iPhone SE: The best and the worst of Apple

iPhone SE (Source: Apple)

“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black,” Henry Ford famously joked of the Model T.

Ford’s disregard for customer choice was borne out of a need for production efficiency. He was an operations man, not a product guy, and to optimise his production line and keep the Model T priced competitively, he was cutting-costs by using a type of quick-drying paint that was only available in black.

Jobs was perhaps the ultimate product guy

Like Ford, Steve Jobs is a titan of American industry famous for limiting his customers’ choices. But Jobs was very much a product guy — perhaps the ultimate product guy. That said, when he returned to Apple in 1997, one of his first acts as interim CEO was to slash 70% of Apple’s product line (including the Newton PDA which, ironically, was just beginning to fulfil its potential). Of course Jobs was looking to reduce costs — he had to — but what was really driving him was quite different to Ford. Jobs believed in — no, he worshipped — simplicity. “That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity,” he famously said. “Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” And from his mantra came an abiding drive for excellence. As Jobs himself said, “quality is much better than quantity. One home run is much better than two doubles.”

Steve Jobs (Source: Apple)

Jobs’ obsession with simplicity and quality led to what Apple naysayers have interpreted as an arrogant approach to product design. Apple products never offered the kind of choice or configurability that its competitors routinely delivered at lower prices and, to add insult to injury, they frequently imposed a closed ecosystem on their users. “Over-priced! Dictatorial! Inflexible!,” shouted the nerds with Android-branded pitchforks. But Apple admirers know better. We know that what Apple did, what we were so grateful it did, was experiment with all the possible options during the development process then come up with a product that combined them all in the optimum way. When you bought an Apple product, you rarely had much choice (storage was often the only decision you had to make) but that never mattered: you knew you were buying the best. You knew that the confusing decisions had been made for you by people frankly much more qualified to do so and that the result was as good as it could get. You were buying the state-of-the-art.

Choice, you see, is often overrated — whether you’re looking for a cheap car or the best computer, it’s often wiser to leave it to the experts.

What does any of this have to do with the iPhone SE? Bear with me.

The best of Apple

I’ve been waiting for something like the iPhone SE ever since Apple released its first disappointing iPhone: the 6.

iPhone 6S (Source: Apple)

I upgrade my phone every year and, after the 5S, I had nowhere to go but the 6. I didn’t like the ‘middle of the road’ size so sent it back and went properly big (hey, if you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly!) with the 6 Plus. The year after that, all my suits destroyed by the Plus’ obscene girth, sense prevailed and I opted for the 6S. And throughout, of course, I appreciated the new phones’ technical improvements. But their overall size was — and is — ungainly. Yes, it’s nice having a larger screen, but is it worth sacrificing the tactile experience? On a device like this, one that you spend most of the day touching and using, how it feels in your hand, how it works without you even thinking about it, are crucial. So, I settled on the 6S begrudgingly — not because of its form factor but despite it. Having a great camera and a speedy processor was important enough to me to ‘put up’ with the size of the thing.

When the SE was released in April 2016 then, I was delighted.

iPhone 5S (Source: Apple)

The iPhone SE has the guts of the 6S squeezed into the case of a 5S. You get all the performance of the current flagship in a smaller form factor, a form factor that in my view is the pinnacle of iPhone design. And that’s no coincidence. As the direct descendant of the iPhone 4, the SE is the last iPhone that still has Jobs’ fingerprints all over it.

Jobs understood that form follows function, that a product shouldn’t just look beautiful but should work beautifully too. And you experience that in every aspect of the SE.

iPhone 4 (Source: Apple)

The SE’s overall size and its 4 inch screen in particular are simply perfect. There’s nothing you can’t do one-handed — which is exactly how a ‘phone should be. And, while small by today’s standards, the 4 inch screen is actually an upsized version of the 3.5 inch screen from the 4 and 4S. It’s very rare that you actually miss having a larger screen.

I’m also utterly in love with the industrial design of the thing. When Jobs unveiled the 4 he talked about it looking like a Leica camera. Hold the SE and you instantly knew what he meant: polished, brushed and chamfered metal married to shiny glass — this thing looks incredibly sophisticated yet utterly functional. There’s nothing showy about it but it exudes the kind of sophistication that the 6S’s cheaper-feeling, bar of soap-like form factor can’t hope to match.

iPhone SE (Source: Apple)

The SE is thicker and denser than the 6S too. This is a *good* thing. It feels substantial and important in your hand. It’s easy to hold and comfortable to operate. Using it as a camera is completely natural.

The iPhone SE is the perfect embodiment of Steve Jobs’ approach

And, speaking of cameras, the Leica-like details abound and they delight. The lovely, substantial round volume buttons are leagues ahead of the 6’s cheap, rattle-prone ones. The Power button is where it belongs: on the top of the device, not on the side (exactly where your finger wants to rest when pressing the volume button) as it is on the 6. Oh, and you don’t have to suffer the camera bump: the SE’s camera model is smoothly integrated in the case. And, even now after all these years, I still love the look of that metal bezel running around the edge of the device. This is truly a piece of classic design. I doubt very much that anyone will say the same of the 6S in a few years’ time.

In short, the iPhone SE is the perfect embodiment of Steve Jobs’ approach: considered in every way and sporting the highest quality available. It’s the very best of Apple.

Except it’s not. Although I told myself I could do without them, gnawing away at me is the knowledge that my SE is denying me some of Apple’s latest innovations. It lacks 3D Touch, its front facing camera is a joke compared to the 6S’, its Touch ID is slower, and its display lacks the depth, clarity and ‘pop’ — if not the resolution — of its bigger brothers. Most importantly to me though, I’m bothered on a daily basis by the fact that my photos and videos could be better. Yes, the SE has the camera module from the 6S but the 6S Plus also has optical image stabilization — making your low-light photos sharper and dramatically improving hand-held video footage.

Which brings us to why the SE also represents the worst of Apple.

The worst of Apple

Cook runs Apple very differently to Jobs. In some respects (its increased openness, its sense of corporate responsibility, its advocacy on issues like data privacy) that’s an excellent thing. From the point of view of the products it offers, it’s a disaster which I think will eventually harm the company.

Apple no longer offers one iPhone. It now offers five: the SE, the 6, the 6 Plus, the 6S, and the 6S Plus. Now, if these were just three sizes of the same iPhone, I wouldn’t be so incensed. What bothers me is that these are all subtle variations on the iPhone theme, each with their own very distinct list of pros and cons.

The 2016 iPhone range (Source: Apple)

Cook doubtless thinks he’s one-upped the likes of Ford; he’s a masterful operations specialist who has managed to tame the unruly supply chain and production process with such skill that he can afford to offer Apple’s products in a plethora of different configurations. I’m sure he thinks he’s offering his customers choice. He’s not. He’s offering them confusion.

He thinks he’s offering his customers choice but he’s offering them confusion

When Jobs was running the show, if you wanted the best phone in the world, it was simple: you bought an iPhone. The only choice you had to make was how much storage you wanted.

Today, if you want the best iPhone, you’re screwed. There is no longer any such thing.

Want the best camera? iPhone 6S Plus

Want the best size? iPhone SE

Want the best value? iPhone 6

If I want the best camera, I have to settle for an ungainly phone. If I want a tactile phone that feels great in my hand, I have to do without 3D Touch. Under the guise of choice, Cook is actually serving up something which used to be the very antithesis of Apple: compromise. He doesn’t seem to know what people really want or care about so he’s giving them everything.

Simplicity and focus demand conviction

I don’t want to sound like a fanatic. I still have a healthy respect for Apple and there’s no doubt its products maintain the ability to surprise and delight. But I sorely miss the confidence, clarity and — yes — chutzpah with which Jobs use to run it. Cook has many attributes that Jobs lacked but when it comes to the company’s products, he comes up short of something vital: conviction.