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iPhone SE is the iPhone your wallet has been looking for

As expected, Apple introduces a cheaper, tinier iPhone, which starts at $399 and goes on sale Thursday.

Joswiak introduces the new iPhone SE.
Scott Stein/CNET

People love Apple's iPhone, but not its hefty price tag.

Looking to address that issue, Apple on Monday unveiled the iPhone SE, a smaller, cheaper smartphone that could endear the iPhone to even more folks.

"This is the most powerful 4-inch phone ever," Greg Joswiak, vice president for product marketing, told a crowd at the company's Cupertino, California, headquarters.

He didn't explain what SE stands for.

The phone has the same processing and photographic might as the larger, newer iPhone 6S -- just in a smaller package. It doesn't, though, include 3D Touch, the 6S' signature feature that lets users press softer or harder on the display to elicit different functions.

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The iPhone SE, whose existence had been rumored for weeks leading up to Monday's event, will start at $399 for 16 gigabytes of storage, and $499 for 64GB. It's expected to replace the 4-inch iPhone 5S, which was released in 2013 and has been priced at $450 for the 16GB model and $500 for 32GB.

Orders for the new iPhone start on Thursday in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Singapore, the UK, US Virgin Islands and the US. It will be available beginning on March 31 in those countries. The phone will arrive in over 100 countries by May.

Apple hopes the new 4-inch iPhone will encourage people who haven't upgraded in a while to finally do so, while also luring in customers who prefer the smaller size. Nearly 40 percent of iPhone owners around the globe are using an older device with a screen size of 4 inches or less, according to data from trackers like Mixpanel and AppLovin.

As more US phone carriers move away from two-year contracts and the subsidies that come with them, the full price of the latest iPhone -- $650 for a base model -- is getting more notice, sending budget-conscious customers searching for options. Yet, while the new iPhone is cheaper, it's priced well above budget smartphones, which can be purchased for half of what the SE costs.

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This is the first time Apple will introduce a new iPhone model on two different occasions in the same year. An iPhone 7 and its bigger sibling is expected to arrive in the fall. Yet, the new device is coming into a consumer market that's feeling underwhelmed about phones. Phone sales aren't growing as they used to, and market researcher IDC expects worldwide shipments to rise only 5.7 percent this year to 1.5 billion, down from a 28 percent jump just two years ago.

Not even Apple is immune to the slowdown. The company made waves in 2014 when it introduced its 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, a move that helped it regain its edge against Samsung's Galaxy devices and other jumbo-sized Android phones. But iPhone sales are expected to fall for the first time ever this quarter, following the iPhone's original release in 2007.

Aside from the Apple Watch, the company under CEO Tim Cook hasn't offered up as many innovative, new devices as it did when Steve Jobs was at the helm. Following the company's strategy during the Cook years, Apple is yet again focusing on putting a new size spin on old devices. It did this with the iPad, which now comes in larger and smaller sizes. Cook looks to be doing the same with Apple's phone, too.

With rival phone makers focusing on accessories to liven up their smartphones, Cook now faces pressure to find ways to improve the iPhone, which now accounts for two-thirds of Apple's sales, and keep people interested in upgrading their devices.

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It may not matter whether the new iPhone doesn't impress customers in the US and Western Europe, which are mature smartphone markets. Apple's plans for the iPhone SE look to be focused on countries, including India, Turkey and South Africa, where many people still use feature phones and are starting to convert to lower-budget smartphones, said Cathy Boyle, a mobile analyst for eMarketer.

"Apple is thinking always on a worldwide scale," she said ahead of Apple's event. "For Apple to stay competitive, they need to have a broader array of devices."

See all of the news from Apple's March 21 event.