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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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.