What will Apple do with the poor, unloved iPhone 5c?

An Apple iPhone 5c advertisement in the Powell Street BART Station in San Francisco, CA. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

A colorful iPhone 5c advertisement brightens the Powell Street BART Station in San Francisco. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

In four months, Apple will reveal new iPhones. It’s as certain as the changing of summer to fall: Leaves die, kids go back to school, and the world gets a shiny new iPhone, delivered with love from Cupertino.

But when Tim Cook takes the wraps off this year’s version, what’s to become of the poor, sad, unloved iPhone 5c, still begging the world to caress its unapologetically plastic frame?

Will there be a sequel?

“Apple should jettison the iPhone C product line for the corrosion it causes their brand,” said Benjamin Robbins, a principal at Seattle mobile consulting firm Palador, who argues that producing cheap products simply isn’t in Apple’s DNA.

The iPhone 5c has been one of the most perplexing Apple products since the quick life and death of the iPod Hi-Fi stereo system. At $549 off-contract, the iPhone 5c is by no means inexpensive, while its guts are comprised of remnants of 2012’s top iPhone, the iPhone 5. It’s neither the cheap, mass-market phone analysts were craving to counter Android’s growing dominance of the mobile market, nor is it a compelling enough mid-tier device to make you wish you hadn’t just jumped up to the iPhone 5s.

Instead of giving Apple a foothold in rapidly expanding Asian markets, the 5c is perceived as a candy-colored flop — a rare miss for Cupertino.

One hell of a “flop”

“Apple can’t have it both ways,” Robbins told Cult of Mac. “It can’t be the penultimate tech product and in the mid-market at the same time. The market has demonstrated that people don’t have an appetite for a perceived lower-end Apple product such as the 5c — it is contrary to why people buy Apple.”

Current iPhone install base percentages by type as of June 9th, 2014

Current iPhone install base percentages by type as of June 9th, 2014

But is the iPhone 5c really a dud? Tim Cook admitted iPhone 5c demand turned out to be different than Apple thought, but also revealed both the 5s and 5c outsold Apple’s previous products, as well as every Windows, Blackberry and Android flagship its first sales quarter. 

One thing’s for sure,” says top Apple analyst Horace Dediu, “Apple does not care about sales volumes alone.”

Apple’s hasn’t offered a breakdown of iPhone sales by type, but according to MixPanel’s data from billions of ad impressions, the iPhone 5c now accounts for 8.3 percent of the iPhone install base, inching closer to the 13.75 percent stake held by the iPhone 4, which has been available for four years.

Killing a product only a year into its life cycle would be a bold move by Apple, but with new 8GB iPhone 5c units being offered in Europe and India, Apple seems prepared to keep the 5c fighting against low-cost Android handsets for at least another year.

“The question shouldn’t be about the 5C but about the slot it occupied,” Dediu told Cult of Mac. “Does it remain defined as it currently is — a ‘mid’ slot with ‘low-end’ still occupied by older models? Or do the low and mid get fresh SKUs?”

A new trend for Apple?

Apple traditionally fills low-end slots in its iPhone lineup with previous-generation devices. Last year was an exception, as the iPhone 5 got killed entirely and rebirthed as the “new” iPhone 5c. That could become the new trend for Apple: Make a flagship iPhone for one year and then kill it off, wrap the remains in plastic and float it down the product pipeline for another three years as a way to boost sales of what’s really an old device.

Under this scenario, flagship iPhones would only have a one-year shelf life at the Apple Store. Rather than keeping the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6 around for four years, the mid and low-end slots would be filled by the iPhone 5c and the inevitable iPhone 6c.

Another advantage: Relying on a “c” lineup would give Jony Ive and the design team more room to play with different designs and materials that might be too risky to use on Apple’s top-tier devices, while also giving customers a more affordable iPhone that looks newer than its predecessor, even though it contains the same components.

Maybe the question shouldn’t be if we’ll see an iPhone 6c this fall, but whether the iPhone 5s, Apple’s most successful phone ever, will still be alive — and wrapped in fabulous new skin.

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About the author

Buster HeinBuster Hein is Cult of Mac's Senior News Editor and lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Twitter: @bst3r.

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