The rumors are getting louder all the time — Apple is apparently getting close to launching the iPhone SE 2, the successor to 2016's compact iPhone that turned out to be an unexpectedly popular product.
We have some of what we think are the details of this new iPhone, thanks to analyst reports about Apple's 2020 phone release plans. But to get a better understanding of what this new iPhone SE will really be, it's worth considering Apple's track record — and what niche it plans for the new phone to fill.
The natural life span of iPhones
If there's a hallmark of Tim Cook's time as CEO of Apple, it's been expanding the iPhone product line beyond a single model with a few different storage options. Recently this extension has taken the form of multiple new "flagship" iPhone models — there were three iPhone 11 versions introduced in 2019 and the rumors suggest there might be four iPhone 12 models in 2020. But Apple's first expansion of the product line was actually a different Cook-era innovation — namely, keeping the older models around at reduced prices rather than phasing them out entirely.
Apple kept the iPhone 5s on the price list for years after it was out of date. And today, you can still buy an iPhone 8, with its somewhat outdated A11 Bionic processor. Apple has had great success in selling the iPhone to more price-sensitive buyers by offering phones that were a couple of years old for several hundred dollars off their original prices.
But eventually those old phones carry too big of a burden — they're based on increasingly outdated tech, and the longer they stay in the product line, the longer Apple and its app developers have to support slower processors, less capable sensors and inferior components. At some point, even if a phone is selling well, it needs to die.
That's where we got the original iPhone SE. It used the exterior design of the iPhone 5s, but replaced that phone's 2013-era components with the state of the art from the then-current 2015 iPhones.
Sometimes Apple zigs when we expect it to zag, but with the iPhone SE, it appears that history is repeating itself. The iPhone 8 is about the same age the iPhone 5s was when it was replaced by the iPhone SE.
Modern specs, classic size
Using an older design to create a cheaper iPhone at the bottom of the price list was the purpose of the original iPhone SE. That it also kept fans of the iPhone 5s' smaller size happy for a little while longer was, alas, only a side effect — and it seems like those days are over. The iPhone SE 2 is probably going to pick up the design of the iPhone 6/7/8 line, meaning it'll be larger than the old SE while being smaller than the iPhone X, XS and 11 Pro.
If Apple's past strategy is any indication, inside the iPhone SE 2's iPhone 8-like shape will be components that run more or less like the iPhone 11, powered by the same A13 processor. It might seem counterintuitive for Apple to put its top-of-the-line processor in a discount phone, but it actually makes sense for a few reasons.
As I mentioned earlier, Apple wants to make updating iOS versions easier by dropping support for old technology as soon as it can. Every year an old processor is in the product line is a year more before support for that product can be dropped, and Apple supports OS upgrades on the iPhone for a lot longer than its competitors. Apple also wants its third-party app developers to continue to adopt new iOS and hardware features, and that's made easier if they aren't spending time testing their software and fixing bugs on older phone hardware.
The iPhone SE 2 is also expected to last a lot longer than your run-of-the-mill iPhone. This isn't a model that's going to get refreshed with a new chip every year. It's meant to be designed, pushed out the door, and sold for two or three years. When a product is going to hang around for years, it's worth it to put today's tech in it, so that it remains sellable for a long time.
What to expect in the iPhone SE 2
With all that said, it's easier to make guesses about what the iPhone SE 2 might look like. Let's start with name and price. I think the name will remain iPhone SE, without any sort of confusing number. (So much for the rumored iPhone 9 name.) And it will probably sell for around the iPhone 8's current price of $449, which is the cheapest iPhone you can currently buy. It's also a no-brainer that this phone will have the A13 processor, for all the reasons I mentioned earlier.
While there are all sorts of rumors about what features of recent phones Apple will bring to the iPhone SE 2, the company still needs to differentiate between this budget model and its higher-end phones. That's why I'd be surprised if this phone inherited the advanced Face ID technology found in the iPhone X and its successors. More likely a new iPhone SE will feature a Touch ID sensor, and presumably, Apple will cut out some product margin by removing the 3D Touch feature that still exists in the iPhone 8.
The iPhone 8's camera is feeling a little long in the tooth, and there are rumors that the iPhones will get a major camera upgrade this fall. So I wouldn't be surprised if Apple provided the iPhone SE with a bit of a camera upgrade. I'm unsure if it's more likely to take the single-camera approach of 2018's iPhone XR (with a software-based "portrait mode"), or if it might have an older two-camera system like the iPhone 11. Because the camera is probably the most important feature in a smartphone, I'm going to guess that it'll be a single camera, giving people a reason to be tempted by the iPhone 11.
Does anyone care about a cheap iPhone?
As a reader of a sophisticated, tech-focused site like this one, you might find yourself wondering why anyone even cares about a repackaged set of iPhone components in a case design that's 5.5 years old.
Fair enough. The thing is, the iPhone is a product that appeals to a broad swath of potential buyers. Some of them just don't have the money to buy a more expensive phone, but really want to buy into the iPhone ecosystem. Others just don't care about cutting-edge tech at all and want a phone that works for them. Still others don't like cutting-edge features such as Face ID, and would rather stick with Touch ID for as long as they can. ("People who hate Face ID" are the new "people who hate big phones" in terms of falling right into the iPhone SE 2 demographic.)
The original iPhone SE was greeted with similar skepticism by the tech-centric press when it launched back in 2016. Funny thing about that: A few months later, Apple announced that it was surprised by iPhone SE demand that was much larger than even it expected. It turns out, a phone like this has more appeal than you'd think.
No, the iPhone SE 2 is never going to set the world on fire. But for a surprisingly large number of users, the iPhone SE 2 is all the phone they need. And that's why, in the early days of 2020, it's primed to make a return.