Oct 11

Tale of the misnamed iPhone

What’s in a name? Judging by the cries of despair echoing in the night, apparently plenty.

Before yesterday morning’s iPhone event at Apple, the world was consumed by rumors. Seemed like we’d either see an iPhone 4S, an iPhone 5 or both. The 4S would be the economy model while the 5 would be the giant leap that got us all excited.

What we got was the iPhone 4S only. Damn! They gave us the puny one. That little baby step beyond the 4. Woe is us.

I do think Apple made a mistake. But wasn’t the phone — it was the name.

The name iPhone 4S sent the message loud and clear that this new iPhone was an incremental improvement. Meanwhile, nothing could be farther from the truth.

If Apple’s new baby was unveiled as iPhone 5, I doubt that we’d be reading articles with titles like Apple disappoints fans with modest iPhone 4 update and No iPhone 5 and no Steve Jobs send Apple shares lower.

The changes in this generational shift are actually very much in line with the changes in the last one.

When we moved from 3GS to 4, we got the Retina Display (a big leap in displays), the A4 chip (a big leap in speed), FaceTime (major new capability) and a better camera (from 3 megapixels to 5).

In this move from 4 to 4S, we get the A5 chip (a big, dual-core leap in speed), Siri (a major new capability) and a better camera (from 5 megapixels to 8, plus face recognition). So iPhone 4 delivered four major advances while iPhone 4S delivers three. But then 4S tosses in full 1080p HD video with stabilization, plus an extra hour of talk time.

So why is the iPhone 4 a huge leap and iPhone 4S only a baby step? iPhone 4S looks just like iPhone 4. And design is a very big deal, for Apple more than any other company.

One could say that Apple was just being honest. They did the same thing in the move from iPhone 3 to iPhone 3GS. The body style was unchanged, so the model number stayed the same.

But Apple, of all companies, should understand the marketing impact of a word. Or, in this case, a number. The name speaks volumes, and this name said “modest update.” That’s why people are referring to it that way — not because its improvements are insignificant.

If they called it iPhone 5, I believe things would be different today. Some would have written that the changes were modest, but those comments would have been quickly forgotten as the lines started forming again.

The happy ending, though, is that this little episode will be quickly forgotten anyway. Just like Antennagate. The launch details may get technology writers in a stir, but they have little consequence in the real world. To most, iPhone 4S will simply be the latest version of a great phone with great new features.

So why do I even bother mentioning it? It’s because episodes like this are just unnecessary self-inflicted wounds. There was no need for a bad headline to appear on the front page of CNN.com, and little things do add up over time.

I wish Apple had just called it like it is. And what it is, is an iPhone 5.

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  • MonkeyT

    I agree with the summary, but to call it iPhone5 would have been more than a little hypocritical.

    Apple actually used a slide in their keynote to publicly scold other companies about the misleading branding surrounding “what they are calling 4G” – an existing standard which is widely lied about by marketers touting largely incompatible minor improvements to 3G technologies instead. Even “LTE”, the frontrunner of near-4G techs, doesn’t match most specs laid out in the December 2010 specification for the 4G standard.

    I say good for Apple for being honest with consumers.

  • Couldn’t agree with you more, Ken.

    This was one GIGANTIC FUMBLE on Apple’s part, just one of DOZENS of fumbles since Steve Jobs stopped influencing the company over the last several months.

    The **ONLY** conversation that I have been forced to have with colleagues, clients, and friends all day long today is this one:

    “I can’t believe Apple didn’t come out with the iPhone 5 yesterday… they are falling behind the curve… I’m going to look at an Android phone instead.”

    Apple has really lost their way: Lion’s Address Book & iCal, dropping of Rosetta, the Final Cut debacle, most of MobileMe’s useful elements being dismantled, permanently dissing T-Mobile, etc.

  • ken segall

    I’m aware of the confusion surrounding 4G networks, and how they’re not nearly performing up to specs yet. But I don’t get how calling it iPhone 5 would have been hypocritical. There’s nothing in the name “iPhone 5” that would lead one to believe it runs on a 4G network. If anything, having a 4 in the name leads you in the 4G direction.

  • Scott

    I haven’t watched the whole keynote, but do they ever say what the “S” stands for this time. I believe when they announced the 3GS, the “S” was for speed. Is that what they’re going for here too? If they had named it iPhone 5, people would have been griping b/c the form factor stayed the same, so I think they were kind of stuck no matter what way they went. It will be interesting to see what the lines will be like on 10/14/2011.

  • Kesey

    I think 4S is appropriate. This is just a spec bump, significant or not. It’s hard to iterate the version number of a product which has the same physical appearance as its predecessor. People aren’t upset that it’s called an iPhone 4S and not an iPhone 5. They’re upset that it’s evolutionary not revolutionary.

    On a side note, it’s comical how the Apple beat writers are excited and touting the 4S, but snarl when Android handset makers announce new products which tout specs over appearance.

  • Pepe

    s = Siri

  • kevin

    @Kesey: Not sure what you mean in your last sentence. The Apple beat writers are touting the 4S for the integrated Siri, much better photos/videos (due to better photo tech), and much quicker/more responsive user experience (mostly due to faster CPU/GPU).

    What specs is there to tout? No one yet knows how much RAM there is or what the GHz of the CPU is, and since the screen size and industry-leading resolution hasn’t changed, there’s nothing new to say there.

  • Jay

    I totally agree with @kesey. I believe it’s not the fact that it’s a 4S and not a 5, but the fact that apart from Siri all the hardware is already available on the Market and has been for months. Not changing the design is Apples biggest mistake. And if this is such a superior phone to the 4 why make it so much cheaper then the original price of the 4? What they have done by not wowing us is given the opportunity to Samsung and alike to dominate even more with their Android handsets.

  • Kesey


    What spec is there to tout?

    Siri aside, the entire premise was updated internals. Processor. Camera. Antenna. We don’t the clock speed, but they made a big deal about it having an A5 processor.

    Anytime an Android OEM introduces a new phone with an updated processor or enters the megapixel race they’re laughed at by Apple enthusiasts. I don’t see how this new model is any different than what Android manufacturers do and they do it weekly/monthly.

  • MikeP

    I think you will find that this will become a pattern. A new design every two years and a speed bump in the middle. As people are on two year contracts their new phone will always have a new design. No need for Apple to come up with a new design every year. Makes economic sense. Let’s look forward to the iPhone 5 next year and the 5s the year after.

    So, a mistake? No. Just setting the pattern.

  • Edw3rd

    Can only guess LTE was deciding factor.

    But today, the really sad news hits.

    To Ken, and other close friends of Steve, our condolences.

  • Dude

    You got the name wrong.
    The name of the phone is: “iPhone 4 Steve”.
    “4S” is just the nickname.

  • Taxi

    I think we should give Apple the benefit of the doubt — if this is what an “incremental” update looks like, how amazing is the actual iPhone 5 going to be?

    RIP Steve :-(

  • Shiraz

    Hi. This comment comes a little late but I only recently discovered your site and blog so…
    I think naming this the iPhone 4S is a good move. I think Apple is building a strategy around the two year contracts that most people are locked into. This sets a standard for all iPhones going forward. It allows them to stick to tried and tested manufacturing lines to meet increasing demand. New guts disguised in old clothes isnt perfect but it appeases both existing and upgrading customers.