The Quadrennial iPhone SE Schedule

The answer: Leap years, the summer Olympics, U.S. presidential elections.

The question: What are things that occur every fourth year?

Add to that hypothetical Jeopardy answer another item: new iPhone SE models.1

Apple’s SE strategy is commonly misunderstood, in two different ways. The first misunderstanding is that the SE concept was specific to the 4-inch-display iPhone 5 / 5S form factor. This is understandable, because I know there is a contingent of people who prefer that size and weight. If you don’t like the size (and weight! — but I’ll stop mentioning weight alongside size, even though the difference in weight is at least as noticeable, if not more so, as the difference in volume between the 4-inch iPhones (5, 5S, 5C, 2016 SE) and the 4.7-inch models (6, 6S, 7, 8, 2020 SE) so for the sake of brevity I’ll just use “size” henceforth to talk about both volume and weight) of the larger-than-4-inch iPhones, well, the original iPhone SE was your jam. I get it. I didn’t go with the SE as my personal carry in 2016, but I was tempted, and enamored as soon as I got my hands on my review unit. No camera bump! It stood up!

I opened my review of the 2016 SE with this quote:

Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.” —Obi-Wan Kenobi

And that about sums it up. We’ve had size choices ever since the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in 2014. But those choices have always felt like a choice between big and bigger, not between small and big. And it’s not just about how it feels in your hand, or how it fits in your pocket or purse.2 There’s a philosophical aspect to it, which was evident even back in 2016, when the 4.7-inch size still felt “big”, and it’s why that Obi Wan quote still feels so apt. It’s about the role our phones play in our lives — how big a chunk of our attention they consume, how big a space they occupy in our minds. We are all cognizant of how ever-present phones now are in our lives. Cutting back on the time we spend staring at, poking, and swiping them — paying more attention to the world and to the people around us rather than the content on our phones — is something most of us try to be mindful of. Both iOS and Android have added OS features to help us track and manage that time.

The fact that our collective concern about the time we spend on our phones has grown alongside the physical size of our phones is not a coincidence. The 4-inch 2016 iPhone SE felt like a statement in that regard, whether intended by Apple or not. To finish abusing my Star Wars analogy, with the iPhone 6 and its successors, it’s as though we’re debating only how big a blaster we want to carry, not whether to carry a blaster in the first place. The 4-inch 2016 iPhone SE felt not just smaller but different in purpose.

But that’s not what the 2016 iPhone SE was about, from Apple’s strategic standpoint. Maybe it should have been. For all of you who were holding out hope that the rumor mill was wrong and the new SE would be the size of the old one, I feel for you. But it is what it is, and the SE never really was about being tiny.

Which brings us to the second way people seem to be misunderstanding the new iPhone SE: as some sort of repudiation of the post-iPhone-X era of iPhones — the larger-than-ever sizes, the higher prices, the no-Home-button interface, the large multi-lens camera arrays and corresponding protruding bumps, Face ID in place of Touch ID. It’s certainly true that the new SE stands as the antithesis to all those things. But its existence is in no way a repudiation of anything about the post-iPhone-X era. What I mean by this is that there’s nothing new strategically about this SE in 2020 — it’s a nearly exact replay of the original SE strategy from 2016, before the iPhone X era began.

Officially — and for the most part, unofficially — Apple generally does not explain what the letters in iPhone names stand for. When Phil Schiller unveiled the 3GS — the successor to the 3G — at WWDC 2009, he said on stage that “the S simply stands for ‘speed’”. On stage at AllThingsD in 2012, Tim Cook said, “If you keep the same industrial design, as in the case of the 4S, some people might say it stands for ‘Siri’ or ‘speed’. We were thinking of ‘Siri’ when we did it.” They haven’t publicly explained a letter in a numbered iPhone name since. The S in 5S, 6S, and XS perhaps stood for “speed” too — each of those iPhones was, of course, faster than its no-S predecessor — but Apple never made that official. The C in 5C seemingly stood for “color”, but that was never stated. And the R in XR — that’s just a letter that sounds cool, as well as coming just before S alphabetically, reflecting the XR’s relative position to the XS technically. These letters have been a feel of it thing more than a think of it thing.

Regarding the original iPhone SE, though, Schiller told Jason Cipriani, then writing at Fortune, that SE stood for “special edition”:3

Shortly after Apple announced the iPhone SE, I had the chance to ask Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, the meaning of “SE” in the phone’s name, which deviates slightly from its previous “S” format. SE is an abbreviation for “Special Edition,” Schiller said, a name that, to him, recalled the Macintosh SE, a computer the company released in the late 1980s.

The nostalgia is well placed. The iPhone SE is virtually indistinguishable from an iPhone 5 but for a slight change in the chamfered edges of the device, which now have a matte finish.

I like “special edition”. It fits on its own, and does hark back to the Macintosh SE: updated internals in a familiar form factor.

But there was only one Macintosh SE — its successor, sort of, was the SE/30, the greatest Mac ever made. Now we have a second iPhone SE — the first time Apple has reused an old name for a new iPhone. What makes “special edition” apt for the two iPhones bearing the SE name is the way they differ, strategically, from regular edition iPhones.

Regular edition iPhones are numbered. Yes, that’s not quite true of the primordial models. The 2007 original iPhone was just “iPhone”, and the “3G” in the second and third models stood for the cellular networking technology. But starting with the iPhone 4, regular edition iPhones have all been numbered. Higher-numbered iPhones both look new on the outside and offer improved technology on the inside.

The iPhone SE’s are special editions because they fall outside this continuum. They look like phones from several years prior, and some of their technology is several years old as well. But other aspects of their technology are state of the art (e.g. chip systems) or nearly so (cameras).

Here’s the SE pattern, aspects applicable both to the 2016 and 2020 models:

  • They appear exactly mid-cycle between regular editions. Regular edition iPhones (starting with the 4S in 2011) appear in September or early October; the SEs appear in March (2016) or April (this year). And it seems safe to assume that if not for COVID-19 disruptions to Apple’s supply chain, this year’s SE would have appeared in March as well.

  • The original SE appeared 2.5 years after its lookalike predecessor, the iPhone 5S. The new SE appeared 2.5 years after its lookalike predecessor, the iPhone 8. That is to say, SE form factors have appeared 2.5 years after last appearing in a regular edition new iPhone.

  • The original SE was equipped with the then-state-of-the-art A9 system-on-a-chip, same as the then-six-month-old iPhone 6S. The new SE is equipped with the A13, same as the now-six-month-old iPhone 11 models.

  • Improved cameras compared to the previous model with the same form factor. The iPhone 5S had an 8-megapixel main camera, as did the iPhone 6. The 2016 iPhone SE bettered the 5S with a 12-megapixel camera, matching the then-new 6S. The new SE betters the iPhone 8 with a main camera that is physically — sensor and lens — equivalent to that of the iPhone XR. But in practice the SE is more capable than the XR as a camera system because of the A13 imaging pipeline (compared to the XR’s A12). This is evident from the fact that the new SE supports Portrait mode features the XR does not — the background-masking “stage light” and “high-key light” effects.

  • Low prices: Both the 2016 and 2020 SE models started at $400. But the entry-level 2016 had a stingy 16 GB of storage (remember that?) and upgrading to 64 GB moved the price to $500. The new $400 SE base model has a reasonable 64 GB of storage, and upgrading to 128 or 256 GB costs $450 or $550, respectively. The 2016 SE was a good value; the 2020 SE seems even better.

  • Each is the final version of a popular form factor, designed to remain in the lineup for years to come. The 2016 SE was Apple’s last 4-inch iPhone. I expect this new SE to be the last 4.7-inch model, and thus also the last with a Touch ID Home button and the pre-iPhone-X user interface.

  • They introduce nothing new — no design aspects, no technology, no colors even — that we haven’t seen before.

Like a fool, during the rumor churn I thought Apple would name this the iPhone 9. But looking at the specs, that would make little sense. 9 would imply less than 10 (X in iPhone nomenclature), and even more so less than 11. But with the A13 SoC the new SE is the performance peer of the iPhone 11 and superior to all of the iPhones X / XR / XS. The new SE has but a single main camera lens, but thanks to the A13 imaging pipeline and neural engine, it should prove at least slightly superior to the single-camera XR. To call it the iPhone 9 would befit its industrial design, but not its place in the tech-specs pecking order.

Numbers — including that damned Roman numeral X — are for regular edition annual iPhones. SE’s are irregular editions, and, to date at least, appear to be on a quadrennial cycle. I don’t know if there will be a third SE, but if there is, I’d expect to see it in four years.

Regular edition iPhones are on one-year cycles. One year after debuting, they either stay in the lineup at a lower spot in the price range, or they disappear from Apple’s lineup entirely. For example, 2018’s XS and XS Max disappeared after a year, replaced by the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. 2018’s XR, however, was replaced by the no-adjective 11 but remains in the current lineup at a reduced price point.

Part of what makes the SE editions different is that they’re not on that sort of schedule. The 2016 SE debuted as the lowest-price model in the lineup at $400 — and then stayed there, completely unchanged, for years. I expect the new iPhone SE to remain in the lineup, unchanged in specs and price, for years to come.

There are three iPhones worth comparing the new SE against.

Compared to the old iPhone SE, the new SE is quite a bit bigger, but also fully four years faster and equipped with a vastly better camera. The only reason to mourn the old SE is size, if you feel that smaller is better.

Compared to the iPhone 8, the new SE looks largely identical, but it’s faster, has a better camera, and costs less. There is absolutely zero reason for the iPhone 8 to hang around.

Compared to the iPhone XR, well, this is interesting:

64 GB 128 GB 256 GB
iPhone XR $600 $650
iPhone SE $400 $450 $550

On the outside, the XR looks new and the SE looks old. The XR has a much bigger display (6.1 vs. 4.7 inches), the modern “all display” no-chin-no-forehead curved-corner look, and Face ID instead of Touch ID. The XR is obviously a post-iPhone-X design; the new SE is just as obviously a pre-iPhone-X design.

On the inside, though, the new SE has an A13 and the XR has the A12. The SE is a faster computer. And (as mentioned above), although they have the same camera hardware, the improved imaging pipeline of the A13 should make the new SE an at least slightly better camera — and at the very least the XR’s equal.

But GB for GB, the new SE costs $200 less than the equivalent XR. And the SE is offered in a 256 GB configuration that is no longer available for the XR (and when it was available, when the XR was new, cost $900) — and that $550 256 GB model is still $50 less than the 64 GB base model XR.

It is essential here to note that everything the XR has going for it compared to the SE — its post-iPhone-X design, both in hardware and software — is a con, not a pro, for the segment of the audience that values familiarity over novelty, that is suspicious of rather than intrigued by change. For some iPhone users — many of them, let’s just say it, older and/or less technically savvy — a brand-new iPhone SE that looks, feels, and works (again, hardware and software) just like their old ready-to-be-replaced iPhone 6 or 6S is music to their ears. These are people who might choose the new SE over the XR even if they cost the same amount, but the SE actually costs $200 less.

Assuming Apple’s 2020 regular edition iPhones launch on the usual schedule — and it feels unwise to presume anything this year — this will make more sense in six months. My guess is that the iPhone XR will then disappear from Apple’s official lineup,4 and the iPhone 11 will move down into the $600 spot in the lineup (replaced at the $700 spot by the iPhone “12” or “11S” or whatever they’re going to call this year’s new regular edition).

When that happens, the new SE should remain a very good value. At the moment, however, it’s an extraordinary value.

  1. And yes, I know that leap years aren’t every four years — there is an exception for years divisible by 100, and an exception to that rule for years divisible by 400. ↩︎

  2. To that point though — and I swear to you I am not making this up — I dug out and charged up my old iPhone 5S today, just to feel the size and weight of a 4-inch class iPhone again, and just now, right before writing this footnote, spent five minutes combing the house for where I’d left it, because it wasn’t here at my desk. Turns out it was in my left pants pocket, with my wallet and money clip. I’d forgotten I’d tucked it there and didn’t notice the difference from the normal heft of my wallet (which is decidedly minimal) and money clip alone. No shit. ↩︎︎

  3. Fortune sort of has the article behind a paywall, but the text can be selected and copied from behind the paywall banner intended to obscure all but the opening paragraph. I’d like to think this is purposely porous as a courtesy, but it’s probably just slipshod work. Update: Turns out my ability to select and copy the ostensibly paywalled text was the result of neither benevolence nor ineptitude (per se) on Fortune’s part — it’s in fact the result of my use of Jeff Johnson’s excellent StopTheMadness browser extension↩︎︎

  4. But, as with other old iPhones, the XR will almost certainly still be sold through “channel partners” like carrier stores and resellers such as Best Buy. Apple keeps a tight lineup in its own stores and website, but if you look at carrier offerings, pretty much every iPhone from the last four years is still available new. AT&T has a 32 GB original SE for $350; Verizon has the iPhone 7 starting at $350 and 7 Plus at $450. The XS and XS Max are everywhere. ↩︎︎