Last week, Apple announced the iPhone SE, a long-awaited update to the 4-inch class of iPhone. After the release of larger iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus models, many fans of the smaller form factor worried that Apple might be abandoning it for good. Their fears have now been assuaged.
Even though I was worried and skeptical about the transition to iPhone 6, I have to admit I have mostly gotten used to it. I don’t know that I will return to the 4-inch sized phones, but the iPhone SE sure makes a compelling argument to do so.
What’s great about the iPhone SE isn’t just its smaller size. It’s great because it also lacks many of the design shortcomings, petty as they may be, that its grander siblings possess. The so-called “camera bump” that breaks the perfectly smooth surface of the iPhone 6? Not there on the SE. The reviled movement of the lock button to the side of the phone, where it’s easier to press accidentally? Not an issue. Even the fact that the SE allegedly has a slower touch ID processor will not be viewed as a flaw by people who are tired of accidentally unlocking their phones when they wake them to view their lock screens.
The iPhone SE is great because it doesn’t cast doubt on Apple’s design sense.
I am sure that all the design changes in iPhone 6 were done with good reason. The camera bump affords a higher-quality camera. Moving the lock switch may have been necessary to accommodate a slimmer profile. And the phone unlocking accidentally while you hold it is the tradeoff for the freaking amazing, gloriously fast intentional unlocking.
But the iPhone SE will be viewed by many as, and in fact it may be, a better phone. It’s great not because it’s as fast as, or can take as great pictures as, or can be unlocked as easily as the iPhone 6. It’s great because it leaves no room for doubt as to what it’s designed to do, and how it does it.
New Apple products never fail to offer enticing new functionality, but these amazing new features increasingly come with a “but.” Apple’s user base has grown accustomed over years to expect the great design. Design choices that have to be explained to be understood cannot be considered great. They are good, possibly even “best under the circumstances.” But a great design leaves no rough edge to be scrutinized, no accident-prone switch to be suffered, no “so good it hurts” performance optimization. Great design leaves no room for doubt that every detail was considered, and that every compromise was somehow, delightfully avoided.