How Apple could kill the iPhone SE

Prior to September 2014, you couldn’t so much as glance at the web without seeing someone calling for Apple to release iPhones with larger screens. Then the iPhones 6 shipped with 4.7- and 5.5-inch displays, and an equal and opposite number of people clamored for a smaller, modern iPhone again. Enter iPhone SE.

By taking the iPhone 5s chassis and filling it with most of the iPhone 6s specs, Apple made the equivalent of a super legere — all the power, none of the drag. How up-to-date the SE stays, though, is an open question. Will Apple update it with iPhone 7 specs? What about the specs of the iPhones after that?

At some point, Apple will have to move on. That could involve making a new 4-inch iPhone, or it could involve making the 4-inch iPhone redundant.

Smaller screens vs. smaller phones

4-inches doesn’t refer to the size of the iPhone itself; it refers to the size of the screen. Same with 4.7- and 5.5-inch. The argument for the smaller 4-inch screen is that it’s easier to use one-handed, especially for people with smaller hands. But that’s not really an argument for smaller screens… it’s an argument for smaller phones.

I use an iPhone 6s Plus most days. It’s gotten to the point that, when I pick up an iPhone 6s, it feels small. When I use an iPhone SE, it feels tiny. Blame our brains. The human mind is remarkably flexible and once it resets to a new normal, it make everything that came before seem suddenly strange.

Inarguably, the iPhone 6s Plus is harder for me to use one handed. It’s harder to reach some parts of the screen and harder to balance while trying to reach.

I don’t have that problem with the iPhone 6s. It works absolutely fine for me one-handed. But some people do, and they’re typically the ones who gravitate to iPhone SE.

Part of the issue is that, for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, Apple scaled up not just the screen but the entire phone. It’s what had to be done for this generation of devices, but it also leaves a lot of opportunity for paring down in the future. That’s something Apple’s been doing as consistently as increasing screen size, after all.

Screen to bezel ratio

“Delete the bezels!” has become something of a joke in industrial desin circles—those bezels are crammed full of components, after all—but it’s not hard imagine a future iPhone where the screen goes to the edge on both sides, disappearing not at the curve but as the curve. Where the FaceTime camera and earpiece are either hidden or greatly compacted and the Home button is virtualized thanks to force touch technology.

When you compare the original iPhone to iPhone 6s Plus, the screen-to-phone ratio sure looks like its been moving in that directions. Other phone vendors have already moved there.

Doing it the way Apple likely wants it done, which includes maintaining if not extending all the existing functionality and usability, will no doubt require massive leaps forward in engineering. But that’s Apple’s job.

An iPhone with a big screen and a small form factor might not be in the cards for the iPhone 7, but in the future? Over time it’s not screen size that regresses, it’s form factor that progresses.

The next normal

Right now Apple offers three sizes of iPhone. That’s how the company caters to the diverse wants and needs of hundreds of millions of customers. But why do with three what you could do with two?

We may not be anywhere close to the the credit card-thin, transparent aluminum phones seen in Iron Man or Avatar, but we are close, maybe closer than we think, to a 4.7-inch iPhone that feels like an iPhone SE.

And that could very well be the near-future of both.