets aren’t good for your image. (This is also why Apple has historically tended to allow less interface customisation than other manufacturers: every customer is a shop window, and it wants the wares being displayed to look their very best.)

Apple loves its flagship products, but I found it persuasive when one of my colleagues recently wrote that Apple’s best products are its ‘inbetweeners’, the middle-ranking category in which we may currently place the iPhone 12 and 12 mini, the iPad Air, the Apple Watch SE and the MacBook Air. What Apple isn’t good at, and may never be, is the true budget option, and that may be bad news for fans of the iPhone SE.

You can catch up with the latest leaks and rumours about this elusive and much-anticipated product in our iPhone SE 3 news hub. For the latest bargains, meanwhile, read our guide to the best iPhone deals.

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