Show Hide image

With the iPhone SE, Apple has stumbled upon the product customers actually want

The company has disproved its own "It Phone" business model, and now it's paying the price.

At the end of March, a new Apple phone launched without much fuss. It was the iPhone SE: a four-inch phone that looked essentially the same as the more than two-year-old iPhone 5s, but inside, it had most of the workings of the iPhone 6.

It was clearly an interim phone, designed to give consumers something to play with before the mega-launch of the iPhone 7 later this year. Most of the interest from the tech press focused on the fact that it came in a trendy rose gold finish – so 2016. The Guardian called it “too small for most people”. The Next Web called it “two years too late”. It landed with a blip, not a bang.

Fast forward a month, and something strange has happened. CEO Tim Cook said at the end of April that the supplies of the new phone were “constrained” thanks to surprisingly high demand from users. “It’s clear that [the demand] is much beyond what we thought,” he said.

This cheerful summary masks a darker reality. Apple’s quarterly sales report showed a drop in profits, attributable partly to the fact that millions of customers are choosing the cheaper SE over the more expensive iPhone 6. And what Cook is describing as “constrained” supply is actually an unprecedented lack of stock affecting customers all over the world. Even by the beginning of April, many stores were out of stock completely and customers were told to expect a three-week wait.

I upgraded to an SE at the end of April on the promise of a next day delivery  ironically, rose gold was the only colour in stock  and I'm still waiting. My phone provider hasn't received any SE deliveries from Apple in weeks. Their last update said they'd email me in ten days to update me again, implying they have few hopes that the issue will be resolved soon. In my local shop, the mention of the model had shop assistants practically chasing me to the door, groaning: WE DON'T HAVE ANY.

So what happened? Speaking as someone who chose the phone, and knew I would since I saw it announced, I suppose I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. Commentators have tended to describe it as the iPhone 5 with benefits, but the tech inside the phone’s body is equivalent on almost every front – camera, storage space, processing power – with the iPhone 6. And it’s cheaper. Much cheaper.

Perhaps here, rather than anywhere else, is where we can see the huge gap between providers' expectations and customers’ priorities. I cannot be alone in seeing the SE contracts  from £26 a month  as eminently more affordable than the iPhone 6. It's becoming more and more accepted that a 16GB phone is not large enough for the average user, yet contracts offering the larger, 64GB iPhone 6 are still hovering at around £50 a month. The SE launch was partly prompted by the continued (and, to Apple, perplexing) popularity of the four-inch phones long after the larger iPhone 6 launched. My instinct is that this interest came from those who wanted a cheaper phone, and didn't care much about giant screens.

So what do you miss out on with the SE? With the iPhone 6, you’re paying for a slightly larger screen – which, for dedicated gamers and status-obsessed tech journalists, might be worth it. These people are also presumably unwilling to use a phone that looks like it could be an older model. Personally, I’d rather save the £20 a month.

It's still a truism that customers want the biggest, newest, thinnest, snazziest phone on the market. But let’s think about that assumption. The iPhone 6 is underperforming sales targets, and is mostly responsible for Apple's most recent disappointing quarter-on-quarter earnings. It's an It Phone that people don't especially want. And yet its smaller, unwelcomed cousin has delivered weeks of bare shelves and what sounds like a panic at Apple's head office. 

In a way, it isn't a surprise that Apple has this prestige-oriented outlook after all, it's flogged £1,000+ laptops for years in a market where competitors currently start at £179. The fact that operating system upgrades often don't work on, or simply break, older phones and laptops has forced users to consent to this cycle. But are we willing to put up with this forever? I’m not – and it looks like millions of others aren’t either. With the SE, Apple offered customers a step back, and many have taken it gladly.

I have contacted Apple about delays in the supply of the iPhone SE but haven't yet had a response. I will update accordingly.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Show Hide image

Did your personality determine whether you voted for Brexit? Research suggests so

The Online Privacy Foundation found Leave voters were significantly more likely to be authoritarian and conscientious. 

"Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies," Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, wrote in these pages. "Leave did." The idea that those who voted for Brexit were somehow manipulated is widely accepted by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign, so the argument goes, played on voters' fears and exploited their low numeracy. And new research from the Online Privacy Foundation suggests this argument may, in part at least, be right. 

Over the last 18 months the organisation have researched differences in personality traits, levels of authoritarianism, numeracy, thinking styles and cognitive biases between EU referendum voters. The organisation conducted a series of studies, capturing over 11,000 responses to self-report psychology questionnaires and controlled experiments, with the final results scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Political Psychology in Copenhagen in October 2017.

The researchers questioned voters using the "Five Factor Model" which consists of five broad personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. They also considered the disposition of authoritarianism (it is not considered a personality trait). Authoritarians have a more black and white view of the world around them, are more concerned with the upkeep of established societal traditions and have a tendency to be less accepting of outsiders. 

So what did they uncover? Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain. (Conscientiousness is associated with dependability, dutifulness, focus and adherence to societal norms in contrast to disorganisation, carelessness and impulsivity.)

Immigration in particular seems to have affected voting. While authoritarians were much more likely to vote Leave to begin with, those who were less authoritarian became increasingly likely to vote Leave if they expressed high levels of concern over immigration. These findings chime with research by the Professors Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, which found that Americans became susceptible to "authoritarian thinking" when they perceived a grave threat to their safety. 

Then there's what you might call the £350m question - did Leave voters know what they were voting for? When the Online Privacy Foundation researchers compared Leave voters with Remain voters, they displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy, reasoning and appeared more impulsive. In all three areas, older voters performed significantly worse than young voters intending to vote the same way.

Even when voters were able to interpret statistics, their ability to do so could be overcome by partisanship. In one striking study, when voters were asked to interpret statistics about whether a skin cream increases or decreases a rash, they were able to interpret them correctly roughly 57 per cent of the time. But when voters were asked to interpret the same set of statistics, but told they were about whether immigration increases or decreases crime, something disturbing happened. 

If the statistics didn't support a voter's view, their ability to correctly interpret the numbers dropped, in some cases, by almost a half. 

Before Remoaners start to crow, this study is not an affirmation that "I'm smart, you're dumb". Further research could be done, for example, on the role of age and education (young graduates were far more likely to vote Remain). But in the meantime, there is a question that needs to be answered - are political campaigners deliberately exploiting these personality traits? 

Chris Sumner, from the Online Privacy Foundation, warns that in the era of Big Data, clues about our personalities are collected online: "In the era of Big Data, these clues are aggregated, transformed and sold by a burgeoning industry."

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica, a data company associated with the political right in the UK and US, states on its website that it can "more effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate". It will do so through a "blend of big data analytics and behavioural psychology". 

"Given the differences observed between Leave and Remain voters, and irrespective of which campaign, it is reasonable to hypothesize that industrial-scale psychographic profiling would have been a highly effective strategy," Sumner says. By identifying voters with different personalities and attitudes, such campaigns could target "the most persuadable voters with messages most likely to influence their vote". Indeed, in research yet to be published, the Online Privacy Foundation targeted groups with differing attitudes to civil liberties based on psychographic indicators associated with authoritarianism. The findings, says Sumner, illustrate "the ease with which individuals' inherent differences could be exploited". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496