The iPhone 12 Mini Isn’t a Top Seller — and That’s Just Fine for Apple

Apple finally created a phone for people who don’t really care about phones

Photo: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the iPhone 12 Mini failing to reach Apple’s lofty sales goals, selling well below estimates and well below competing phones. At first glance, this seems like evidence that Apple got the small-phone trend wrong and possibly split its user base.

“Apple not only launched a wider range of new models than ever before, and also divided that launch into two pairs of models, so comparison to earlier launches is tricky,” said Josh Lowitz, of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, in comments to MacRumors earlier this month. “In addition, Apple launched a new ‌iPhone SE‌ earlier in the year, further complicating the lineup.”

But is that the full story? Maybe not, I’d argue. The problem with the analysis is the time of year that we’re talking about: just after releasing a bunch of competing models of differing quality.

The small smartphone is a market closely associated with Apple in part because until the release of the iPhone 6 in the fall of 2014, the small phone was the only type of smartphone Apple sold. And the company continued to cater to this market with the release of the original iPhone SE in 2016. To highlight how the definition of “small phone” has changed over the years — the second iPhone SE, released about a year ago, is considered a small phone despite being the same size as the original iPhone 6, which was considered a significant size upgrade for Apple at the time of its release.

That Apple is accommodating a market it basically created but largely neglected for a few years is welcome news, and I think one reason it came back is that it left some users stranded. Like my wife, Cat.

Cat bought a smartphone only begrudgingly and went out of her way to avoid another upgrade. And she only upgraded from an iPhone 5 when I pointed out that networks like T-Mobile were rumored to be dropping support for older devices that weren’t built with more modern wireless bands in mind, making her older device a potential liability. (T-Mobile ultimately retired some devices but left iPhones alone.)

When Cat upgraded at the end of last year, she got an iPhone 12 Mini, because unlike the iPhone SE, it was similar in size compared to the iPhone 5 she was already using. But given how long she held onto her last phone, Cat wanted an upgrade that would ensure she could hold off a half-decade or longer on the disruption of another phone upgrade.

I think the iPhone 12 Mini is for people like Cat, who upgrade their phones only when they absolutely have to. She just wanted something that works, ensures a reliable FaceTime experience, and pulls up the apps she regularly uses, like Netflix and HQ Trivia.

It’s a way to keep users like Cat in the ecosystem so they occasionally upgrade, but Apple understands that the smartphone isn’t at the center of their lives. And perhaps the knowledge that the phone might work a little better a couple years from now compared to an SE might just keep these iPhone users in the higher tier. This means that when a new phone targeted at this specific audience comes along, they’re not chomping at the bit to upgrade. They will come to this device later in the cycle, making the decision based on their own needs rather than heavy marketing. In many ways, this audience is marketing-proof.

And even if Apple doesn’t sell as many of these as the larger models, the company still benefits because these phones help attract people who might be holding onto older devices. Apple needs these customers to upgrade occasionally so the company can wind down older pieces of infrastructure. And it still makes money from these “vintage” users, of course.

Many people, including me, have accused Apple of not caring about these customers. But a little over a year ago, after Cat ran into extremely obscure iCloud issues on her iPhone 5, I found that Apple’s tech support was more than willing to spend hours on the phone with me to fix it. Apple clearly values customers like these, even if they only upgrade once in a blue moon.

Apple needs these customers to upgrade occasionally so it can wind down older pieces of infrastructure.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Apple competes in a market where its competitors hit a far more diverse range of price points and market segments. For example, OnePlus previously only sold one phone per year. Now it has phones in literally every segment, from high-end flagships to midrange flagship killers to $200 devices that will pull in people on a budget.

Manufacturers like Samsung and LG have this luxury as well. Traditionally, Apple hasn’t sold a massive variety of phones for each price point and user demographic, favoring the sale of older devices instead. The company has traditionally relied on a basic segmentation approach that echoes Steve Jobs’ famed quadrant strategy from the late 1990s.

The release of the iPhone 12 Mini reflects Apple’s willingness to spread its wings a little, which kind of makes it somewhat unfair to criticize the company for tweaking its strategy to cater to more diverse market segments.

Nobody expects millions of people to buy a OnePlus Nord model on its first day. Likewise, Apple may sell fewer iPhone 12 Minis than the larger models with more features — at least at first.

Despite the lower sales numbers of the smallest device in the iPhone line, it may still play an important role: as the device Apple can sell to people who don’t care about phones that much. Because when someone is buying later in the cycle, after all the hype about the new iPhone has died down, they might just go for the Mini over the Pro Max. After all, they likely don’t care about the hype in the first place.

Editor of @readtedium, the dull side of the internet. You may know me from @ShortFormBlog. Subscribe to my thought machine:

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