04
Apr 13

iPhone naming: when simple gets complicated

When Apple introduced the iPad 3 as “the new iPad” — dropping its number altogether — it gave Apple watchers something new to ponder.

Would the coming iPhone 5 simply be “the new iPhone”? Would Apple’s naming convention finally be applied equally across all product lines?

The answer, we soon discovered, was “no.” The new iPhone stubbornly held onto its number — even though iPod, iPad, iMac, Mac Pro, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro were living in a world where numbers had become excess baggage.

There was good reason, of course.

iPhone is sold differently. Since two previous models are still available when a new model is launched, the number is needed to distinguish one from the other. Consider it a necessary evil.

But once you accept that iPhone models can’t live without a model identifier, the question becomes: what should that identifier be?

The press has already dubbed this year’s model “iPhone 5S.” Most experts see a narrative in which Apple only produces a major upgrade every other year, and in between we get the “S” model. This is the model that delivers only incremental improvements.

Whether that’s Apple’s intended message is unknown. But personally, I wish Apple never created a “4S.”

First of all, it’s an awkward moniker whether you speak it or read it. The Apple designers tried their best with the product graphics, but there is an inescapable reality: 4S will never be as simple as 4.

More important, tacking an S onto the existing model number sends a rather weak message. It says that this is our “off-year” product, with only modest improvements. If holding off on the big number change achieved some great result, I might think otherwise. But look what happened with iPhone 5.

This model brought major changes: bigger screen, better camera, greater speed, all on a thinner and lighter body. Yet its improvements were still dismissed by many as “incremental.” In fact, the perceived lack of innovation in iPhone 5 (deserved or not) is what prompted some to start writing about Samsung as “the new innovation leader.”

So what exactly is the point of going with numbers vs. “S” designations?

The simplest path is to give each new iPhone a new number and let the improvements speak for themselves. If anyone wants to say that the 7 isn’t as big a leap as the 6, that’s their business. Attempting to calibrate “degree of innovation” in the product name seems like a needless (and self-diminishing) exercise.

I think it’s safe to say that if you’re looking for a new car, you’re looking for a 2013 model — not a 2012S. What’s important is that you get the latest and greatest.

My (meaningless) vote is that the next iPhone should be christened iPhone 6, not iPhone 5S. If it’s worthy of being a new model, it’s worthy of having its own number.

Apple has an impressive track record when it comes to product naming, and clarity has always played a very big role.

I don’t know exactly what the “S” is supposed to mean. But I’m pretty sure that 6 is better than 5.

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  • I agree with the above, it’s almost exactly what I was planning to write. after Apple took a lot of (unreasonable) criticism for not massively reinventing everything with each new model, it is better to manage expectations.

    This tick tock cycle also fits well with a 2 year upgrade pattern, which makes much more sense than a 1 year one, otherwise Apple would definitely need to drop prices and margins to be competitive,

  • How about instead of a number, they give each category model a specific name, much like a car (or a simplified version of the current MacBook line: MacBook Air, MacBook Retina, MacBook). That way, they’d never have to change it again.

    For example, going with a car moniker, we’d get the iPhone S, the iPhone SE, and the iPhone GT. Each year, the specs increase for each one (GT becomes SE, SE becomes S, current S drops out, and the GT is brand new). And every once in a while, the GT gets a new design. Basically the same thing they’re doing now; they just won’t have to add numbers. Because in a few years, we’ll be up to iPhone 10, 15, 20, etc., and then it will just be awkward to have numbers.

    Simplify but keep them distinguishable. :-)

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  • AZMarkS

    The biggest issue with the S at the end is how do you denote multiples. I bought 3 iPhone 4S’s or iPhone 4S’. I causes undue grammar problems and should be removed for that reason alone.

  • It’s really amazing… almost as if the tech pundits who do the bashing don’t actually have any real product development experience themselves.

  • “A rose by any other name…” will still be decried as a failure by the trolls.

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  • Steve H

    Two other numbers to ponder, for what it’s worth:

    Windows 8, which, depending on your perspective is a business killer (ask Windows OEMs), a downgrade (ask users who immediately replace it with Windows 7), or lipstick on a pig (what happens after the start screen?), or a kiss of death (see Microsoft Surface and Microsoft Windows 8 Phone)

    Firefox 20 – yes they have passed Version 20 – and I haven’t seen any obvious changes other than a couple of details in the UI. Firefox also seems to have ended the practice of identifying the version number on their home page.

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  • Steve H

    Oh and one more: 5310, which is the Nokia model number of the (dumb)phone that’s about to replace my Samsung Exhibit II smartphone

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  • Zach

    Well-said. I completely agree with you regarding the fact that calling the next iteration the “iPhone 6” makes the most sense no matter how one looks at the situation at hand; however, even this name is flawed. Unbeknown to most, the iPhone 5 is actually the sixth generation of the device; accordingly, the “iPhone 6”, or whatever Apple decides to call it, will be the seventh generation. In truth, this naming complication is the direct result of Apple’s choice to arbitrarily switch from name modifiers based on feature, as is the case with the iPhone 3G, to monikers derived solely from chronology. In other words, Apple screwed itself when it settled on the name “iPhone 3GS”.

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  • Ken, there’s one more angle: Samsung actually adapted the “3GS” and “4S” naming with their Galaxy brand. They refer to their 2012 model with “GS3” (Galaxy S III) and to their 2013 model with “S4” (S IV) – even in their commercials: http://youtube.com/watch?v=bJafiCKliA8#t=25s

    Two interpretations: One, Samsung is one year behind Apple in terms of naming (waits until the new iPhone brand is known around the world) – or, Apple needs to close that door for Samsung by simply calling it iPhone (or of course as you argued, get rid of the “S”).

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  • S R

    You are wrong on that point. 3GS still makes perfect sense. 3G and S for speed. That is still a feature name. It was the 4 that switched them to a version based scheme and then the 4S just blew it all apart and makes no sense whatsoever.

  • Zach

    Good point. I just wonder how much sense it makes to place the letter “S” directly next to the term “3G”, as it may appear to the uninformed consumer that there is a new technology called “3GS” — the assumed successor to 3G — which, in fact, does not exist. I’ve been thinking about how this model identifier might be problematic since the device’s name was first announced; however, as far as I know, there has never been any confusion of the sort I’ve just outlined. Perhaps the general public is more informed of cellular technologies than may be apparent; although I believe the way in which Apple has stylized the name plays a role as well. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see the following link: http://goo.gl/IrfZw

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  • I see nothing wrong at all with naming an incremental upgrade, an incremental upgrade. I would rather have happy customers that know what they’re buying than disgruntled customers that wonder why a 6 isn’t a big step over a 5.

    There are clear differences in each major increment of phone model. The 5 was a new design much like the 4, and 3 before it were similarly major product evolutions in device design and more.

    I know a few people who were confused and annoyed by the iPad being called “the new iPad”. What’s the next one going to be called – the NEW new iPad? Silly.

  • anforsman

    If it’s a weak naming convention, then why does Apple continue to set record sales with each version of the iPhone, regardless if it’s an “#” or “#S”. Seems to me like they’re doing something right…

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  • ksegall

    Unfortunately, you also have customers complaining that the 5 wasn’t a big step up from the 4S, and that was supposed to be a major upgrade. It’s subjective to a degree. Plus you have Apple out there putting millions of dollars into advertising for each model, including the S models, proclaiming it to be “the best iPhone ever.”

    With a system that is simply whole numbers, people will have the same conversations they do now. One year will be seen as a bigger leap than other years, and that’s fine. But Apple wouldn’t be out there diminishing its own phone by branding it as an “incremental upgrade” — which none of its competitors do.

  • ksegall

    I think this is the best argument for the current system. If the number changes only every other year, current owners might not feel so left behind. But you have to balance that with those who are in the market for a phone and they’re deciding between Apple’s incremental upgrade and some Samsung phone being advertised as a revolution.

  • ksegall

    Yes, others have made this argument as well. It’s true that every new iPhone has outsold the one before. But as they say in the investment biz, “past performance does not guarantee future results.” It’s far wiser to fix problems before they become problems.

    With intensifying competition and Apple being painted by critics as a company that’s lost its innovative edge, I question whether it’s a good idea for Apple to be branding its own phones as incremental upgrades. Especially when Apple’s own advertising glorifies each new model — including the S models — as revolutionary. Apple spent millions over many months promoting iPhone 4S as a major revolution with Siri. Yet the name of the phone indicates it’s something less than a new-number model.

    Seems like whole number naming would make those kinds of issues go away.

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  • Solariis

    What annoys me about the naming system Apple has decided to stick with so far regarding their iPhones is just the simple fact of when it’s supposed to end. Do you really see customers buying into advertisements for the iPhone 17???

    The “New iPad” was the worst idea because the name became immediately obsolete in less than 1 year. If you buy a “New iPad” in 2015, how would you feel about that product name?

    I think they need to figure out a different system and quickly. The iPhone 6 is already being developed for release in 2014, after the annoyingly named iPhone 5S will be released later this year.

  • Solariis

    I agree on the latter opinion but Samsung’s S4 is superior to Apple’s iPhone 5 and may even be superior to the 5S in terms of features and technology. I think Samsung also needs to step off of the numbering system as well before it’s too late. I could see them going as far as the S5 but it has to end somewhere. Consumers are just not going to be happy with the Samsung Galaxy S16 or the iPhone 17S. I believe if both companies changed the name of the phone and started over with the numbering, that would be much more acceptable.

    The Galaxy S could easily be renamed to something new (Maybe Galaxy X or even not Galaxy at all) and the iPhone name could be replaced as well, especially since these “phones” do a lot more than phone calls now-a-days.

  • ijere

    Good but i think they have to do something about the price…..some guys even have it in my school or you contact me at http://www.portal.unn.edu.ng

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  • Steve

    S stands for “speed” came out with the iPhone 3GSpeed

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  • Redwan Huq

    Is the iPhone the only device where the number designation does not refer to the numerical generation/version/edition of a product? Meaning, why is the 6th iPhone called iPhone 5? So which version of the iPhone is Apple not acknowledging as a real product? When I tell this to the average iPhone user, it blows their minds.

  • ksegall

    I’m not sure that matters much. For most people, the latest number is the latest product. It’s not all that important exactly what generation it is.

    Final Cut Pro X is an anomaly as well — unless you just take the X as a letter and leave it at that. But OS X originally stood for OS “Ten” and FCP X came after Final Cut Pro 7.

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