The invitation for Apple's 2013 iPhone event played off the dot motif from the whimsically animated video Tim Cook had shown off at WWDC, the one that expounded on Apple's core values and beliefs, and what they're willing to put their signature to. But unlike the stack black and white of the video, the invitations dots were in bright, bold color. So it was that on September 10, 2013, when Tim Cook took the stage, he announced that unlike almost every year previously, Apple wasn't going to lower the price of the previous year's black- and white-cased iPhone 5. That year the business had grown so large, Apple was going to replace with something new. With something fun. With something colorful. With the iPhone 5c.
For the colorful
iPhone 5c, codenamed N48 and model number iPhone5,3, marked the first time Apple didn't simple drop the previous year's flagship down to mid-tier pricing. Instead, they repackaged it as something new. It had the same 1136x640, 16:9 in-cell display, but it replaced the aluminum casing with polycarbonate. The change did cost Apple slightly when it came to size, adding millimeters around the edges and on the back, but it let them replace the harder-to-manufacture and easier to damage aluminum of the iPhone 5 with the more rugged, hard-coated polycarbonate of the iPhone 5c. Also, as Apple had previously done with the iPod lineup, including the iPod touch, having a dedicated device at a lower-price point let them use color as a differentiator. Set against the traditional black/slate and white/silver of the premium line, the iPhone 5c popped in plastic tinted bright green, blue, yellow, pink, and white.
Apple had used plastic casings before for the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS. For the iPhone 5c, however, they put it around a metal frame so it felt rock solid. They called it "unapologetically" plastic and it was. It felt great.
Internally the iPhone 5c used the same Apple A6 system-on-a-chip (SoC) as the previous year's iPhone 5. In fact, almost all the internals were the same. Same 1.3GHz ARMv7-based Swift central processor, same PowerVR SGX543MP3 graphics processor, same 1GB of RAM. Same 8mp iSight camera on the back with the same backside illumination (BSI), hybrid IR filter, 5-element lens, and Apple A6-powered image signal processor (ISP). Same Bluetooth 4.0 (low energy), same 802.11a/b/g/n dual-band Wi-Fi on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz.
A few things did change. While the 16GB and 32GB solid state storage options remained, there was no 64GB option, likely a concession to its mid-tier status. The battery in the iPhone 5c was increased, however, to 1510 mAh, bringing 3G talk time and LTE browse time up to 10 hours from the previous 8. The FaceTime HD camera on the front went to larger 1.9 micron pixels and gained backside illumination as well.
The LTE 4G radio was also improved, gaining support for 13 bands, albeit over 5 different models.
The price, however, reflected the new position and reduced storage options. $99 for 16GB, $199 for 32GB on contract.
Apple had been toying with the idea of a new-old iPhone for years. It sometimes leaked as an iPhone mini or as a budget iPhone for emerging markets. It was never intended to be either of those things. The less expensive price point was a byproduct for the mid-tier positioning, not the other way around. For Apple to really bring attention to that spot on the product line, to make the iPhone even more mainstream, they needed a product worthy of that mainstream attention.
The iPhone 5c debuted alongside iOS 7. That Apple's first new mid-tier hardware and first major software redesign coincided allowed them to carefully plan so that each accented the other, so that they looked like they were designed together.
iOS 7 even made the older elements of the hardware more useful. It brought, for example, live camera filters, video zoom, and FaceTime audio calls. But the effect was greater than the sum of its features. There was always some overlap of shapes, of rounded rectangles and circles, but Apple made sure to coordinate the colors of the iPhone 5c casings with the palette of the iOS 7 icons, text, and tints. Thanks to new object-oriented design of iOS 7, which used a physics and particle engine to bring elements alive, and transparency and layering to give them depth, the hardware and software really did seem made for each other and part of a larger, more integrated whole.
Just say 'non'
Alongside the iPhone 5c Apple also introduced a line of cases. They came in the same shades of green, blue, yellow, pink, and white, and also in black. Unlike the hard finish of the iPhone 5c, the cases were soft-touch so you could not only change up the look, you could change up the feeling. Apple heavily promoted the options that gave you, with graphics and web tools that showcased the wide range of mix-and-match options.
Apple claimed they, like iOS 7, had been designed with the iPhone 5c in mind, including the grid of circular cutouts along the bottom that let the phone's color shine through, creating an almost half-tone effect. Unfortunately, it also let a phew of the characters printed on the back of the iPhone 5c shine through, namely "non", which didn't bother some but others found amusing or off-putting.
Blockbusters vs. serials
The iPhone 5c launched in the U.S, Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Puerto Rico, Singapore and the U.K. on September 20, 2013. It's hard to say how many were sold that first weekend because the iPhone 5s was sold along with it and Apple doesn't break down numbers per model. Apple did say they sold 9 million iPhones combined that weekend, and some analysts have estimated the iPhone 5c accounted for about 2.25 million of those.
Some reviewers and analysts found the numbers difficult to wrap their heads around. They looked for the traditional iPhone launch spike and, when they didn't see it, they slapped the "dud" label on it and moved on. Rumors of the iPhone 5c being a cheap or budget or emerging markets iPhone may have led to the wrong expectations, at least for those who hadn't followed Apple's business for length of time. Likewise, rumors of manufacturing cuts may have caused some confusion, as might have the product itself.
Traditionally new iPhones had been like blockbuster movies and did indeed spike to the stratosphere when they launched only to slowly wound down until the next year's blockbuster hit. The iPhone 5c was different. It was meant to be more like a TV series that airs week in, week out. It wasn't packaged like previous iPhones, in a box and meant to sit in back-of-house. It was packaged like an iPod in a clear plastic case that let its color shine through to entice anyone walking by. And entice them it did. The iPhone 5c was bought steadily, day by day, week by week, month by month, pushing it up top-sellers charts, and making it the kind of "dud" any manufacturer would love to have.
Reviews were generally good as well. Nilay Patel for The Verge:
Myriam Joire for Engadget:
And my mom, for iMore
The iPhone 5c wasn't the fastest or most powerful or most forward thinking new iPhone on the market. But for many people, for mainstream people, for first time smartphone or any phone buyers, for people who were slightly more price sensitive but who also had a certain vibe and vibrance to their tastes — for those people the iPhone 5c might have been the best.
Seven years later
It was the iPhone 5s that faced most of the competitive pressure in the market, not the iPhone 5c. That didn't stop the iPhone 5c from outselling flagship handsets from Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Nokia, and others from time to time and place to place. That is wasn't a cheap iPhone but a less-expensive, more pop-culture iPhone also prevented it from going head-to-head with the low-margin, price-is-the-most-important-feature handsets from other manufacturers.
What it did do, however, is bring a lot of attention to Apple's mid-tier iPhone. It wasn't just last year's model with a storage shave and a price-cut. It was new enough and fun enough to be a real alternative not only for people who weren't so interested in other brands, but who weren't as interested in Apple's flagship phone either.
The iPhone 5c did what Apple does best — it broadened their addressable market in a very few, very deliberate ways. And it showed Apple could do something else, something potentially even more important for the future. It showed Apple could produce tens of millions of two new phones in the same year. Now what could that possibly mean for 2014?
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.