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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.

Jake Paul via YouTube
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We should overcome our instinct to mock Jake Paul’s school shooting video

The urge to mock the ex-Disney star diminishes the victims he speaks to and ignores the good YouTubers can do.  

It’s very “darkest timeline”. Ex-Disney star Jake Paul (brother of vlogger Logan Paul, who infamously filmed the dead body of a suicide victim) has created a 22-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting in which he greets Florida senator Marco Rubio with the words “Hey, what’s up man?” and doesn’t mention gun control once. 

Paul – who has previously made headlines for setting fire to a swimming pool – goes on to ask the politician: “I think like a lot of people think passing laws is super easy, can you explain some of the struggles around, uh, passing laws?”

It’s hard to not immediately balk at the documentary, which was released yesterday and has since been widely mocked by the press and individual journalists. Critics note that Paul doesn’t mention gun reform within the YouTube video, and many mock his conduct towards Rubio. Others accuse the video of being an insincere PR move, particularly as Paul has previously fetishised guns on his YouTube channel – and has a tattoo of a gun on his thigh.

21-year-old Jake Paul talks and conducts himself like a child, which is what makes the video immediately jarring (“I just wanna become homies with them and just be there for them,” he says of the Parkland survivors he is about to meet). There is a vacant – almost dumb – expression on his face when he speaks with Rubio, leading the viewer to question just how much the YouTube star understands. But this is precisely the value of the video. Paul is a child talking to an audience of children – and talking to them on their terms.

YouTube doesn’t disclose the exact demographics of a YouTuber’s audience, but fan videos and Paul’s comment section reveal that most of his 14 million subscribers are young children and teens. Paul is introducing these children to a politician, and the video is edited so that Rubio’s claims don’t go unchecked – with footage of the senator being criticised by Parkland survivors playing in between shots of Paul and Rubio’s chat.

Paul (admittedly unintentionally) asks the senator questions a child might ask, such as “Is there anything that people can look forward to? Is there anything new that you’re working on?”. Although this might be jarring for adults to watch, the comment section of Paul’s video reveals it is already positively affecting his young audience.

“Definitely going to speak out now,” writes one. Another: “I shared this to my Mum and asked her to show the head teacher so everyone do that as well.” Childishness is still transparently at play – one commenter writes “Plzzz Stop the Guns… it hurts my feeling I’m crying… 1 like = 10 Pray to Florida” – but this too shows that Paul has introduced new concepts to kids previously more concerned with online pranks and viral fame.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be a cynical move on Paul’s part. Yet how can we demand more from YouTubers and then criticise them when they deliver it? Paul’s video is far from perfect, but engaging children in genuine discussions about current affairs is a commendable move, one far superior to his prior acts. (Paul previously caused controversy by telling a fan from Kazakhstan that he “sounds like you’re just going to blow someone up”, and his diss-track “It’s Everyday Bro” is third most disliked video on YouTube). Like it or not, Paul has an incredible influence over young people – at least he is finally using it for good.

Paul’s video has also undeniably helped at least one teen. “It’s just easier to talk about what’s going on with someone like you than a doctor or someone,” Jonathan Blank – a Parkland survivor – tells the YouTuber in the video. Later, his mother praises Paul through her tears. “It was the best therapy for my son,” she says, “You didn’t have an agenda, you cared.”

Other Parkland survivors are angry at the media’s response to the video. Kyle Kashuv – also interviewed in the documentary – has tweeted multiple times since the video’s release. “Media has the utter audacity to mock my classmates and Senator Rubio for doing the interview ON MY REQUEST AND THE REQUEST OF TWO OTHER STUDENTS,” he wrote.  

“If you mock a video where my classmates, that witnessed their friends get murdered in cold blood, are crying and putting their hearts on their sleeve, be prepared to be hit back twice as hard.”

Kashuv differs from the most famous group of Parkland survivors, as the teen supports the STOP School Violence Act over national gun reform. Yet the teen’s politics do not make his thoughts or feelings less valid, or his voice less important in the conversation. While critics note Paul spoke little of gun reform in his video (instead he suggested that schools have bullet proof glass and Instagram should flag pro-gun posts), the YouTuber later tweeted to clarify his stance.

“Gun Reform changes we need in my opinion,” he wrote. Paul went on to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should be 21, go through a six month training course, and have a mental health evaluation. He also tweeted that gun shows should be banned and there should be a “30 day wait period after purchase to receive firearm”.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Paul is right, or has all the answers, or is even equipped to discuss this topic sensitively. Yet his promise to pay for busses to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC, alongside the fact he didn’t monetise his YouTube documentary, speak of someone at least trying to do some good. “We all want the same thing and that’s to make schools safe,” he says in the video. Although he gives Rubio and the STOP School Violence Act a platform, he is dismissive of their impact.

“Kind of why I wanted to make this video in the first place is to activate parents and kids within their own schools and communities, that’s the way things are going to get done the fastest. We don’t to wait for hundreds of people in Washington DC to pass the laws,” he says.

Though the description to Paul’s video was most likely written by a far-more savvy PR, it’s hard to disagree with. “I vow to be part of the solution and utilise my platform to raise awareness and action across the board, but we cannot focus on one issue, we must actively discuss and make progress on them all,” it reads.

The criticism of Paul smacks of the old media sneering at the new media, galled and appalled that a 21-year-old YouTuber would dare wade into politics and do so less than perfectly. Concerns about propriety and morality are a veil to disguise a pervasive distaste for YouTube stars. Criticisms that his suggested solutions are stupid ignore the fact that it’s not his job to reform society. It’s like having a go at Sesame Street for not criticising Theresa May.

YouTubers might not be the idols that adults wish teenagers had, but we can’t change that. What we can do is encourage viral stars to engage with important issues, and not mock them when they do so less than brilliantly. Jake Paul may not be a good person – it might even be a stretch to describe the video as “good”. But the YouTuber made an effort that should be commended, not mocked. 

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