iPhone 5SE: Too big, too late, or just right?

When contemplating a purchase, the average smartphone buyer experiences "Goldilocks Syndrome"
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Last summer, I proposed that Apple was missing out on potential upgrades from a significant portion of their iPhone userbase -- those who prefer the form factor of the iPhone 5, a 4-inch display design that originally debuted in September of 2012, which succeeded the 3.5-inch display iPhone 4 form factor that came out in June of 2010.

Currently, Apple's smartphones come in three display sizes: The 4-inch iPhone 5S -- which hasn't undergone a major technology upgrade since September of 2013 -- the 4.7-inch iPhone 6/6S and the jumbo-sized 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus/6S Plus.

Every indication, up until somewhat recently, has been that the 5S was likely to be phased out in favor of a lower-cost version of the iPhone 6, perhaps a "6C".

However, recent photographic spy reports from factory floors in China seem to indicate strongly that, in fact, the 5S is about to undertake a spec upgrade as the iPhone 5SE that will debut at a press event in California towards the end of this month.

What's in the iPhone 5SE? According to most published reports, the beauty is apparently skin-deep, in that it will look almost exactly like its predecessor, but it will boast improved screen technology (forgoing the 6S's 3D Touch). a 12MP rear camera sensor, 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Bluetooth 4.2 and an updated A9 SoC to bring it up to date with the iPhone 6.

On paper, this sounds great. But is it enough, and could it be it too late to make much impact on Apple's slowing iPhone growth?

As I said back in August, an upgraded iPhone 5, or any device with a 4-inch screen would be welcomed by a lot of potential customers looking to refresh their devices.

However, with anywhere between three to five distinct iPhone SKUs, not counting differences in memory configurations -- which could easily triple that number -- this adds considerable confusion for the consumer.

I'd like to refer to this as "Goldilocks Syndrome". For any end-customer, one iPhone is too big, one is too small, but one may be "Just Right".

That may be an oversimplification, but short of figuring out which size latte you should order at Starbucks (which has its own insane calculus with more SKU variants than one can possibly imagine) that was the best analogy I could come up with.

I've re-read my analysis from back in August and after comparing the proposed feature set of the iPhone 5SE to other iPhones and its Android competition, the product may just be too big, and also too late to the market as well.

Here is my take, and either accept or discount it entirely. The iPhone 5 is close enough in size to the iPhone 6 that most iPhone 5/5S owners will likely be able to easily transition to a 4.7-inch display in the 6S (assuming the 6 is discontinued) up from a 4-inch display, especially given the features that the 6S has. It's a little bigger, but not a lot bigger.

So that's not necessarily potentially good news for the 5SE adoption.

However, let's say you are a iPhone 4S user -- who really likes having a very small smartphone. A lot of these folks don't even use a case on their phone, preferring to stash it neatly in their shirt pocket or in a small handbag.

I don't know how many of these folks are out there, but I've observed enough of these people in the wild to know that plenty of them do exist. I've also spoken to a bunch of them in casual conversation and what I have learned is that you can pry their iPhone 4S out of their cold, dead fingers.

What these people really want is something almost the same size. The iPhone 5 form factor is considerably larger than the iPhone 4S. So that would be a big change for these folks.

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One could argue that if it was a case of being able to improve their feature set or just spec improvement on their device, this group of users would have gone to an iPhone 5 form factor a long time ago -- they've been hanging on to their 4S device for anywhere between two to four and a half years, as the product was launched in North America in October 2011 and discontinued in September of 2014.

In India, one of the largest growing developing markets for smartphones, the iPhone 4S was finally discontinued last month, in February of 2016. Which is saying something.

So are we going to see a new device that will satisfy the 4S crowd? It might happen sometime in 2017, if you believe the current rumors, as the "iPhone Mini" which will sport an entirely new, edge-to-edge, almost bezel-free 4-inch screen design in a 4-inch device form factor that will (allegedly) be the signature feature of a new iPhone lineup that will include the iPhone 7 as well.

You could also argue price as a motivator to upgrade. Sure, the 5SE might be priced aggressively. But is it going to be priced that much better than existing iPhone 6 stock now that the 6S is the current model? Hard to say.

If you're part of the teenage cracked screen crowd and you need a new phone, and you're sporting a iPhone 5 or a 5S, the natural cheap upgrade is an iPhone 6, unless we are talking over $100 difference.

And there is a large market in refurbished iPhone 6 devices as well. One could say the market is absolutely saturated in used, good condition recent-generation iPhones.

My gut instinct tells me that the 5SE is not going to satisfy people that want a small device, and that when existing iPhone 5 users make that internal "Goldilocks" calculation like they do when ordering coffee at Starbucks -- Tall, Venti or Grande -- they will choose the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 form factor instead.

Will the iPhone 5SE be Too Big, Too Small, Too Late, or Just Right? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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