Apple is good at lots of things, but perhaps its most undervalued corporate quality is a willingness to kill its babies. From the optical drive to FireWire and the headphone port, and recently the iMac Pro and the HomePod, few companies are smarter at recognising the exact moment when a beloved product or popular feature is about to outlive its usefulness, nor as unsentimental about discontinuing it when this happens.
Apple needs to use this superpower now and put a halt to the iPhone mini project before things get out of hand.
The case for a mini iPhone
The iPhone 12 mini made perfect sense at the time. There appeared to be a gap in the market: people with small hands, small pockets and small budgets appeared to be underserved, as Android manufacturers raced to offer the biggest screens possible and Apple followed suit. Wherever you looked, a vocal minority of users would tell you how much they missed the iPhone SE from 2016 and the other 4in handsets that preceded it, and how much they hoped Apple would launch another phone of the same size.
So Apple did what any self-respecting populist would do, and gave the people what they wanted. And the late-2020 launch included an unprecedented four new iPhone models, with a new dinky 5.4in screen size offered by the iPhone 12 mini. (A 5.4in screen might not sound especially dinky compared to the old SE, but when contained within an all-screen notched design it resulted in a genuinely pocketable chassis that's roughly the same size as the 4.8in SE.)
Now to sit back and wait for the money to roll in. But unfortunately, there were a couple of problems with this plan.
Nobody knows what they want
The first problem was an overestimation of the interest in a small iPhone. The problem with vocal minorities is that you focus on the vocalness and not on the fact they are in many cases a very small minority indeed, giving the impression of numbers through sheer force of persistence.
Another is that, when people said they wanted another small iPhone, what they really wanted was another small cheap iPhone. That market would never pay £699/$729 for the 12 mini, instead heading for the iPhone SE (2020). And Apple found it had made a phone that cost too much to interest one half of its customers, and made too many sacrifices on battery life and screen size to satisfy the other.
But the biggest problem is that most people don't know what they want until you show them. They may think they do. But you find out what a person actually cares about when money is on the line.
That may sound like a hugely patronising thing to say about your customers, but it's the approach on which Steve Jobs built the company. He famously said: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."
The pleasures of a walled garden
Apple built its success on a model of patronising prescriptivism: no no no, it used to say, you don't want that, you want this. Please don't customise the user experience too much, you'll spoil it. You're holding it wrong.
That philosophy sounds terrible but it's incredibly successful because you know what? Apple's team of world-class engineers and designers actually does know how to design a phone and its interface better than I do.
These days Apple is more open to the idea of relinquishing control. It lets us switch from its own preinstalled iOS apps to third-party alternatives, and even set those alternatives as the default. It has somewhat relaxed its grip on the App Store. And now it makes the sorts of phones that users say they want.
This madness must end.
We'll find out if Apple has heeded my call in September, when the iPhone 13 makes its debut. In the meantime, pick up a bargain on a current model with our roundup of the best iPhone deals. Maybe even the iPhone 12 mini. But I doubt it.