The Watch Series 4 Stole Apple’s Show, but the iPhone XR is the Real News of this S Year

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Now that the dust has settled, many in the tech press and analyst community are proclaiming that Apple’s iPhone announcement event was boring. To be fair, I can’t blame hem too much. The Apple Watch Series 4 grabbed some headlines with its bigger screen and impressive new health features, but the consensus on the new iPhones is that they don’t really bring anything new to the table.

Much ado about little?

I can’t deny that there is some truth to this. Typically, Apple has hung its hat on one or two new features that differentiate the “S” versions of their iPhones. The 3GS was a relatively anemic upgrade, with only Voice Control and the ability to take video added. The 4S had Siri, which was a big deal at the time. The 5S had TouchID, which began Apple’s foray into accessible and easy to use biometric security. The 6S had 3D Touch, which seemed like it could be an important interface enhancement at the time. At the time of their release, at least, all of these features were covered extensively and seen as solid additions to the previous year’s phone design.

The iPhone XS and XS Max can’t really make this claim. They do have the latest A12 Bionic processor, and each year’s new version of the A Series seems to be a bigger and more significant leap forward. That said, Apple has put a new A processor in each successive new iPhone and iPad since the A4 in the iPhone 4. While the enhanced Neural Engine sounds like it could really make an impact, this isn’t big news. New A processors are expected.

The other highlight is the improvements that Apple is making to the iPhone’s Camera. While the optics and sensors have been tweaked a little, again, that happens pretty much every year. Most of the improvements that Apple focused on during the event have more to do with software than hardware.

This does beg the question- what’s new with the XS and XS Max? Well, the Max size is all new, but it doesn’t have any standout features over the XS other than the larger size and greater screen resolution. That size bump will be enough for me and many others to move up, but those who aren’t looking to go bigger may be left unimpressed.

It’s pretty clear that, Apple hype aside, the XS and XS Max are nothing more than bumped versions of what we got last year in the iPhone X. Again, other than those of us who are looking to move to the Max, they aren’t designed to get owners of an X to upgrade. They are more like a reversed role version of what the iPhones 8 and 8 Plus were to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. They are there for the people who weren’t ready to upgrade last year, but want the higher-end iPhone. Oddly enough, I think they are really the sideshow in 2018-19, and that the real action will be centered around the iPhone XR.

We’ve been here before

As many Apple bloggers and tech writers have already pointed out, the XR is not the company’s first attempt to offer a more affordable version of the previous year’s iPhone. As they have done with the iPhone X this year, Apple stopped making and selling the iPhone 5 when the 5S was released. Why? Because both the 5 at the time and the X now are still more expensive to make than the average legacy iPhone.

Realistically, we all know Apple could afford to knock $100 off the price and never miss a beat. However, Tim Cook directed Apple to becoming the first trillion dollar company in the world for a reason. He KNOWS the numbers and supply chain game better than anyone. Whatever the reason, the 5 and the X didn’t line up with the typical playbook, and Apple went to Plan B in response.

A rough start

The iPhone 5C seemed like a good idea at the time. I really thought that a less expensive iPhone with new color options would sell to people who didn’t care as much about having the latest and greatest. When you make a second-tier device, you have to make sacrifices and concessions, and unfortunately for Apple, they made some with the 5C that came back to bite them.

Apple owners want premium devices. I think that the iPhone 4 set a new standard for what a premium smartphone would be in terms of design and build quality. Customers came to identify that level with Apple and their subsequent iPhones. Even if they are buying a previous year’s version, the design and the materials that Apple typically uses are a draw, so much so that most of the industry has followed suit with their flagship devices.

Apple went all plastic with the 5C, and they weren’t ashamed of it. Jony Ive even gave us one of his patented videos bragging about how well thought out and durable the plastic was. My wife actually owned a 5C that we still have, and I can attest to the fact that it was no cheap piece of junk. However, it also wasn’t the all-metal body iPhone 5. It was the guts of the 5 in a slightly larger, but not as premium package. And worst of all, it actually wasn’t that inexpensive.

The iPhone 5C may not have been a disaster, but it is definitely the least successful iPhone ever launched. It likely sold more than the original iPhone, but that really isn’t a valid comparison. Up against any iPhone within three years of its release, the 5C’s sales and popularity pales in comparison, and the reason is simple. Apple didn’t understand how the market would respond to its design and concession choices.

Learning a lesson

Apple proved that they learned their lesson just two years later, with the release of the iPhone SE. Rather than changing up the design of the iPhone or making ill-advised concessions to cut price, Apple took the tried and true body of the iPhone 5S and put their latest processor in it. Rather than compromising on construction materials and specs, Apple breathed new life into an older design, and produced a phone that was still worth the asking price for consumers. You can tell how much people still love the SE design and approach by the complaints directed at Apple for discontinuing it earlier this week, rather than giving it another spec bump.

The next step

The iPhone XR is Apple’s logical next step beyond the SE. Rather than taking an older design and keeping it relevant, now they have successfully taken a current design and re-worked it without compromising the look and feel of the device. Sure, Apple did go back to offering additional colors as a differentiator, but that was really the only redeeming quality of the 5C. The difference here is the overall package that Apple is pairing those color choices with.

Where Apple made the wrong trade-offs with the 5C, I really think they made the right ones this time. They went with aluminum, rather than stainless steel for the body. Any recent iPhone user who hasn’t owned an X is going to be just fine with aluminum. The screen is LCD, rather than OLED. While this is a step down, again, any iPhone user without an X has been using LCD for years. This won’t be a problem. As for the single, wide angle camera, anyone who hasn’t had a Plus-size iPhone has had a single camera to this point. Considering that Apple even went as far as offering a software version of Portrait Mode, their target customers aren’t going to mind this.

At the end of the day, you have a phone that costs $200 less than the iPhone XS, but has the same basic design, has Face ID, and even has the same processor and base specs. It’s inexpensive enough to stand out from the XS, but it good enough to still be worth a premium price. Apple did a good job picking the places to dial things back, and the places to keep the XR even with its higher-end siblings. As a result, I think the XR is going to mop the floor with the XS, the XS Max, and the rest of the smartphone world in terms of raw sales numbers.

Why do I think this? Just go back and take a look at how well the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus sold this year. They actually spent time as the best selling smartphones IN THE WORLD. We’re talking about phones with a four year old design here. I honestly didn’t expect much from them when Apple announced them, but while the iPhone X brought the high margins and profits, the 8 and 8 Plus brought the consistent sales volume all year long. Granted, the smaller iPhone 8 retailed for $100 less than the XR at $699. However, the XR has a larger screen than the 8 Plus, which shared the same $799 price tag. Don’t forget- the 8 Plus sold very well all year, as well.

What’s not to like here? The iPhone XR really stands out next to the 8’s older design. It’s more modern looking. It has better specs. It has newer features. It offers customers more color choices. Based on the strong sales of the iPhones 8 last year, I expect this “S year” to be dominated by the XR.

James Rogers

I am a Christian husband and father of 3 living in the Southeastern US. I have worked as a programmer and project manager in the Commercial and Industrial Automation industry for over 19 years, so I am hands on with technology almost every day. However, my passion in technology is for mobile devices, specifically Apple's iOS and iPadOS hardware and software. My favorite is still the iPad.

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