Apple is getting ready to deliver a throwback.
That will likely be the headline following the March 21 product event at its headquarters in Cupertino, California. The widely anticipated 4-inch iPhone (possibly called the iPhone SE, though iPhone 6C and iPhone 5SE are in contention) will probably not move the bar on innovation. Instead, it will ensure that the company ably fills the Ã¢Â€Âœsmall and affordableÃ¢Â€Â smartphone check box.
Why? Because itÃ¢Â€Â™s an important market and, it seems, some people still really love their iPhones small.
If youÃ¢Â€Â™re wondering who wants a 4-inch iPhone when there are some excellent (albeit larger) choices like the 6S and 6S Plus, just look around at all those still clutching an iPhone 5, 5s or 5C. You may even spot a few iPhone 4 and 4S owners, too. TheyÃ¢Â€Â™ve been itching to upgrade but have little interest in a phone that might feel too large for their hands or pockets. The “iPhone SE” is designed for them.
Video: Kayvan Ghavim, Loris Ravera, Christina Warren
Forrester Research VP and Principal Analyst Frank Gillett certainly sees the need for a 4-inch iPhone. Ã¢Â€ÂœItÃ¢Â€Â™s really clear that they need to keep a small-screen iPhone in the lineup…. At this size, itÃ¢Â€Â™s the lowest price. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s hard to imagine theyÃ¢Â€Â™d do away with that.”
Though most experts I spoke to expect the iPhone SE to feature last-generation technology (A8 chip, 8-megapixel camera and no 3D Touch, but Touch ID will make the cut), there’s an outside chance Apple will test out at least one new idea. What if, for example, this new iPhone doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t have an audio jack?
Most people believe Apple is toying with the idea of dropping the headphone jack for the iPhone 7. If Apple begins its purge with this product, it’ll have to include a new earbud design as well Ã¢Â€Â” one that uses the Lightning port (it could even be the first pair of Ã¢Â€ÂœBeats EarbudsÃ¢Â€Â). ItÃ¢Â€Â™s an unlikely, but not altogether impossible idea.
Starting to think about what Apple might unveil on March 21. pic.twitter.com/DDCzC4u8P9
Ã¢Â€Â” Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) March 16, 2016
Unless all the pundits and prognosticators are wrong, the 4-inch iPhone will also be the centerpiece of next weekÃ¢Â€Â™s event. Even if you arenÃ¢Â€Â™t in the market for a 4-inch iPhone that still offers the newer iPhones’ curvy good looks, every new iPhone is an event.
New tablet directions
AppleÃ¢Â€Â™s iPad business has flatlined and some are questioning the relevance of the category, but donÃ¢Â€Â™t expect Apple to step back from it. Next week, it should unveil a new iPad flagship.
Gillett told me that itÃ¢Â€Â™s fair to question the iPadÃ¢Â€Â™s relevance, but he thinks the jury is still out on the tablet. Ã¢Â€ÂœOne thing… that people donÃ¢Â€Â™t acknowledge is the fact that we never got a good feel for what the iPad refresh cycle is. People hold on them a lot longer than their phones,Ã¢Â€Â he said.
In other words, there could be a wave of iPad upgrade customers in the next couple of years. That could completely change the category outlook.
Ã¢Â€ÂœI think of this market still in flux, but in slow flux,Ã¢Â€Â said Gillett.
In the meantime, next weekÃ¢Â€Â™s iPad Air 3 (the current name guess) launch will signal a rejiggering of the category. Features like magnetic Smart Connector on the side of the tablet and the Apple Pencil will migrate down to the 9.7-inch tablet, giving it powers similar to the massive iPad Pro. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s not clear if the iPad mini will survive. Is it too close in size to the iPhone 6S Plus?
No one expects a new Apple Watch, but Apple will almost certainly further expand its band offerings, probably through some new designer partnerships.
Apple observer and Creative Strategies President Tim Bajarin still has a small wish list, Ã¢Â€ÂœI would hope they announce updated version of watchOS and perhaps give us an update on Watch sales,Ã¢Â€Â he wrote to me in an email.
If Apple does open up about how its first wearable is performing in the marketplace, it couldnÃ¢Â€Â™t choose a better time Ã¢Â€Â” almost a year since the original launch.
In the year since Apple surprised us with the ultra-light, single-port MacBook, Intel launched its sixth-generation Core processors (AKA Skylake), which includes a new line of low-powered Core M chips.
Most expect Apple to announce, at the very least, a MacBook update. Ã¢Â€ÂœIÃ¢Â€Â™m hopeful to see Skylake-based MacBooks, especially the new MacBook. Skylake could double its performance at that low power (a 4.5-watt, system on a chip [SoC]),Ã¢Â€Â Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy told me in an email.
ForresterÃ¢Â€Â™s Gillett thinks Apple might even announce updates to its Thunderbolt display, especially because IntelÃ¢Â€Â™s Skylake now supports Thunderbolt 3. He also thinks thereÃ¢Â€Â™s a possibility weÃ¢Â€Â™ll see MacBook Pro 13- and 15-inch updates. They might even include USB-C ports, though Apple is unlikely to get rid of any legacy ports on those machines.
ThereÃ¢Â€Â™s even a slim possibility Apple will tease an update to the powerful Mac Pro desktop.
Elephants in the room
Two big questions remain. One is the obvious. Will there be any surprises? Perhaps a brand new product or a new category?
Bajarin told me he doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t expect any new products right now. Ã¢Â€ÂœAnything new will come in the fall,Ã¢Â€Â he added.
Gillett agrees, telling me, Ã¢Â€ÂœApple tends to not spring new hardware out of the blue on anybody.Ã¢Â€Â
TheyÃ¢Â€Â™re probably right. For as tight a ship as Apple runs, that ship has a habit of springing more than a few leaks, especially when it comes to new product categories. So as much as I would like to see Apple finally enter the intelligent home assistant hardware space, it seems unlikely weÃ¢Â€Â™ll see Siri get its own kitchen hardware box (ÃƒÂ la the Amazon Echo) next week.
The other big, burning question is whether or not Apple CEO Tim Cook will address the ongoing battle with the FBI and the Department of Justice over the governmentÃ¢Â€Â™s demand that Apple write special software to hack a locked iPhone 5C that was used by a terrorist.
Moorhead thinks Cook has to address the controversy. Ã¢Â€ÂœHe has a captive audience and should take advantage of the opportunity,Ã¢Â€Â he said.
Personally, I expect at most a reference, maybe even a visual moment, but no direct discussion of the case.
Gillett agrees. Ã¢Â€ÂœThese events are very carefully designed to bring focus on the products to address customer and enthusiast.Ã¢Â€Â He does, though, expect it to be a major point of discussion at the upcoming Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, likely taking place in June.
Even if Cook says nothing, the unveiling will take place fewer than 24 hours before the first hearing in that case. It may be hard to ignore that elephant, though Apple is sure to try.
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