The problem with the 'iPhone SE killed the Pixel 4a' argument

Don't start the funeral for Google's latest midranger yet.

iPhone SE, Pixel 4a
Petr Kratochvil/JR Raphael (CC0)

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to bid farewell to a promising young phone whose life was taken from us far too soon.

The Pixel 4a was seen as being one of the most promising, exciting new Android phones of the coming year, thanks to the combination of affordable price and exceptional user experience it was believed to possess. But sadly, we may never know for sure, as the Pixel 4a is evidently now dead before it even arrived. Excuse me whilst I blow my snoot.

Jeepers creepers, what a senseless waste of digital life. That's the takeaway you might've been left with after reading the internet's interpretation of last week's iPhone SE launch, anyway. But I'm here to tell you that the whole "iPhone SE killed the Pixel 4a" narrative is a bunch of sensational ballyhoo, and you'd be well-advised to disregard that entire argument and put your eulogy on hold.

We'll get to why in a moment. First, the iPhone SE, in case you've been hunkering down in a foam-filled bunker with your ears plugged for the past several days, is Apple's magical and revolutionary new $400 phone that looks vaguely like it came out in 2009. Appearances aside, the phone has some impressive internals — most notably the same A13 Bionic Super-Duper-Magic-Awesome-Work-of-Art processor that's present in the high-end iPhone 11 — and it's selling for a mere 399 clams.

iPhone SE Apple

The alleged murderer, as seen in an early booking photo.

That sort of pricing is practically unheard of for a company that hawks a $700 set of wheels for its $6,000 computer with nary a wink nor nudge involved, and there's certainly something to be said for its sudden presence in the Apple gallery. So, yes: The iPhone SE will undoubtedly be a welcome addition for the iPhone-adoring crowd — no question there. But whatever you want to say about the device itself and its appeal for the Apple faithful, it's hard not to cringe from the parade of headlines trying to tie the phone's arrival to the alleged "death" of Google's upcoming midrange device — the aforementioned Pixel 4a we were prematurely mourning a moment ago.

Maybe you've seen some of em — headlines like:

  • "The iPhone SE 2020 basically just killed the Pixel 4a and other value flagships"
  • "The new iPhone SE just made the Pixel 4a irrelevant"
  • And "Holy hellfire, I'm ditching Android to make passionate love to the new iPhone forever!"

All right, so I made that last one up. But the other two were real, and there are plenty more just like 'em.

In their quest to tidily frame everything as a dramatic head-to-head, only-one-can-survive-style battle, these stories gloss over a couple key points — first and foremost the fact that Android phones and iPhones really aren't competing directly with each other all that often anymore. Why? It's simple: Despite what the iPhone SE's exterior might suggest, this isn't 2009, when gadget-seekers were still figuring out which platform they preferred and looking across an entire store of possibilities for their next phone purchase.

Nope — nowadays, the vast majority of phone shoppers are firmly committed to one platform or another. It's in part an effect of human nature and our tendency to instinctively veer toward the familiar, but it's also in part a result of the very real lock-in effect all of these companies create.

Apple probably does it the most, with its you-can-only-use-'em-here services like iMessage and Facetime and its endless array of compatible-only-with-iPhone accessories, but the same thing happens wherever you roam: You have all the apps you've downloaded and in some cases paid for on your platform, and you have the setup and the services you know and like to use. Dropping all of that to change over to a whole new environment is a massive undertaking (a pain in the patootie, to use the technical term) and a huge investment, sometimes in dollars but always in time and mental energy. Most of us have no real desire or need to expend that, no matter which side of the virtual fence we reside on.

And this isn't just anecdotal, either: There's tons of data out there to support it. Some steamin' fresh research from the statistic-seeking crew at Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, for instance, finds that as of last month, both Android and iOS had operating system loyalty rates — the percentage of people who were committed to each platform and expressing no intention of making a switch — of roughly 90%. Ninety percent! And it wasn't just in March, either.

As the agency explains it:

For the past four or so years, around 90% of new mobile phone activations stayed with the buyer’s previous operating system. Despite Apple’s efforts to attract Android users to iOS, and Android handset manufacturers’ similar efforts to attract iPhone customers, operating system usage is among the stickiest of all consumer affinities.

Prefer visuals? Here's that same sticky data in shiny chart form:

Operating System Loyalty - CIRP CIRP

So there we have it, clear as day: Google isn't so much competing with Apple as it is competing with the likes of Samsung and other Android device-makers to win over potential phone buyers. The Apple to Android comparison is, as usual, apples and oranges; the primary competition for buying dollars actually happens within each respective platform (and thus mostly just among Apple itself, with one iPhone model vs. another, on the iOS side).

"But wait, Mr. Fancy-Fingers Writer-Man!" you might be thinking. (And I appreciate the nickname, by the way. My fingers are quite fancy, in addition to being slightly sticky from that chart.) "Isn't there a certain percentage of people who are still buying smartphones for the first time?" And you know, Juniper, you make a valid point. I knew I hocus-pocused you to this page for a reason.

But, well, two things: First, first-time phone buyers are a relative minority in 2020, especially here in these (allegedly) United States. As the gang from CIRP puts it: "U.S. operating system market shares have varied slightly in the past few years but have remained remarkably stable." Or as this chart from Statista visualizes, the new growth just isn't enough to move the needle by much:

Smartphone Ownership U.S. - Statista Statista

Second, the type of person just buying a smartphone for the first time almost certainly isn't focusing on a phone's specs and technical prowess — the factors most of the "Pixel 4a murder" articles seem to revolve around. Heck, I think we can safely say the type of person buying a midrange phone in general isn't likely to be the sort of creature who obsesses over such tech-centric minutia; anyone who's super-worried about what generation of processor their phone is packin' or poring over side-by-side spec comparisons whilst munching their morning oats is bound to be buying a top-of-the-line product, anyway.

(Side note: There's a certain satisfying irony to the fact that the "But the specs!" argument has now flipped around to a total inverse of its traditional positioning. I think we can all take a moment to sit back and appreciate the amusement in that.)

Ultimately, what we can say is this: It's wonderful for iPhone users to have what appears to be a relatively low-compromise, affordable option in their ecosystem after all these years. (Remember, no one's actually used the new iPhone SE yet — nor the Pixel 4a, for that matter — so everything we're discussing in terms of experience is purely hypothetical and based on expectations.) But huge swaths of Android users suddenly dumping their devices and running into Apple's arms as a result of an iOS phone with a big honkin' Home button popping up at a reasonable price? Yeah — probably not gonna happen.

The more grounded reality here is that Google and other Android device-makers have likely inspired Apple to step up its efforts in the midrange phone market as a result of their success. And I'm not presenting that in a playground-level, "Look who did it first!" sort of way; at the end of the day, as land-roaming mammals who purchase and use these cellular telephone apparati, such brag-claiming distinctions have no practical meaning. It's like asking which company came up with a specific feature or style of interaction first; in both directions, a certain level of copying is an inevitable part of evolution, and the details are eventually little more than hollow trivia.

And guess what? No matter who did what first, the real winners are almost always us — the two-footed potatoes who reap the rewards of all these companies constantly trying to one-up each other with their wares.

So let's stop the funeral march for the moment — and let's stop the sensational silliness. Everything doesn't have to be reduced down to a painfully forced this-gadget-kills-that-gadget race. There's room for more than one stallion in this stable, and we as the spectators only stand to benefit from the competition.

That one-or-the-other, gadget-murder-must-occur positioning does make for a punchy headline, though. There's no denying that.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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