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Apple is the only company that can pull off an iPhone SE

The iPhone SE is a remarkable device in that it is remarkably unremarkable. Where other companies are pushing the boundaries on their midrange and cheap devices, luring customers with insane and powerful designs, and pushing colorful combinations, wild cameras, and more in a desperate bid to grab just one more sale, Apple’s SE is a retread of years past. More than a peek into the future, the SE is a snapshot of the past, a time capsule packed with tech and an aesthetic thought from bygone days. Were it made by any other company, they would be laughed right out of the metaphorical room.  And it works because Apple can capture the two things to appeal to its primary customers: Nostalgia and sales.

The very first iPhone SE launched in 2016. Coming a few months before the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, it was easily recognizable for what it was: An appeal to nostalgia. Sure, you can get the newfangled iPhones with larger screens and rounder designs, but the iPhone SE served the role of comfort food for those who wanted to cling to their iPhone 5 devices a little longer. The company didn’t embark on the SE stage for four more years before it debuted the iPhone SE (2020) amid a pandemic and supply chain crisis. At that point, the SE not only served the role of cheap phone, but that of a small iPhone in a pre-iPhone Mini world. If reports are correct, yet another SE will debut tomorrow — cheap, cheerful, and a throwback to the 2017-era iPhone 8.

An iPhone is an iPhone is an iPhone

The iPhone SE differentiates itself from other cheap smartphones because it is an iPhone. This isn’t kowtowing to Apple’s branding power as much as it is admitting a certain threshold of quality, of fit and finish, is expected with iPhones that you won’t find in Android models of similar pricing. The iPhone SE is also built from the shell of what was once a flagship device. Even if it is now outdated, that weight, both literal and metaphorical, still remains. It goes beyond skin deep, Apple truly does equip them with flagship-level internals, without qualification.

Would it be possible for any other Android brand like Samsung, OnePlus, or even Google to pull this off?

Where a phone from an equivalent Android brand might ship with four cameras and a Full HD screen, the quality of those four cameras and the display will be found wanting more often than not. If Apple does release a new iPhone SE this week, it will no doubt be as powerful as the current iPhone 13, which is already as powerful as the Galaxy S22. Apple CEO Tim Cook’s supply chain wizardry is to thank for this. Even if it’s just the system on a chip being swapped out in an older chassis, economies of scale mean that more A15 SoCs and modern cameras being shipped are better for Apple’s bottom line than older ones.

Fascinating side-by-side teardown video of iPhone 8 vs iPhone SE. Unsurprisingly there seems to be a huge commonality of components between the two, further driving economies of scale for @Apple allowing the punchy $399 pricing.

— Ben Wood (@benwood) April 24, 2020

Android brands at a disadvantage

Would it be possible for any other Android brand like Samsung, OnePlus, or even Google to pull this off even if they closed their eyes and decided to eat the costs required to carry it out? It would be quite unlikely. Few Android brands have achieved the status that Apple has achieved. It’s that status that separates classic from simply outdated. For one, the Android design world moves too fast for trends to truly establish themselves. Sony is one company that keeps its phones looking similar year over year, but it hasn’t mastered the trick of changing its design to the point that the return of a nostalgic design would be enough of a lure to push sales (nor has it sold many smartphones, to begin with.) Samsung’s Galaxy S6 was its first truly premium looking and feeling smartphone, and it could stand to be revived as a cheaper Galaxy phone — were Samsung not already pumping out phones prepended and appended with every level of the alphabet. What would be the value? It wouldn’t be a cheap Samsung Galaxy phone, it would be yet another cheap Samsung phone. Google is close enough with its Pixel A-Series as far as exclusivity goes, but the Pixel line has never been culturally significant.

There are other reasons for the iPhone SE to exist. The obvious one is keeping a cheap and new iPhone in supply. Even more than the man on the street, carriers love the iPhone because it sells. A March report from the analysts over at Trendforce shows that the iPhone carried the smartphone market in the last three months of 2021. Now imagine the response to a new cheap iPhone that can be pushed over the upcoming Easter holidays? Twice as good. Now a new cheap iPhone with 5G for extra bonus points? Add that new yacht to the queue, Christmas just came early.

Now, Apple is getting ready to unveil another iPhone SE again. If the rumors turn out to be right, it’ll be a boring phone, all things considered. But Apple knows you’re going to love it.

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Michael Allison
A UK-based tech journalist for Digital Trends, helping keep track and make sense of the fast-paced world of tech with a…
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