On Wednesday, Apple introduced not one but three new phone models to the world: the iPhone Xs, Xs Max, and Xr. They all seem fine. But take note of what Apple took away. As of this week, it no longer sells the iPhone SE. Which in turn means the age of small smartphones has officially come to an end.
When Apple debuted the iPhone SE in 2016, it was remarkable not just for its diminutive 4-inch screen size, but for its amped-up capabilities even given those constraints. It stuffed all the high-end internals of the then-flagship iPhone 6S into a package that didn’t bulge pockets. At a base price of $400, it was remarkably affordable by Apple’s standards. Most of all, it fought against the current of ever-bigger displays.
Others have noted that by killing off the SE and the 6S, which also disappeared Wednesday, Apple no longer sells a smartphone with a headphone jack. (You can, however, find other headphone-friendly handsets if you look hard enough.) Without the iPhone SE, small smartphones effectively no longer exist. The only other recent option is the dwarfish Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact, which launched at the beginning of this year. But at the IFA trade show in Berlin last month, Sony made no mention of a follow-up. A Sony spokesperson declined to comment on future products—but that future at least seems in doubt.
“It’s a shame,” says Avi Greengart, analyst for Global Data. “There are a lot of people who prefer phones that are smaller and fit more easily in your hands.”
And not just hands. Bigger phones take up more pocket and purse real estate. They strain your thumbs and stress your jeans. They’re more frustrating to run with. They demand both hands to operate. They also arguably require more mental space; the larger the screen, the more you do with it, and the more easily it becomes the locus of your daily life.
That’s also, of course, precisely why large phones have come to dominate. You can certainly lament the end of small phones, but it shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise.
“The types of thing you’re doing with phones has changed. Your phone is your navigation device. It’s your window into your social world. It’s the way you get a ride somewhere, and of course is the way you communicate,” says Greengart. And that’s before you even get to purely visual experiences like Netflix and Instagram. The smartphone isn’t a gadget, it’s a canvas. Your hands might hate it, but your eyes can’t resist.
The larger the screen, the more you do with it, and the more easily it becomes the locus of your daily life.
Bigger displays have become increasingly important, too, as smartphones have gone global. In developing markets especially, a phone often replaces a primary computer, or even a television set. It’s the main, and sometimes only, technological portal to the outside world. Who wouldn’t want to make that view as expansive as possible?
Jumbo phones have at least made some ergonomic concessions of late, squeezing ever-larger displays into narrower bodies. Take Apple’s new iPhone Xr: By ditching the home button and shaving down bezels, it fits a 6.1-inch screen into frame just slightly bigger than the iPhone 8, which has a 4.7-inch display.
All of which is cold comfort to those exhausted by the daily grapples with their pocket monoliths. In fact, it may even add insult to industry. How much more screen could Apple have squeezed into the SE package if it had really tried? Your thumbs will never know.
In the end, the plight of small-phone believers didn’t translate into enough sales. If small phones drove profit, they wouldn’t be extinct. But did they ever have a chance? Apple didn’t release a newer small phone in 2017—there was no iPhone SEs—it just bumped the storage. The industry, Apple included, decided years ago that bigger equals better full stop, reserving premium features for their most hulking designs.
“When you’re talking about larger phones, you’re commanding a higher price point, just based on the fact that you’re saying this is our halo, our iconic product,” says Tuong Nguyen, a mobile analyst with Gartner. “I think there’s still some interest in small phones, especially from people who still yearn for the days of something simple, they’re trying not to check their phone every five seconds. But the overwhelming trend will be toward larger.”
Existing iPhone SE devices will still be able to upgrade to iOS 12, but buying one new will require a trip to Ebay or a refurb shop. And while tiny so-called feature phones—the ones that barely connect to the internet, if at all—have staged a recent comeback, they work best as a complement to your main device, rather than the main event.
Which means that, yes, small phones are essentially dead. It’s remarkable they made it this long. And it’s a shame to see them go.
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