New iPhones, for the Small of Hands

On Monday, Apple did something it has never done before.

The iPhone SE appears to closely resemble an iPhone 5, the last four-inch device manufactured by the company. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

On Monday afternoon, from its headquarters in California, Apple did something it has never done before: It announced a new iPhone with a smaller screen than the last model.

The phone, which it dubbed the iPhone SE, has the same innards as the iPhone 6S, the jumbo device that the company released last year. Its processors are just as fast, and it comes in 16 and 64-gigabyte versions. Its camera even has the same number of megapixels (12) as the 6S.

But in place of the 6S’s 4.7-inch screen is a four-inch screen, just as the iPhone 5 had. (iPhone screens are measured by their diagonal.)

The new phones end what was essentially a long game of chicken played between Apple and its customers. Since September 2014, when the company first released iPhones with big screens, some users have pleaded for smaller devices. (I wrote a story that month asking if the new phones were too large for many women’s hands.)

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, has used jumbo-sized smartphones to show the consequences of involving few or no women in a device’s design process.

Increasingly, on the latest versions of the kinds of phones I want to use, I cannot type one-handed. I cannot take a picture one-handed. I can barely scroll one-handed,” she wrote. Tufekci cited research that the average male hand was about two centimeters longer than the average female hand.

On Monday, Greg Joswiak, an Apple vice-president, said that the company sold 30 million four-inch iPhones in 2015. The scale of that number convinced Apple to update its smaller iPhone line.

Hand size also correlates with height. As Apple continues to grow into international markets, it needs to market itself to customers with smaller bodies. The average Chinese man, for instance, is three inches shorter than the average white American man. Joswiak said the majority of iPhones sold in China were outdated four-inch models.

As of April 2015, China eclipsed the United States to become Apple’s largest phone market.

The iPhone SE is also less expensive than the iPhone 6S. A 64-gigabyte version of the new device will cost $499; a 6S device with similar capacity costs $749. They will go on sale next week.

Beyond the new iPhones, the company updated other products at the Monday event. It introduced a new, smaller version of the iPad Pro, and dropped the price of its least-expensive smart watch by $50. It also previewed the newest version of its mobile operating system, which will include a feature that makes the screen less glaring at night.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, began the event by noting that Apple was founded nearly 40 years earlier, on April 1, 1976. To celebrate the anniversary, Cook aired a video, which was surprisingly low-key.

Apple usually makes a bigger deal about major anniversaries of the Macintosh, its first personal computer, released in the winter of 1984. Next year, however, it will have a different kind of birthday on its hands: On January 9, 2017, the iPhone will turn 10.