Apple’s Two-Pronged Annual iPhone Strategy

In 2017 the iPhone X marked an obvious inflection point in iPhone history: the switch from the original home-button system interface, with Touch ID, to the “all-screen” interface with Face ID. But it also marked a widely misunderstood/under-appreciated (although, it pains me to point out, not by all) change in Apple’s annual iPhone hardware strategy. Instead of introducing just one new iPhone, in 2017 Apple began introducing two entirely different tiers of new iPhone each year. One “pro”, one “regular”:

Pro Regular
2017 X / A11 8 / A11
2018 XS / A12 XR / A12
2019 11 Pro / A13 11 / A13
2020 12 Pro / A14 12 / A14
2021 13 Pro / A15 13 / A15
2022 14 Pro / A16 14 / A15
2023 15 Pro / A17 15 / A16

(That last row, for this year’s models, is speculative at this writing, but it seems likely.)

This table doesn’t account for different sizes within the same tier (Mini / Max / Plus), but those have really just been different sizes of the same fundamental iPhones. The real difference has been between the pro and non-pro models. Apple didn’t start naming iPhones “Pro” until the iPhones 11 in 2019, but effectively, they started this “pro” tier with the X in 2017.

What everyone groks about this strategy is that the pro models are more expensive. Of course they are. But there are a few aspects to Apple’s strategy that many people miss. The most important is that the iPhone Pro models are only produced for one year. If the pattern holds, come next week, the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max will cease production, and be replaced in the product line by the new 15 Pro models. The non-pro iPhones, however, stay in production for at least two additional years, dropping in price by $100 each year. I find that fascinating, but it’s seldom remarked upon. The iPhones that are the most expensive, most cutting-edge, and I presume the hardest to manufacture are only produced for one single year. That’s an altogether new strategy from the years before the iPhone X, when there was just one new flagship iPhone per year (albeit in two sizes during the iPhone 6-6S-7 years), and most iPhones stayed in the lineup at reduced prices for years to come.

So while there have been reports that last year’s iPhone 14 Plus hasn’t sold particularly well, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure, or even that Apple expected it to sell all that well this past year. To me, the workhorse years for non-pro iPhones are years two and three in the lineup, when they come down in price. People shopping for less expensive iPhones but who want a big-ass screen have never had an option before: the now-year-old iPhone 14 Plus will be that.

One much-noted change last year is that the non-pro iPhone 14 models remained on the A15 chip from 2021. One less-noted change is that internally, the iPhone 14 is very different from the iPhone 13, despite the fact that both use the same A15 chip. iFixit describes the iPhone 14 — the non-pro models — as the most repairable iPhones Apple has ever made. The chip remained the same but the internal design was altogether different, and better. The iPhone 14 is a design that was meant to remain in production for years to come.

We won’t know tomorrow whether this more repairable, more accessible system architecture will repeat with the iPhone 15, but I suspect it will. No matter what, the regular iPhone 15 models will not simply be the iPhones 14 Pro models repackaged in aluminum frames rather than stainless steel. The strategy Apple has achieved, as I see it:

  • Pro models: cutting-edge chips, cameras, and materials; will be produced for just one year.
  • Non-pro models: refined architecture using the year-old SoC and older camera systems; will be produced for 2-3 years after their launch year.

The iPhones Pro are far more exciting, but the non-pro iPhones are essential to the lineup and thus to the entire iPhone ecosystem. In sports terms, the Pro models are the offense, and the non-pro models are the defense. The offense gets the glory, but it’s defense, they say, that wins championships.