When Apple launches its next series of iPhones, it’s likely to be another trio, the iPhone 11, 11R and 11 Max, and we’re expecting them to be released on or around September 20. The family dynamic for 2019 going into 2020 will be predictably similar to the current line-up, with one standard flagship, one supersize option and one cheaper model. But is that really the best idea?
Apple just fell out of the three top smartphone makers for market share, after a 15 per cent drop in sales, year-on-year. Unless there’s a big surprise ahead in its launch line-up, its approach to this downturn appears to be to simply hold out and hope sales in China and elsewhere improve.
The company also stopped announcing iPhone sales as part of its earnings calls in 2018, an attempt to combat the headlines and soften the stock price fall it knew were coming. We only know about the drop in sales because of work by analyst firms, IHS Markit in this case. Such analysts predict further falls for Apple. Rosenblatt Securities just downgraded Apple’s stock rating as a result.
Is there a better way ahead?
Apple’s approach to smartphone releases is fast becoming the norm. OnePlus and Honor introduced “Pro” models this year, pushing the top prices of their phones higher than they have ever been. Samsung just filled-out its flagship Note line with the Galaxy Note 10 Plus, as well as the smaller, lower-specced Note 10.
Creating a larger array of phones with high prices seeks to normalise paying more for a wider audience of people, who may have considered spending that much obscene just a few years ago. And it’s all thanks to the magic perceptual effect of relative value.
Let’s try a thought exercise: a future where Apple releases one main iPhone model in 2019 instead of three. And it is closer to the iPhone XR than the iPhone XS Max, a slightly more affordable phone that will stay well under £1,000 for the base spec.
The first argument for this is simple. Apple’s iPhone XR is very popular.
“The iPhone XR has been a bit more successful than I expected,” says Ovum smartphone analyst Daniel Gleeson. “The big factors that have helped the XR have been its positioning relative to other iPhone devices – the iPhone X was retired, which drove a lot of people who would have bought the cheaper iPhone to the XR. Apple’s pricing strategy with the XS and XS Max also serves to make the XR look like a very good deal; even though it is still one of the most expensive handsets available.”
According to a recent CIPR report, the iPhone XR accounted for 48 per cent of iPhone sales in Q2 2019. And that’s not from a cast of three, but all seven iPhone models Apple currently sells. The iPhone XR dominates iPhone sales in the US.
The outlook isn’t all that different globally, either. “On average over the last six to seven months, almost one in three iPhones sold is the iPhone XR model according to our Global Smartphone Model Sales Tracker,” says Neil Shah of Counterpoint Research. “This model is one of the more profitable models for Apple considering it uses an LCD screen, aluminium frame and single rear camera module.”
For those not obsessed with tech, the iPhone XR is the slightly more affordable “new” iPhone. And for the enthusiast it is just as powerful as the iPhone XS Max, but lasts longer between charges and costs less. These very sentences highlight a problem with the “solo iPhone” concept, of course. Will an iPhone 11R seem as good a deal if there are no pricier iPhones to compare it to?
This is why our lone iPhone 11R needs a more distinct identity than any iPhone has had in years. If Apple could find a way to successfully market this hypothetical phone as a newly affordable flagship, and the only big-name phone that offers anything approaching solid privacy, it could come across as the most, or even only, “pro-people” phone.
The “pro-people” concept is not going to win any marketing awards. Both Samsung and Huawei have used the tagline “made for humans” in the past, and that almost made us cringe our way into a hospital bed. But there is something here behind the yet-to-be-written slogan.
What would happen if Apple managed to recreate the perception of value the iPhone XR currently benefits from, but in the context of a wider cast of phones, including Androids? The market is currently awash with £900-and-more flagships like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ and the Huawei P30 Pro. This seems the one clear way to restart a project that is hardly brought up anymore, of converting Android owners, and convincing the unconvinced.
Price becomes a route for this largely because Apple is no longer hugely competitive on design. It’s happy to sell phones that look and feel quite old, and has chosen not to adopt display curvatures, folding designs or motorised cameras.
These choices are not necessarily wrong. It’s easy to argue they are either not a good idea at present, or not desirable enough. But Apple’s piecemeal progress is at risk of looking like stasis. We’re already drowning in tech-soaked flagships, and their key features are often at odds with what the buyer will actually appreciate, or is asking for.
Apple’s previous successes are in part down to choosing the right roads at the right time. And a slightly more affordable flagship that makes a cogent argument for privacy may not be a bad one for today. Apple has more a convincing argument for its privacy policies than any other major phone company. Google says it cares, but virtually all the money it makes relies on having, exploiting and mining your data.
Privacy and a truly careful approach to handling user data seems hard to sell, even as it alters the outcomes of elections across the West. But our iPhone 11R would let Apple sell this as part of the phone’s personality, not just a side note to the usual tech-chasing, as it is highlighted today in Apple launches.
Apple has a habit of making people care about, or believe in, things. It did this for the smartphone, the smartwatch and tablet. All these items existed before Apple, but it made them matter to ordinary people. Just don’t mention that for Apple’s good work to have much of an effect on your life, you also need to give up Google services, Facebook, other social networks and Amazon.
Perhaps the standalone iPhone 11R is the stuff of daydreams. But take this as one last argument: according to an (admittedly fluffy) survey of 2,000 people by refurb site Decluttr, fewer than 50 per cent of iPhone owners even know which model they own.
But what will we see in September? A similar arrangement we have currently, but with no more roman numerals, thank God. “Apple will want to keep the R models a tad disparate in terms of camera module, build quality and some minor features, but still resembling the flagship S series thus demanding possibly a slightly higher price than last year,” Shah says.
Recent leaks of the three phones together make them seem even closer, visually, than the current iPhones. The camera arrangement is the obvious change. The 2019 iPhones will have a rounded-off square on the back that houses the cameras. It looks similar to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s design.
A closer look at the leaks suggest the iPhone 11R will have two rear cameras, a “normal” one and a zoom. And that the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Max will have three. These leaked images could be of fake prototypes from China, but Daniel Gleeson agrees with their findings.
“The 11R will only have a dual lens, however – most likely the exact same camera unit that is in the XS and XS Max at the moment,” he says. “The production scale already achieved for this will help keep costs down even more. The main cost saving for the XR is using LCD panels instead of OLED, and I fully expect this will continue for the iPhone 11 and 11R.”
The one feature iPhone 11Rs will miss out on is an ultra-wide camera. These have been used in phones for years. LG used them back in 2016, in phones like the LG V20 and LG G5. And Huawei uses one to great effect in the Huawei P30 Pro.
Apple’s ultra-wide camera will no-doubt be nice. It’ll likely have a much better sensor and lens than that of most Androids with similar setups, and is a real benefit for creative photography.
However, it could not possibly have as dramatic an effect as Apple realising it has lured makers of Android phones in a high-price trap, and that it can ensnare the lot if it wants to. Apple doesn’t even need to beat Samsung’s prices. Cost parity would make a more impactful statement than any feature Apple could devise in 2019, and it could play a major part in the long-term, strategic push to get more people signed up to its services such as Apple TV+.
Apple needs to find a new direction to start looking like the leader in smartphones again, and one option is right in front of it.
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