By John Gruber
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The biggest institutional difference between Apple and Microsoft is, famously, taste. Another, though, is their contrasting approaches to backward compatibility. Microsoft bends over backward to maintain it and their customers thank them for it. Apple eschews it when they see a better way forward, and their users gripe about it and then get over it.1
But one reason for this institutional difference isn’t merely company culture; it’s size. Microsoft, historically, was big; Apple, relatively speaking, small. Backward compatibility is a big company thing — or, better put, a big customer base thing. With enough total customers and an addressable market of “almost everyone”, there inevitably is going to be a sizable segment demanding backward compatibility.
Apple today, of course, is big. And while the Mac and iPad and Apple Watch are all big and growing, Apple sits atop the world’s market cap list today because of the iPhone, and the iPhone customer base is simply enormous. I, for one, admit that my mind isn’t capable of fully grasping just how many people in the world use iPhones, nor how many new iPhones Apple sells each month, each week, each day, each hour. Apple doesn’t serve this enormous market by making dozens and dozens of different models — or even a single dozen. Go to Apple’s iPhone page and they list just five fundamental models in the header navigation. Five!
And, right in the middle of that list, the iPhone SE. The middle of the list is where it belongs — the newest in some ways, the oldest in others.
Every other model in the iPhone lineup follows the design paradigm of the iPhone X, which was introduced in September 2017, which was a lifetime ago in iPhone years. Edge-to-edge round-cornered OLED displays, Face ID, and a gestural interface for navigating the entire system.
One of these things is not like the others, and that’s the iPhone SE, with its forehead and chin above and below its square-cornered LCD display, and a Home button interface with Touch ID. Even putting Face ID vs. Touch ID aside — a big difference to put aside — the Home button embodies a fundamentally different interaction model for the iPhone. It was weird switching to the iPhone X after a decade using Home-button iPhones. It is even weirder now, going back to it, as I have since Friday, testing the new third generation iPhone SE. I even forgot how to take screenshots.2
Even before I got accustomed to the iPhone X’s fundamental changes to the interaction model, I was convinced Apple had designed something better, not merely something different. Four years later, I suspect just about everyone reading this would agree. The Home button interaction is almost spectacularly simple, which was exactly the right design in the early years of the iPhone, when it sounded crazy that you could do everything from email to web browsing to calendaring to you-name-it, all on your phone, the little thing that goes in your pants pocket. So many features — infinite features, really — but no matter what you did, how deep into any app you got, you were one hardware button click away from going home, to a simple grid of app icons. The iPhone supported multitasking a few years into the Home button era, but it was an interaction model that felt naturally suited to doing one thing at a time. Do one thing, go back home, then do another thing or put the phone down. The iPhone X model is fluid and feels naturally suited to a mental model of flowing between multiple apps. It was a bold move to make a change so fundamental to a product so insanely popular, but clearly the right one. I won’t rehash more of this, as I’ll only repeat myself from my review of the 2020 iPhone SE.
But here’s the thing: some people don’t like bold moves, even if they’re good. For some people — many of them, but make no mistake definitely not all, older — familiarity trumps all. The technotariat class may think it offensive or spiteful or just plain goofy that Apple’s entry model iPhone looks and feels half a decade old. It even still has just one frigging camera on the back, with a lens so unassuming it barely juts out. But that’s what many people want: a new iPhone that looks and works like the one they already know and understand and feel comfortable with.
What would be nice, though, they’d all agree, is if it were faster and had longer battery life and took better photos, even if only moderately so. Not the best photos from any phone on the market — just better than the ones on whatever phone they’ve been using. That’s the iPhone SE. It literally has the fastest chip of any phone from any company at any price, the A15. But that’s not what matters to potential iPhone SE buyers. That’s almost a negative point for them — “the fastest phone chip in the world” sounds to them like something they don’t need. What matters is that the A15 is the most efficient phone chip in the world, too. It should last noticeably longer — hours longer — in typical use compared to the 2020 iPhone SE, and much longer than the several-years-old phones with depleted batteries most iPhone SE buyers are likely replacing. After last week’s announcement, I saw many nerds on Twitter — people who clearly had no interest themselves in buying the iPhone SE — griping that it’s downright wrong for Apple to put a “faster” chip in the same old form factor without greatly increasing the capacity of the battery. Too many nerds have internalized the way it used to be, that when chips got faster they necessarily consumed more power. Apple silicon has fundamentally changed that equation. The A15 in the new third-gen iPhone SE is both faster and more power efficient than the A13 in the second-gen iPhone SE. But more importantly, the sort of people who bought the second-gen iPhone SE aren’t in the market to replace them yet, and won’t be for a few years. Folks buying this new iPhone will be coming from phones like the iPhone 7 and 8, if not older.
The camera hardware is unchanged from the 2020 SE, but the image quality of photos is superior because so much of image quality from phone cameras comes from the image signal processing on the chips, and the A15’s ISP produces noticeably superior results.
I do hear a tiny little trombone playing a sad wah-wah, and that tune is playing because the price for the new iPhone SE has gone up by $30 at each storage tier: $430/$480/$580 for 64/128/256 GB of storage. That seems to be standard for Apple’s pricing for each device that goes from LTE to 5G cellular networking, with the exception of the iPhone Pro models — the most expensive iPhones. There’s a reason why Apple fought Qualcomm tooth-and-nail in court before throwing in the towel and settling in 2019, and there’s a reason Apple is working its ass off to make its own 5G modems. Qualcomm charges a premium for their 5G modems because they’re the best. Apple, of all companies, understands that.
I don’t think this $30 price increase will hurt sales, even with the SE — the iPhone that clearly is targeted at the most price-sensitive potential customers. For one thing, inflation is everywhere at the moment. An extra $30 for an iPhone is nothing compared to what’s going on in the car market. But more importantly, I think many, if not most, of the people who will buy an iPhone SE in the next few years aren’t going to pay for it up front. Go to a carrier’s product page for the new SE, e.g. AT&T’s or Verizon’s, and they don’t tell you the up-front price other than in tiny gray small print. They tell you it costs $12/month. They do this with all phones they sell, not just the iPhone SE, but that’s how many people buy phones today. They’re advertising them on installment plans because it works.
The most interesting question to me is not whether Apple should have switched this generation of iPhone SE to the iPhone X interaction model, but whether they’ll even change it with the next SE model two or three years from now. There is a profound thoughtfulness and longevity to this design. Like an all-time great athlete, years past their prime, but still pulling their weight on the team, contributing something essential. This is backward compatibility Apple-style — not technical compatibility, but experience compatibility. The iPhone SE is the comfort iPhone.
Recent example: MacOS 10.15 Catalina dropped support for 32-bit software — after several years of advance notice from Apple. There were a lot of good, but old, 32-bit Mac apps that thus stopped running on Macs running the latest OS in 2019. But Apple silicon only supports 64-bit software. Forcing all current Mac software to transition to 64-bit even while all Mac hardware (based on Intel’s x86 architecture) was capable of running 32-bit software paved the way for a smooth transition from Intel to Apple silicon in 2020. Putting aside the fact that the best available ARM chips that aren’t from Apple are not very good for PCs, even if they were, there’s no way Microsoft could move the next major version of Windows exclusively to ARM. It’s just not the way Windows works, and it’s not the way the Windows market works. Everyone from corporate IT departments to teenage gamers would revolt. ↩︎
Power + Home. I tried pressing power + volume an embarrassing number of times, thinking I’d run into a bug, that snapping screenshots was broken on the new SE in iOS 15.4, before remembering that the screenshot buttons changed with iPhone X by necessity, because the Home button was removed. Similarly, when using the iPhone SE, I keep pressing and holding the Power button on the side to invoke Siri, to no avail. Habits are a hell of a thing. ↩︎︎