WWDC 2019 is so close that one can practically imagine what iOS 13 will bring – but while we might see some new hardware this year (the Mac Pro 2019 could make an appearance) we’re not going to see an iPhone SE2.
In fact, we’re never going to see the much-vaunted sequel to Apple’s surprise hit of 2016, the phone that brought back the right amount of nostalgia and fused it with cutting-edge technology. It was known as the iPhone Special Edition and it looks like Apple is leaving that as an exclusive moniker for the phone.
The iPhone SE2 will never happen for one simple reason: we're past the point of smaller smartphones, and the SE is synonymous with being compact… which is sad, as no matter how hard a brand tries to push ever-increasing screen sizes, there’s always going to be a market for that.
That smaller, four-inch screen represented something that so many smartphone users still desire: a phone that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Something that you can interact with easily with a single set of digits, one that doesn’t see you using your nose to hit the right hand side of the screen when you're holding something in your other palm.
A phone that could be used with one hand appealed to a specific set of smartphone users: those that didn’t really want one. Those that realized that to be unconnected on the go meant to be behind society’s curve, and realized the iPhone was generally regarded as one of the easiest handsets to use. The SE was one of the cheapest to go for, so became a no-brainer for many.
That’s a powerful mix, and why the phone continued to be successful years later – still selling rapidly even as it was discontinued in 2018, before being quietly re-released earlier in 2019. Tim Cook’s surprise at its success after launch shows that Apple didn’t realize the impact it could have.
It's game over for small phones
The modern smartphone is becoming less about the hardware and more about what users can do with it. It’s a device for more in-depth applications, platforms that need a larger screen area to allow users to see the improved and more detailed functionality offered.
Younger smartphone users are increasingly drawn to the bigger screen sizes, allowing them to devour more online media, enjoy YouTube videos in greater clarity and edit their own social media presence to a more refined degree.
An all-screen, but smaller, phone could appear, but that would raise the cost significantly in terms of the improved display and the need to create a perfectly-balanced phone.
The all-screen SE (possibly called the XE) would have to cram in cutting-edge components to take advantage of all the new tricks iOS brings, and making sure the cost stays palatable enough to be within reach of those that would like an iPhone but don’t want to pay exorbitant amounts for it.
When it comes to considering a successor to the iPhone SE, there's also the issue of the much-missed feature that would never appear on a new budget model: the headphone jack.
We questioned why the new iPod Touch still has the audio port, and the reason is likely that the new Touch is using the same design as one from four years ago, so keeping the headphone jack made sense.
Apple will never launch another compact smartphone in the vein of the iPhone SE, so even if it were to come out with a phone that was aimed at those that wanted a cheaper iPhone, one that used older designs, it would likely be something based on the iPhone 7's shape or later.
An iPhone SE2 could follow the iPhone 6S’ design and keep the headphone port, but it would feel something of a rather large backtrack over Apple’s ‘courage’ in removing it from its smartphone line.
Given the iPhone SE was the last new smartphone from Apple to pack the headphone jack, a new SE without the port would feel even further removed from the original, a separate line that merely shares the name (were the iPhone SE2 to actually appear.
So what might be coming?
Given all the above, you might be confused as to why recent rumors have tipped an iPhone SE2 for 2020… or even WWDC 2019.
While we’re not expecting to see any phone hardware at Apple’s developer conference, that doesn't mean we’re never going to get a new, stripped-down version of the iPhone.
It’s perfectly feasible that Barclays analyst Blayne Curtis’ predictions of a lower-cost iPhone, one shorn of elements like 3D Touch, could appear in the near future. It would most likely be based on the older designs, those of the iPhone 7 and 8, to protect price but still offer a large enough screen size for modern app use.
We’ll likely see this in 2020, but given a different name than SE – like the iPhone 5C's colorful ‘natural successor’ was named the iPhone XR, Apple will likely want to create a new proposition rather than encourage natural comparisons.
Apple rarely launches big changes to its hardware at WWDC, and this year we’re mostly expecting to see big upgrades to iOS alongside the launch of macOS 10.15 and the retooling of iTunes to split into different apps.
Our best guess at the announcement of this lower-cost phone would be either alongside the new iPhone launch in September, or perhaps even at its own event (in the same vein as the iPhone SE, which landed at a special launch in March 2016).
What’s almost certain is that Apple won’t be taking a phone design that’s nearly seven years old and packing it with new technology – the angular, industrial design might have come back with the new iPad Pro, but for Apple to apply the same language to a new iPhone, even a reboot, seems too much of a stretch at this stage.
So if you’re hankering after an iPhone SE2, one that looks and feels the same as your older model, we’d suggest trying to make peace with a slightly larger handset and the benefits that brings, or soldiering on with an aging device – because it seams that special edition looks set to remain the only such thing Apple will ever make.