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.

  • milandc

    It isn’t problem that they made cheap iPhone. Problem is that it isn’t cheap, and it has the same hw as iPhone 5, and cheap plastic body, in contrast to much more quality iPhone 5 body (and much prettier by my opinion). If 5C would cost 300$ without contract, they would sell millions of these.

    • JSGII

      A cheap plastic body? Actually own one before posting such stupid crap online. It’s an awesome phone, and it’s basically going to become the Mini in the future. They also already sold millions of these. These sort of stories are just stupid, because they ignore that the phone has found people,

      • milandc

        Like I said. Stupid cheap plastic phone, I had for a few days and sold it immediately. IPhone 5 with the same hw is 100x more premium phone, and also better looking one. This (C)rap series would be good enough only for a 300$ max. You should know that before posting such a stupid crap online.

      • Lucus Bendzsa

        It is the most solid plastic I have ever felt and it feels very premium to me and all my friends. Plus it is way more durable than the five and most of the time it does not need a case

      • observer1959

        I haven’t held one because I had a 5 and now a 5s. Isn’t the plastic adhered to a metal base? I thought I read that somewhere. If so that would make it very solid.

      • lucascott

        Yes it is. It’s a metal frame with plastic over it. And rather tough plastic at that. Not the truly cheap crap the 3G and 3GS were made of that you could dig into with a house key with minimal effort

    • BusterH

      The 5c should be cheaper, and in a few months it probably will be, but they already are selling millions. Apple’s probably selling more iPhone 5c units than they would have sold iPhone 5 units in its 2nd year if they kept it around. Apple’s not going to make a brand new iPhone and sell it for $200 bucks at a loss. But using the same parts from the 5 and keeping it in production for three years will make the 5c a killer, cheap iPhone.

    • lucascott

      The body is hardly cheap. I think you are assuming this is the 3g/3gs body all over again. It’s not. Your claim to have had one and sold it right off is suspect.

      And since we don’t have solid numbers how do you know that the 5C hasn’t already sold millions.

  • AAPL_@_$101_Is_A_Done_Deal_:)

    Yeah, simply lowering the cost of the 5c would definitely clear out all inventory if that’s what the analysts are worried about. With Apple moving to Touch ID on its devices, I’m not sure it’s worth keeping the 5c around. I would think the 5c might appeal to more women and children for the color, and they’d still be getting a decent smartphone as long as they weren’t concerned about having Touch ID or a 64-bit processor. There have to be plenty of consumers who simply need a mid-tier smartphone without all the bells and whistles. The 5c has always been a puzzle to me because it’s doesn’t appeal to me. It seems like it was made to save Apple manufacturing costs or to clear out component inventory with no real benefits for the consumer.

    • lucascott

      “With Apple moving to Touch ID on its devices, ”

      Assuming that is true (at least for the iPhone and iPad), it is a valid argument for Apple not keeping the 5C or even 4S around. 5S hardware in a 6C body perhaps. Because that still has Touch ID, the motion processor etc. (with the push over Health selling any phone that can’t do step tracking etc seems like a no go)

  • Evan_Beezy

    It’s simple, make it the free option

  • thinkfurther

    I just upgraded. I had a choice of an iPhone S 16 gig or iPhone 5C with 32. I went for the storage and I love this phone. The plastic is “sharp” as one would expect with an Apple device.

    • Lucus Bendzsa

      Yes the plastic feels solid.

      • observer1959

        Unapologeticly solid. ;)

  • Jurassic

    The iPhone 5c is the 2nd best selling smartphone in the US, after the iPhone 5s… beating out Samsung models.

    If that is the definition of “unloved”, this must be Bizarro World. ;-))

    • Lucus Bendzsa

      It is an option some people like and apparently they all like it more than the S4

  • Lucus Bendzsa

    All of my friends love the iPhone 5C and they all love the color. Girls love to flash of their beautiful pink ohones that don’t need a case

  • aaloo

    Seriously Buster Hein, you have a rather flawed definition of what a flop is. iPhone 5c has outsold numerous flagship android, blackberry and windows phones.

    • BusterH

      I never said the 5c is a flop and I gave data to support that it’s not a flop. But it’s *perceived* as a flop by casual observers.

      • isitjustme

        I am sure you never said it is a flop but this headline of yours sure suggest it is – ”
        What will Apple do with the poor, unloved iPhone 5c?”

      • PMB01

        If you want headlines to say everything then go back to Twitter. Us smart people are here to read articles.

      • isitjustme

        Clever people will know what I meant.

        But I can’t say for the challenged ones.

      • immovableobject

        casual observers = people who have no clue and give credence to the anti-Apple echo chamber

  • UZ

    Here’s a shocker. I actually prefer the cleaner look of the 5c to the 5s. But I prefer the tech of the 5s. So if Apple could offer the 6 in 5c clothing, that’s what I would buy, even at the same price.

  • Barry Allen

    I would like it better if the 5C became the free option, the 5S
    the second tier, then the flagship being the 6. But until reading this article,
    the idea hadn’t even occurred to me to make the 5S essentially the 5Sc, that
    actually seems like it might be a good move for Apple. I agree the plastic isn’t
    cheap, but I still think the 5C should be free and they shouldn’t put plastic
    on the 5S, but we’ll find out 2nd week of September I’m sure.

  • Adonis Lewis

    Its amazing to me how people assume that apple tried to make a cheap device when in reality they have been doing this every year. Instead of just discounting the iphone 5 to $99 on contract and $549 off contract (like they did with every phone since the 3gs) they re-bodied the phone, increased the battery (slightly haha), improved the front camera (slightly), and sold it at the same price the iphone 5 would have been at anyways. It was never meant to compete with the onslaught of android devices. It was meant to be exactly what they have been doing for the past 4 years. But our society is still in high school and believe “rumors” instead of facts. Apple never came out and said, “hey guys we are going to compete with android’s cheap sub $300 market with the 5c”. That was analysts and bloggers shedding light on what “they” hope apple would do. And when they were wrong they still stuck with their rumor mentality and told everyone that the cheap phone wasn’t so “cheap”. When in reality the 5c has outsold any single android phone on the market haha and is second only to the 5s. If samsung sold that phone it would be a hit! perspective is so interesting.

    • observer1959

      Yeah what I read after its release was the metal case was costly to make and they were trying to bring down cost of manufacturing their 2nd tier phone. The rumors of Apple making a cheap phone were just that, rumors.

      • PMB01

        It made sense because then they could devote all their aluminum to the flagship 5S.

      • San Diego Dave

        Aluminium*

      • PMB01

        For all you British natives. For everyone else, we forgo the second “i”.

      • San Diego Dave

        I was kidding.

        I am an Anglophile, though. ;-)

      • PMB01

        Ahh, carry on then.

      • Guest

        Actually in North America (The US and Canada) it is forgone. However, the rest of the world retains it.

  • Magnusarie

    What amazes me is how a lot of ignorant apple fanboys quote Iphone 5c sales figures without any data but assumptions
    I own apple products but i am not biased about the brand as a whole.
    There is no doubt that iPhone 5c is a well made product but the issue is about perception of plastic against metal.
    Plastic is percieved as being cheap and everyone knows that.
    Plastic is cheap and iphone 5c isnt selling more than other phones
    Apart from 5s, Iphone 4 is still the second selling iphone

    • PMB01

      Maybe you should check your figures again. The 5C IS the second highest selling iPhone. The 5S is the only phone that beats it at the big 4 in the US.

  • Magnusarie

    Everyone on this blog goes on with assumptions about iPhone 5C vs android sales but no one has been able to quote any figure or reference data.
    Can any apple zealot quote figures and references instead of hearsays??

    • aaloo

      Simple math. Apple announced they have sold 500 million iPhones to date. Take the above graph that says 5c represents 8.3% of iphone install base. That’s 41.5 million 5c sold to date. Now please go ahead and provide me android, blackberry or windows phones that have sold more than that number since September 2013.

      • Magnusarie

        In the world of research and sales, figures can only be verified by independent researchers, apple,samsung etc all quotes sales based on amount produced atimes not actually sold
        find below the links showing independent verification of :

        global smartphone sales by OS!

        http://www.statista.com/statistics/266219/global-smartphone-sales-since-1st-quarter-2009-by-operating-system/

      • aaloo

        The link you provided says from January 2009 to December 2013, apple sold 433 million iPhones (yes, I took the effort to add up sales for individual quarters). Apple said in June 2014 that it has sold 500 million iPhones to date (from June 2007 to June 2014). Given that your data is missing about 8 quarters of sales (2 from 2007, 4 from 2008, and 2 from 2014), that 500 million figure doesn’t seem like an over estimation, does it?

        So I still contend that if we take 5c to represent 8.3% of iphone install base, that’s 8.3% of 500 million, which is 41.5 million. Given that there are 100’s of android, blackberry and windows phones released since September 2013 (since 5c), please list me just 10 phones that have outsold the 5c worldwide. I’ll get your list started:

        1. iPhone 5s (25.8% of 500million install base) = 129 million

      • PMB01

        Wrong. Apple’s data is always based on independent research of actual sales numbers or device usage data. Samsung always uses the number shipped, but not sold.

    • aaloo

      See below.

  • Scott Noble

    they will keep selling it, even if it is low numbers. They just stopped selling the 4S this year. Also the iPhone 5 scuffed and dinged up so easily I am sure the 5C body is better in the long run.

    • http://twitter.com/LunaticSX Lun Esex

      Newsflash: The iPhone 4S is still available – http://store.apple.com/us/buy-iphone/iphone4s

    • lucascott

      I disagree. I think they will keep the tier but not the 5C. Why? As someone pointed out Touch ID. The mention of the new API shows that they are really pushing it so they are unlikely to keep any hardware, especially iPhone, around that doesn’t include it. They might keep the iPads going for one more year since this will be the first year of an iPad with Touch ID but I’ll put down money that next year all iPads that lack Touch ID will be gone.

  • Brenden Finnerty

    If you are reading a tech website, then this iphone was probably never designed for you more than likely. I was at Target the other day and 2 teenagers were getting new iPhones. Do you know what their selling point was? Specs? Storage? Or Brand? Nope it was the fact that the iPhone 5c had different color rear shells and they could change/alter it with different Apple cases. Nothing more, nothing less. All I heard was, “What about this color? Or how about this case with it?”

  • http://www.feastofbeast.com DJBabyBuster

    I would never buy a plastic C iphone, I upgrade once every two years on my contract and get the next significant iPhone upgrade and skip the S incremental line.

    But I do like this concept of cannibalizing last years model with a plastic back. Into the second year of my iphone 5 two year cycle, its very satisfying to have the sleek metal casing and know that to buy the equivalent specs phone currently your only option is the plastic 5C. Almost an added backend bonus to upgrading when the tech is new, versus getting it after a year on the market.

    • observer1959

      I used to do exactly what you do with both mine and my wife’s phones until the last generation. My wife would constantly ask how to do something (she’s not techie) and often times I hadn’t had a chance to learn it yet. So this time around I just upgraded my phone. Now on a yearly basis I get the new model and hand my year old phone to her. ATT just gives us a new sim if needed. I can answer all her questions instantly and can casually learn my new model. Much more enjoyable and I’m always up to date.

      • http://www.feastofbeast.com DJBabyBuster

        Brilliant. Be careful she doesn’t start enjoying her tech so much that she catches on to you using both your upgrades for yourself :)

  • jbelkin

    Other than getting all your facts wrong, you’re still off base. the Iphone 5C is the SECOND BEST SELLING smartphone on planet Earth. Yes, if you’re Cindy Crawford sister, you “lose” but only because the iphone 5S is the best seller smartphone of ALL TIME ON EARTH. So, while the “critics” and those don’t go by facts seem to think the 5C is a “not liked,” people ALL THE WORLD have spoken but hey, what do you are care if tens of millions of people with $500 to spend and OUTSELLING the last Galaxy phone but hey, why actually look at facts? After all this time, the 5C is still the 2nd or 3rd best selling smartphone MONTH AFTER MONTH. But again, why not ignore facts. The 5C is the Porsche SUV – hated by purists but the BEST SELLING PORSCHE now. This writer also claims to be a burrito expert – does he also claim that AM/PM is the best burrito ever? What a nitwit.

  • digitaldumdum

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

    Give it away to all the Android and Windows phone users who long for a better experience, but don’t have the guts to admit it, or the money to buy it.

    Fanman you say? Guilty as charged.
    iSheep you say? Nope, sorry.

  • No Name

    It’s better than any Android, Blackberry, or Windows phone.

  • František Jílek

    For me is more interesting question How iPhone line up will look like after iPhone 6 roll on? They strictly sticked with one hand use rule. So will they ditch it? Or will there be any new 4″ iPhone and what they will do with 5s. Can it get plastick case or loose TouchID to be cheaper to build?
    For sure there will be 8 GB version of 5c as free with contract option or it can be 16 GB in some markets.

    • Stephen Johnson

      iPhone 6 – 4.7 inch screen (retina, 1704×960), thinner, lighter, sapphire screen, more comfortable to hold

      iPhone 5SC (or 5CS) – does the same to the 5S as the 5C did to the the 5. New colours to differentiate from 5C.

      iPhone 5C – bottom tier, developed markets – same colours as before

      iPhone 4S – emerging markets

      OR

      iPhone Phablet

      iPhone 6

      iPhone 5S

      iPhone 5C – new colours

      iPhone 4S – emerging markets

      • lucascott

        I think we are looking at

        6C (basically the iPhone 5S hardware including Touch ID in the colored body including same screen size) starting at 8GB

        6S (new A8 processor etc maybe at a slightly larger screen size), starting at $199, same 16-64 GB

        6XL (A8 etc for sure a larger screen size, might be the 4.7 or the 5.5) starting at $299 or perhaps $349 with starting storage at 32GB and going to 128GB

        New iPads will be the iPad Mini and Air Gen 2 with the same A8, hopefully better speakers, camera etc as well with Touch ID on both. Possibly no body changes. ‘older’ models could stay at the OG iPad Mini and iPad 4 for another year or go with the iPad Mini 2 and iPad Air 1 for similar pricing. Next year for sure it will be a direct Gen drop that way everything has Touch ID

  • Dick Bronder

    My bet is that the new 6S will get the 4.7 inch screen and they will go with a new 6C with a 5.5 inch screen. Easier to make in plastic and keeping the price range. Does mean that the top of the bill phone won’t be the largest. Question will be, what is going to be the differentiating factor for the 6S ;-).

  • MyIdea

    What are you talking about? The iPhone is a very successful product that outsells Samsung’s flagship phones in many of the most important global markets. Misleading headline tsk tsk.

  • Quentin Jersey

    Welcome to the 21st Century where opinionated bloggers can tank a product that has great sales.

    • lucascott

      I think you mean ‘welcome to the 21st Century where bloggers will say anything and everything to get page hits’

  • Moreck

    The 5c managed to outsell every Android phone. In fact, its sales only look bad when compared to those of the 5s. How does that constitute a flop? Maybe it didn’t sell as much as Apple was internally hoping, but then it’s really for them to decide whether it was a flop or not.

    • PMB01

      Read the article before commenting. Everything you said is in it.

      • San Diego Dave

        Did you see that NPR April Fool’s Day prank? They posted an article titled something like “Why Americans Don’t Read Anymore”, but the article was basically just one paragraph saying that NPR thinks people are commenting on their stories without reading them first. Sure enough, there were a bunch of comments saying things like “It’s those evil video games giving our kids ADD!” or “Everyone I know reads all the time, what you are talking about?!”

        Oh, and the best comment of all, someone actually said “tldr” hahaha.

      • PMB01

        Exactly my point. People need to read the article.

  • xared

    Having actually bought an iPhone 5c,

    > I can vouch that the plastic is real tough unlike Samsung’s higher priced Galaxies
    > I dont have to bother buying a stupid case
    > Coz it aint gonna scratch like a ‘premium’ iPhone 5s
    > White iPhone 5c looks real good
    > And it performs real well

  • http://devnotes.posterous.com/ NotKatsu

    If the 5C had fingerprint detection and a better camera, it would be the perfect option. No case required!

  • http://twitter.com/LunaticSX Lun Esex

    Current lineup of U.S. base model prices:

    5s – $650/$199 on contract
    5c – $550/$99 on contract
    4s – $450/$0 on contract

    It would make sense for the 5s to be discontinued, like the 5 was last year, and then a plastic model with its internals & fingerprint sensor would go on sale at $100 less. I could imagine this becoming “The NEW iPhone 5c!,” with a new set of colors, like the 3rd gen iPad was “The New iPad!” The question then would be about what takes the place of the 4s in the “$450/$0 on contract” slot. (Meanwhile the 4s remains available but only in China, India, and other developing markets.)

    I could almost imagine Apple bringing back the iPhone 5 for the “$450/$0 on contract” model, like they recently re-started production on the 4th gen iPad. This would let them keep using the tooling for the 5/5s aluminum case, since a larger screened iPhone 6 would need to use entirely new tooling. The only problem with this is that the iPhone 5 had very limited LTE band support, which is one of the reasons the iPhone 5c made sense as a brand new phone, with an updated baseband, rather than just keeping the iPhone 5 with a drop in price. Apple could possibly use the internals of the 5c, with its broader LTE band support, though.

  • Quintan Neville

    4S’s being replaced under Apple Care should be swapped with the 5c. Fragmentation and stuff.

  • JW

    Agree with most of the comments about price-point. Cheap-feeling body it is not, but where I feel they missed is in the color selection. I feel the colors are aimed at a far younger demo than can actually afford the device and associated plans. Simply put — there should have been a black one. Ditch the ‘candy-colors’ and give the people something less polarizing, it’s what Apple has done well in recent years in reduced SKU-proliferation and creating products with wide-ranging appeal.

  • obarthelemy

    “penultimate”. I’m not sure that word means what you think it means.

  • Matthew Wass

    They sell million if iphones because consumers are sheep and they dont know shit all about anything..

    its purely a bandwagon fetish.. Apple had there day.. Android caught up and is gaining ground if not surpassed them..

    then theres windows.. putting up a glorious battle in 3rd gaining on both hand over fist, and dont look like any slow down in sight.

    WP8.1 really upped the ante. every update makes it better, whereas android / ios updates are stagnant as of late. and lackluster.

  • lucascott

    There are a lot of false assumptions in this article, as well as misquotes etc. Starting with the notion that the 5C was made for Asia. It wasn’t. Also, just because Tim said right after launch that it the 5C didn’t sell as many they thought it would doesn’t mean it was a flop. The folks that would want the price saving of the 5C aren’t really the type to run out and upgrade before their contract was truly up. Who knows how many 5C models they sold over time.

    as for the notion of whether there will be a ‘candy’ 6C, I think there will be. And I think that they might ditch this whole “kept around the last model as a cheapie” and go for a 8GB 6C instead.

  • mike077

    For a “flop” I sure see a lot of people with it.

  • cornerofthemoon

    I actually prefer the look of the iPhone 5c. I wish they had a 64gb version though.

  • T Kau

    penultimate? second to last?

    • Walt French

      Second to best. Which might describe the 5C to a tee.

      Not knowing his English is hardly a sign that the analyst is a careful thinker.

      • T Kau
      • Guest

        look it up for yourself in any dictionary.

        merriam webster:
        1: next to the last, “the penultimate chapter of a book”
        2: of or relating to the next to the last syllable of a word, “a penultimate accent”

      • Guest

        according to merriam webster, penultimate is:
        1. next to the last, “the penultimate chapter of a book”
        2. of or relating to the next to the last syllable of a word “a penultimate accent”

      • Guest

        according to merriam webster, penultimate means:
        1. next to the last “the penultimate chapter of a book”
        2. of or relating to the next to the last syllable of a word “a penultimate accent”

    • Guest

      according to merriam webster, penultimate means:
      1. next to the last, “the penultimate chapter of a book”
      2. of or relating to the next to the last syllable of a word “a penultimate accent”

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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