John Gruber speculated last week that this year’s radical nearly-bezel-free OLED iPhone might begin at a far higher price point than iPhones have ever started at. Put another way, instead of the company replacing the iPhone 7 at a similar price point, they might replace the 7 models with 7S versions, and then add the luxurious so-called “Pro” model at a higher price point above the 7S and 7S Plus:

If it’s true that Apple is going to release three new iPhones, my bet is that they’re named the iPhone 7S, iPhone 7S Plus, and iPhone Pro. And I hope the iPhone Pro starts at $1500 or higher. I’d like to see what Apple can do in a phone with a higher price.

Gruber justified that reasoning later in the week:

Furthermore, why shouldn’t there be a deluxe “Pro” tier for phones? For many people, phones are every bit as much an essential professional tool as their laptops. For some people, even more so. And I’d bet my bottom dollar there are more people who consider their iPhone a “pro” tool (and be willing to pay “pro” prices) than who think so regarding their iPad, and we’ll have had iPad Pros for two years by the time new iPhones are announced in September. If there are iPad Pros and MacBook Pros, why not iPhone Pros?

Aspects of this line of reasoning are similar to my piece last month on what I called a “boutique” smartphone — a reaction to Andy Rubin’s unveiling of the Essential phone:

That’s what I’m hoping to see from Essential. Maybe it’s all marketing bullshit, but I really like the idea of a company that is more comfortable experimenting with ideas than gunning for sales. It’s early days, so I hope to see the kinds of technologies that can only be built into phones at a scale of, say, hundreds of thousands of units instead of tens of millions. Any market is better when there are more entrants and crazier ideas.

I don’t think Apple can get away with an experiment as unadulterated by sales figures as I’m suggesting here, but — broadly speaking — this is the line of thought I’d like to see from the so-called “iPhone Pro”. If past years are any guidance, the iPhone 7S should be a respectable update, even if it lacks a new hardware design. But the addition of a Pro model should give Apple the opportunity to experiment a little more without worrying about trying to get enough components for sixty million units every three months.1

But I think that the addition of Pro models across Apple’s lineup has also introduced a new question of cost and value. It used to be that one of the most exciting things about a new iPad is the sense that this is the best that Apple could do in an iPad that year; now, I get the sense that they’re trying to create a division between iPad users and iPad Pro users. Will the standard iPad eventually support the Apple Pencil or sport a ProMotion display? I’m not sure; those features are, so far, reserved for iPad Pro users. I don’t think that’s wrong, but it is a relatively new line of thought for the iOS device lineup.

There’s a similar story happening with the MacBook Pro, with Touch Bar models being priced higher than the non-Touch Bar 13-inch. I get the feeling that the Touch Bar models are the true interpretation of what Apple considers a “MacBook Pro” — they just weren’t able to get the price down to where they wanted the MacBook Pro line to start.

The addition of an iPhone Pro would, I think, create a similar sort of bifurcation. Its introduction would make the 7S seem like it’s the best Apple could do for the price, but the iPhone model they really want everyone to have would be the Pro. You can count on it appearing in the vast majority of their marketing materials, and it’s the one that Apple employees will show off. The 7S — if it’s effectively an upgraded but not redesigned iPhone 7 — would effectively be the budget option, even if it’s the same price as the iPhone it replaces.

That’s not to say I don’t think the iPhone Pro isn’t a good idea. I think it could be amazing to see what can be done with a couple-hundred extra dollars’ worth of parts and research per unit. But I’ll be interested to see how Apple navigates the introduction of a truly next-generation iPhone while trying to market a relative spec bump as the everyday choice.2

  1. Some of my favourite supply chain stories come from the fast food industry, like when Wendy’s needed two years to get enough blackberries for their salads. ↥︎

  2. This wouldn’t be the first time Apple tried something like this: they brought out the iPhone 5C and the 5S at the same time, but it was clear that — despite how much Apple showcased the 5C — the 5S was the true next-generation device. But the 5S was introduced at the same price point as the outgoing 5; the rumours, so far, indicate that the Pro will be starting above the price points of the outgoing devices. ↥︎