Apple's new iPhone SE might be perfect for the enterprise

Apple's new iPhone SE might seem like the old has become new, but that can help the enterprise.

According to the the Apple rumor mill—which is pretty good this close to an event—Apple will be announcing a new iPhone next Monday. It will likely be called the iPhone SE, and be the size and shape of an iPhone 5 or 5S but with updated iPhone 6S-level guts.

There are definitely plenty of consumers who would love to have a smaller phone, and it makes sense for Apple to cater to this market. But I think Apple could also be going after the enterprise market, too.

This isn’t necessarily about office workers or BYOD. Instead, think of all the places where you see an iPhone or iPod touch being used with some sort of rugged industrial case, barcode scanner, card reader, or other type of “sled.” They’re everywhere these days—stores, concert venues, hospitals, and so on.

All these uses are great, but the problem is Apple keeps on changing the size and shape of the iPhone every two years. When that happens, all those expensive accessories become useless.

Now it’s not completely dire—Apple has always kept some old models available for a few extra years:

  • The iPhone 3G came out in July 2008, and the 3GS was available all the way until September 2012, resulting in over 4 years of devices that could work with the same accessories.
  • The iPhone 4 came out in June 2010, and the 4S was discontinued in September 2014—again, over 4 years.
  • The iPhone 5 came out in September 2012, and it’s still available today in March 2016—we’re getting close to 4 years.

If Apple keeps up the pattern, in September they’ll announce the iPhone 7, likely with a differently shaped body, and discontinue the iPhone 5S. The 6S will probably stick around another two years. Ordinarily this would mean that companies still using the iPhone 5 and 5S would eventually face some challenges. They can keep going for a while as long as the devices still work smoothly (and maybe stock up on spares or used ones while they still can) but they’ll have to upgrade all their phones and accessories eventually.

This is why the iPhone SE is interesting. Apparently it will have the exact same dimensions and touch points as the iPhone 5 and 5S. The power button, volume controls, mute switch, headphone jack, etc, are all in the same place—the only difference will be new colors and slightly more rounded edges, which for most cases is a negligible difference. Update 3/18: Now they're saying it will be identical, and that it will definitely fit in existing cases.

Assuming that the iPhone SE is in production for at least two years, that makes two more years that companies can get out of their iPhone 5 and 5S-compatible accessories. Plus the upgraded internals will be helpful for running newer, more powerful apps.

One question, though, is why companies choose iPhones over other devices in the first place, especially since iPhones have a reputation as expensive premium consumer devices that change shape every other year. I chatted with Brett Belding of Dimension Data (also the host of the #futurebiz Tweet chat with Brian Katz) to get his take, since they have a lot of clients using mobile devices in healthcare and retail settings.

To some extent, iPhones with sleds are in competition with specialized devices, such as the Motorola MC40. Brett credited case and accessory makers as one significant factor for helping the iPhone gain acceptance; Apple’s MDM improvements—including the Device Enrollment Program and all of the supervised features—are key, too.

These devices typically get sold as part of larger services contracts, so once you factor everything in, the actual cost difference and the idea that the iPhone is a “premium” device doesn't really matter any more. So the decision really just comes down the the user experience and whether companies have any apps that are Android-only or iOS-only.

There are a lot of people that will argue whether or not Apple is truly an “enterprise-friendly” company. I’m not kidding myself, I know they wouldn’t be making the iPhone SE if they didn’t think there was significant consumer demand. But there’s no denying that it could have a big upside for accessory compatibility and extended enterprise use cases, too.

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