It does seem as though success at the high-end smartphone market would mean ceding ground as a flagship killer. The recently announced all-new iPhone SE on April 15 might be the perfect smartphone for 2020: especially for those who want the Apple experience without having to go beyond the €500 (it starts at $399 in the US) price point. For starters, it comes with the latest Bionic A13 chip from Apple that powers the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, while featuring a decent camera (despite it being a single lens system) and a design that will keep people who hate the notch display happy. In short, the new iPhone SE is perfectly positioned as the flagship killer in 2020.
However, I might want to tread with caution in referring to the iPhone SE as that, as there will be some Android purists who would be aghast at such a description, touting the iPhone SE to be a souped-up iPhone 8 instead. Still, the iPhone SE is now the cheapest iPhone available with the best value-for-money processor, hence making it a potentially worthy competitor to the upcoming Google Pixel 4a that will most probably fall within the same price range.
First the iPhone SE and then the Pixel 4a - when did US companies end up with the role of a flagship killer? The tables might have turned with the release of these two handsets in a niche market that was once dominated by Chinese manufacturers such as OnePlus and Xiaomi. Both OnePlus and Xiaomi have instead embroiled themselves in a fight to gain ground in flagship territory, by releasing more premium handsets than ever before while seeing a steady increase in the price point. Could this be a reversal of pricing policies between Chinese manufacturers and their counterparts across the Atlantic? Perhaps not.
An iPhone cheaper than OnePlus and Xiaomi: it's a whole new world
As Marquees Brownlee pointed out succinctly on Twitter, we now live in a world where a new iPhone is cheaper than any smartphone that hails from OnePlus' stables this year. Of course, this is not to say that I have completely overlooked the hardware specifications between the devices, but let us take a moment to acknowledge this fact.
We live in a world where a brand new iPhone is undercutting every single phone OnePlus has released this year in price— Marques Brownlee (@MKBHD) April 15, 2020
Among all the technical concessions that Apple would have and could have made, I was surprised that the company decided to place the Bionic A13 SoC inside the new iPhone SE. While it should not have complicated matters for Apple in terms of production, this does point to a very real possibility that Apple must have a healthy stock of A13 chips left in their inventory.
However, I am pleasantly surprised that a chipset that is reserved for their flagship model can also be found in its entry-level offering, which is in stark contrast to the entry-level iPad in 2019 that fails to carry the Bionic A12X chip which powered in 2018's iPad Pro.
Hence, this is quite an unexpected move on Apple's part by offering one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, chips on the market on the cheapest model officially. There is a huge price gap between the iPhone SE and the recently released OnePlus 8 and Xiaomi Mi 10.
The latter, and especially their Pro models, do seem to mirror the pricing policy practiced by Apple or Google closely (Samsung is also guilty of this but bear in mind that I am making a comparison between China and US companies here) where their flagships are concerned. The Mi 10 Pro is sold at approximately €1,000 ($1,085) while the OnePlus 8 Pro is not too far behind, marking a price increase of €200 ($217) compared to the previous range-topping OnePlus 7 Pro.
The Chinese companies have apparently skewed the pricing strategy in European markets, do seem to be slowly abandoning the idea of a flagship killer in order to pursue their dreams of becoming premium brands. However, it might be interesting to take a venture by looking into a role reversal between Chinese and American smartphone manufacturers.
Everyone wants a piece of the cake...
All right, I'll stop dreaming and get my head down from the clouds. There will be no totalitarian shift in Apple's entire smartphone family or those from Google. Both manufacturers do seem to be trying something different by taking their chances in the affordable smartphone market, which is perfectly fine. However, it does not seem as though they have had any luck with an actual flagship killer in their portfolios so far, unlike what OnePlus and Xiaomi have managed to introduce to date.
Introducing a flagship killer might cannibalize the very sales that they were looking forward to originally: those in the high-end and premium segments. In other words, the iPhone SE and Google Pixel 4a could very well be the stepping stone or doorway for those who had always considered the Apple and Google range of smartphones to be unattainable due to their pricing.
Hence, it is more an exercise of broadening its consumer base as opposed to alienating their current customers by restructuring its pricing policy. As a result, it is equally plausible that Xiaomi's strategy is similar, except that they are moving in the opposite direction (OnePlus, not so much). Perhaps the other Chinese manufacturers want a slice of the pie as well by following in Huawei's stead where the high-end market is concerned, albeit sector, whose position is starting to wobble somewhat.
OnePlus and Xiaomi want to duke it out at the very top with Apple and Google by developing their premium brand image without having to be known simply for their value-for-money propositions. It might be a tricky buy-in for their respective owner communities though, where Xiaomi and OnePlus fans tend to be very territorial and passionate, pretty much like how certain Apple fans have been before.
Apple, on the other hand, knows that they remain hugely popular with the general public, albeit with a less accessible catalog for the masses. Perhaps Apple would like to see increased penetration in emerging markets such as India, where OnePlus and Xiaomi especially have experienced unprecedented success due to their far more affordable models.
In short, the iPhone SE will not disrupt the smartphone world order. It could shape up to be a clever, counterintuitive evolution of the Chinese marketing model. From a position of dominance, Apple is looking to diversify its portfolio, while those from an emerging position like Xiaomi and OnePlus would like to consolidate theirs.
In the end, the premium American smartphone market does look to have a bright future ahead. However, the idea of a flagship killer is starting to become irrelevant, where it might end up as a high performing mid-range model instead.