A True Budget iPhone

To paraphrase Benedict Evans in episode twelve of Cubed, around 12:20, Samsung has the talent, resources, and funds to mass produce any type of hardware, and so they substitute taste and design sense with covering all possible bases in order to determine successful product lines. Apple only recently accrued the former, so up until a few years ago they operated solely on taste and design sense. Now that they have the scale to adopt a similar strategy as Samsung though, they see no point in implementing a lesser process having already perfected the greater one Samsung developed a methodology to emulate. This is the fundamental difference between the ways Samsung and Apple build products: one carefully selects its targets, while the other uses a blunderbuss to obliterate the target, its stand, and anything within a close range. Ultimately both accomplish the requisite goal, only one does so more elegantly and with much fewer casualties.

The iPhone 5C, however, has turned out to match much more closely with a Samsung-like development mantra, not necessarily on purpose, but by virtue of Apple not pushing the device far enough in its intended direction. John Siracusa spoke to the shortcomings of Apple’s budget iPhone to completely fulfill its purported role during episode forty-six of the Accidental Tech Podcast. In Zac Cichy-esque fashion:

[12:03] “The 5C is a little bit disappointing in that it’s not more different. My whole thing was that if you make a purpose-built, cheaper phone, you can do it better than simply offering last year’s model. And they kind of did that, I guess, by going with plastic and stuff and maybe putting in a little bit bigger battery, but otherwise it’s basically just an iPhone 5 in there, and I feel like there’s an untapped potential in a purpose-built, second-tier iPhone. So maybe their next run at it they’ll do a little bit better, but we’ll see.”

Evidently, John believes Apple will take another stab at capturing the mobile phone market’s low end. Given the 5C’s rather unremarkable performance and its continued perception as a premiere, high-end device, all indications seem to point in such a direction. Apple has yet to fill the gap many believed it set out to patch over with the 5C; namely, the gap between mid- to high-end Android phones and the latest iPhone. They have successfully increased margins on last year’s phone even further than time naturally does, and simultaneously made it an attractive option. Having established the “C” line no less than its “S” counterpart, Apple can now shift focus further down market.

At a high level, we may draw a parallel to the manner in which Samsung develops successful product lines: with the 5C, Apple made relatively minor changes — as compared to those it could have — to its iPhone line. With another, possibly truly budget iPhone it will make relatively minor changes once again — as compared to those of the 5C, although when held alongside the iPhone 6 the modifications necessary for a truly budget iPhone will stand out in starker contrast — in order to finally address the low end with a true second-tier phone, purpose-built for that market rather than repackaged from last year’s technology. These incremental modifications are not unlike the process Samsung uses to saturate the mobile phone industry with every conceivable form factor until something proves mildly successful, albeit on a much smaller, more polished scale. Nevertheless, the parallel is worth pointing out if even as nothing more than a thought exercise.

Getting back to the topic at hand though, in simpler terms Apple has systematically begun moving towards the low end. Had the iPhone 5C exceeded expectations and managed to capture the entire mid- to high-end Android market, there would be no need for a true budget iPhone built specifically for that price point; however, it “failed” — and I use the term lightly here, for it obviously succeeded in a number of areas as described above — and that market still exists, waiting, tantalizingly underserved. Perhaps rather than ask “If” Apple will address this need with an intentionally second-tier offering instead of retrofitting last year’s model, we ought to ask “When” such a device will reach the market.