Sep 15

Addendum to the iPhone “S” argument

dice-6Earlier this week, I expressed a distinct lack of love for the S-naming that Apple has applied to iPhone every other year.

My point was that by choosing this path, Apple has actually trained the world to believe S years are “off-years” that feature only minor innovations. This, when some of iPhone’s biggest advances have actually arrived in the S models.

As Exhibit A in my argument, I now submit yesterday’s BuzzFeed article entitled 20 Minutes With Tim Cook. More accurately, I submit a single paragraph neatly tucked mid-article. Here, John Paczkowski illustrates two reasons why Apple’s S naming is a bad idea (though he did so unintentionally):

Hey Siri is just one of the major new features Cook announced last week in the new iPhones. Apple releases the iPhone on a tick-tock cycle; with the “tock” device typically being a modest refinement of the “tick” device that debuted the year prior with a new form factor and other upgrades. This is traditionally a “tock” year, but Cook bristles at this notion. “This is clearly not an off-year issue,” he argues. “This is substantial change.”

First, we have Paczkowski — a respected and experienced Apple journalist — explaining to readers that iPhone’s major innovations arrive every other year. Would John (or anyone else) explain it this way if there were no S-year naming? He either believes  that Siri, 3D Touch, Touch ID and other S-innovations were minor, or he has drawn a logical conclusion from Apple’s naming scheme.

Second, we have Tim Cook bristling at the notion of iPhone “off-years.” Well … Tim would have nothing to bristle about if Apple hadn’t created this whole “off-year” nonsense in the first place. The perception is a direct result of Apple’s naming system.

Imagine if Apple didn’t imply on-years and off-years in this way. Some models would be seen as bigger leaps than others, but that will always be the case anyway.

If Apple weren’t hell-bent on reinforcing the”tick-tock” idea, it wouldn’t need to run commercials that aim to counter the perception. Nor would there be a need to overcome S inertia with theme lines like “The only thing that’s changed is everything.”

There are no laws requiring every-other-year naming. How much simpler it would be for Apple to just send one super-strong message every year: “Here’s the latest, most advanced iPhone ever.”

Alas, that’s not the case. Looking back at the last six years of iPhone naming, the only thing that’s changed is nothing.


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  • Jovan

    I think there’s another perspective. There’s a huge portion of buyers who do not want the first version of anything. For them, the S signifies refinement and proven design/reliability. The truly tech savvy know better and aren’t fooled or put off one way or the other.

  • nuthinking

    Isn’t a possibility that the only reason why they are keeping the “S” is as homage to Steve?

  • Jim Preston

    Yesterday in an AT&T store I struggled with the S’s in 6s Plus, and issue you mentioned previously. I ordered a 6s Plus at 12:07 AM on the pre-order launch day, last Saturday. The page is clearly for the 6s Plus in my browsing history but they shipped a 6 Plus. Some coder forgot to change the code when he or she cloned the 6 Plus page and it pointed to the wrong product. (I wonder how many ordered the 6s Plus, received the 6 Plus, and don’t know it yet?)

    I received the 6 Plus on Monday and took it to a local AT&T store to fix the issue. All of us kept struggling with saying 6 Plus and 6s Plus, frequently saying the wrong name. I thought about your post :-)

    We’ve seen even more naming stupidity from Apple but at least they quickly corrected it. The iPad 3 was called the New iPad, and chaos reigned. I’m in Silicon Valley and met an Apple exec and described the problem with that name. Someone got the message.

    While AT&T took back the 6 Plus, refunded me, and then ordered the 6s Plus for me, they weren’t able to give me the shipping date I earned at midnight. I’ll stand in line at their store on 9/25. I want this phone for my mountain biking vacation starting the next day. The barometer and video image stabilization are big improvements for me over my 5s. This release is certainly not an “off-year” for me.

  • Has the Xs model ever sold less than the Non-s phone?

  • ksegall

    I have never seen any hard data. But I believe every model has sold more than the one preceding.

    This is one reason why some say “then what’s your problem?” when I suggest losing the S. I make my point independent of sales figures. Just because something is selling well doesn’t mean it couldn’t sell better.

  • ksegall

    Thanks for the theory. But, with all respect, I doubt that this explains the S.

    I’d challenge your assumption that there are a huge number of buyers who wait for the second version. There are a number of people (not sure about the “huge” part) who hold back for a few weeks or months, just to make sure any bugs are worked out. But I don’t see them waiting a full year. Apple’s sales numbers bear this out, since every year’s new model seems to obliterate the sales records set the year before.

    If your theory was true, I would still say that Apple is making a mistake — in that they’d be acknowledging that the big innovations only happen every other year.

  • Nameless Coward

    Would the iPhone actually be a consious decision to create an exeption to the rule of ever faster climbing iteration version numbers? Adding the S half its pace.

    OS versions, browser versions (Chrome) and so on are climbing faster and faster.

    Does Apple for some reason want the opposite for their phone?

    I am dumbfounded like everyone else.

    S. Second iteration?

    I’ll ask Tim

  • Jim Preston

    Ken, hypothesis, not theory :-) Theories are tested.

  • ksegall

    Silly me!

  • Nice post, as always! I have often thought about this myself, and I’ve come to a similar conclusion. S phones more and more are becoming larger upgrades than the non-s upgrades right before then.

    For all the hate the 4S got, coming in nearly a year and a half after the 4, and when many were looking forward to/hoping for a larger screen, it was the first time we could see that Apple’s interest in chip design was legit, with the dual-core A5 chip. Siri might’ve received mixed reactions then, but it’s basically an essential UI in two new Apple platforms (TV and watch) just 4 years later!

    The 5s brought Apple’s (and the industry’s) first 64-bit ARM CPU, that included a custom Apple-designed ISP and blew away most rivals. It also included the (also industry-first) dual-tone flash, and Touch ID! Meanwhile, the iPhone 5 pales in comparison, as while it introduced a new design and slightly larger display, it didn’t have any breakout features (unless you wanna count LTE).

    The 6s/+ continue this, as while the 6/+’s major changes are in just the display sizes, thinness, and design, the 6s has once again added major CPU and GPU power (versus minor improvement for the 6), 3D Touch, a 4K camera, and always-on Siri!

    I’m near-certain that the image of S iPhones would be vastly different if they weren’t called just that.

  • Kenneth Chang

    If Apple had gone with a sequential numbering scheme, they’d be up to double digits already next year. I could imagine an iPhone 10, but iPhone 11, 12, 13… sounds clunky and long-in-the-tooth to me. When the S’s, Apple buys eight years (through 10s) to figure out a new naming scheme, or maybe iPhones will be like iPods by then.

  • ksegall

    If the S-naming thing has any negative impact, the idea of “buying a few years to figure out a new naming scheme” isn’t a very good one. If it’s inevitable, it’s always better to fix today.

    One thing Apple can do is adopt the naming scheme for OS X. The OS used to be numerically sequential until they got to 10. At that point, it was always 10 — but its actual identifier is 10.1, 10.2, 10.3, etc.

    iPhone X anyone?

  • Kenneth Chang

    Really? iPhone 10.1? That’s a textbook definition of incremental. If reusing a digit for a year is bad, the alternative is to be stuck on 10 forever? (Which is why Apple went through almost the entire catalog of cats for OS X…) You might as well be proposing 6T, 6U, 6V, 6W…

    Even if the S-naming has drawbacks, you know there are many, many far worse naming schemes (like pretty much every other cell phone out there).

    The cleanest “fix” would be to drop the number entirely a la Macs, iPods and Apple TV, but that would exacerbate the “nothing new” conundrum — the new iPhone looks the same and it has the same name! The only other simple move would be to rename the device and start back at 0 (what Apple did with OS X, which was indeed a completely new operating system). Then you lose the simple equity of “iPhone.”

    Everything else starts to look like a convoluted Samsung name (worse than iPhone 6S Plus).

  • ksegall

    You’re not quite getting my suggestion. To ordinary people, OS X is … OS X. Even with all the cats, and now the CA landmarks, it’s still OS X. Nobody ever says “Hey, I’m running OS X 10.10.1.” Only when you drill down into About This Mac do you see version number. I’m saying that iPhone could be named in a similar way, so that to most users it’s just an iPhone, but the technical version is hidden below the surface. Hey, it was just a thought. My main point is that the S-naming sends a message all by itself, and that message has a negative effect. Surely there is a better solution.

  • Jim Preston

    What I’ve noticed is that I don’t get as much interest in my S phone as my wife gets with her full version phones. Our two year AT&T contracts are offset by a year so we always have the latest to test our app. I’ve actually felt at times that people don’t respect me as much because I have an off-year iPhone. Along the lines of “You’re an iOS developer and you don’t have the latest iPhone?” I have to explain the wife thingy and that the S years have some good stuff. This shouldn’t be an issue, especially in Silicon Valley!

  • Dieter Engel

    “First, we have Paczkowski — a respected and experienced Apple journalist — ”

    LOL!! No. He may be experienced at writing crap about Apple but he is not respected, because he, like so many so called “journalists” these days feel like they can just insert their ignorant as fork opinions in the middle of articles as if they were fact– this “with the “tock” device typically being a modest refinement” is unmitigated BS.

    “Journalism” these days is really piss poor ,with blogs who can’t be bothered to run spell check being considered “the media”. But that doesn’t mean the fault is anywhere other than with the dishonest, low-life, irresponsible, uneducated cretins who run those rags.

    I agree with your point- this naming scheme is playing into the nonsense narrative. They should just call it the 2015 iPhone and 2015 iPhone Plus. Like cars have model years. Or maybe something better than that.

    But don’t let these cretins off the hook!

  • יוסף בן-ישראל

    That was my thoughts too.