What the iPhone SE Taught Me about the Smartphone Market

on June 9, 2016

For the past two weeks, I’ve switched from my iPhone 6s Plus to the iPhone SE. Seeing the two devices next to each other, it was hard to imagine a more dramatic change in screen real estate for a device I use so much. But I was committed to trying the SE for a week just to make sure I had the full experience of the device. To my complete surprise, here I am two weeks later and I don’t feel the need to go back to the 6 Plus. I’ll explain why and what this experience taught me about the smartphone market as a whole.

The iPhone SE challenged many of my core assumptions about the right screen size for my usage. When I made the decision to go with the Plus sized iPhone, I did so on the singular basis of productivity. I am mobile for a good portion of my daily work routine. I take a lot of meetings and spend less time at a desk using a PC than I do out and about using my smartphone in the course of my day. My belief was the 6 Plus gave me the most screen real estate and therefore, allowed me to be more productive. This logic is the consensus thinking on the traditional notebook and desktop form factors. Bigger screen personal computers allow us to do more and be more productive. However, the tasks which require more screen real estate are generally not the most common tasks. What my time with the SE made me realize was, in general, the benefits I got from the larger screen, in terms of productivity, were things I did less frequently. Perhaps most surprisingly, this experiment caused me to reconsider the productivity and efficiency I lost in being able to operate my smartphone solely with one hand. This is the real stand out observation of my time with the SE.

My conviction that the larger the screen, the more productive I could be, was made without fully understanding the trade-offs of losing one-handed operation. The Plus sized iPhone requires two hands to do just about anything unless you have extremely large hands. Being able to reach every aspect of my screen while holding the phone one-handed might actually be the most productive and efficient scenario for a mobile device. If I was weighing one-handed operation against the many other trade-offs I’ve come across using smartphones of all shapes and sizes, I think one-handed use is the one thing not worth compromising on if possible. Obviously, as folks get older and their eyes get worse, a screen size which displays information larger may become the highest priority. This is where the lesson of the overall market comes into play.

Thanks to some research we conducted, developed market consumers have owned, on average, just over 3 smartphones in their life. In contrast, I have owned a new one every year since 2005, and in many of these years, I try for at least a short period of time a number of others. Most consumers do not have this luxury to try and experiment with such a vast and diverse set of hardware and software features. If even someone like myself had not fully internalized the trade-offs and the value associated with certain features over other ones, then how can a normal consumer have had such a chance to refine their needs, wants, and desires having only used approximately 3 smartphones in their lifetime? Understanding these trade-offs is hard to fully appreciate or understand until you have really had a chance to evaluate what you need. We hear consumers say things like “this device does all I need” or words to that effect. I seriously question if that’s true, given how little a chance consumers have to truly refine and understand what their needs are.

What I’m suggesting is the smartphone market may not be as mature as people think. It may still be in the process of maturing as hardware companies are continuing to add new features and experiences that consumers are wrapping their heads around. We may be a few years off from consumers not just understanding what they want, but why they want it. As much as I loved the Plus sized iPhone, I’ve come to appreciate how much superior my mobile experience is when I can fully operate my smartphone with one hand. The SE also has better battery life than the Plus. In my experience with the 6 and 6s, I killed the battery by early afternoon because of how much I use my smartphone. Again, all things I would not have known without trying them all. Something most people don’t have the luxury of doing.

To this point, I wonder if, as a part of Apple’s iPhone leasing program, they don’t make it easier for consumers to experiment in the future in some way. Most of the things I experienced can not be figured out in a retail store and without using the phone as your main device for a period of time. This would be tricky for Apple since they don’t want an influx of used devices but I think there is something to this point of truly helping consumers get what they want and need.

While using the SE, I feel like I discovered a secret — bigger is not always better and being able to operate your smartphone with one hand may actually be the most productive and efficient way to operate a mobile device. One handed use of a smartphone may also be the most underrated feature out there. I can’t see myself going back to the Plus even though there are something things like 3D Touch and the Taptic Engine I do miss.

This experiment clarified to me there is still room for the market to mature and try new devices to fully realize what they want and why they want it. Everything in tech is a trade-off and understanding those trade-offs by consumers is when the market will truly be mature.