Sep 16

Apple’s self-inflicted naming dilemma

iphone-names2Uh-oh. I sense a disturbance in the Force.

iPhone 7 is coming. And if the rumors are true, the logic of iPhone naming will be soon be stress-tested.

Before we dig in, it’s important to note that the name of the new device is unconfirmed at this point. We have only an assumption based on iPhone naming history.

But that history is actually the problem.

According to the Sacred Scrolls, the iPhone model number only changes when the device gets a redesign. Yet the leaks indicate that iPhone 7 will be more of a “6SS” than a 7. That is, the only changes to the previous model will be internal.

The big rethink apparently arrives in 2017.

If Apple now unveils an iPhone 7, does this mean we’ll skip 7S next year and go directly to iPhone 8? Or will a 7S represent the next great rethink? The bigger question is: are we doomed to wander forever in a sea of letters and numbers representing varying degrees of newness?

If you’re starting to think this conversation is silly, I’m with you 100%. It’s silly because this whole S business was never necessary in the first place. In fact, it’s actually worked against Apple’s best interests.

To better appreciate this self-inflicted wound, let’s do a little forensic work.

The S first made its way into the iPhone vocabulary back in 2009. That’s when we met the iPhone 3GS. That awkward name seemed more Amelio than Jobs, but hey, those were the early days of iPhone and there was much to be gleeful about.

Two years later, the S took root. With the iPhone 4S, that little letter morphed from naming quirk to naming convention. From that point on, every new number iPhone was followed one year later by an S model.

Apple never provided an official explanation, so we made up our own: a new number means a new form factor and an S means internal improvements only.

Unfortunately, from there it was just a hop and skip to a more negative way of looking at it: numbers bring major change and S-models bring minor change. That’s the mainstream perception today.

There’s one glaring problem with this analysis: it isn’t true.

Some of iPhone’s biggest innovations have been unveiled in S models, including Siri, 64-bit processing and Touch ID.

This false perception has even grown its own buzz phrase, as many writers now routinely describe Apple’s “tick-tock” cycle of iPhone releases—an alternating pattern of major and minor years.

Did I mention how much I loathe this naming scheme?

From a marketing standpoint, Apple has simply been shooting itself in the foot every other year, muting expectations by putting an S on the box.

Even when an S model introduces a breakthrough feature, it comes in the context of “this is an off-year.” I’m trying to think of any marketer who has ever chosen such a course before, but I’m coming up blank.

Those of us who have frowned upon the S have often run into the counter-argument: “Hey, iPhone sales are through the roof—so what’s your point again?”

That was never a good comeback. Apple achieved its incredible growth by firing on all cylinders, not most cylinders. Product naming is a critical part of the marketing mix.

That argument is even more lame today—because, as we all know, iPhone sales have recently fallen considerably short of the roof. With more and more people believing Apple has become a laggard, the company has clung to a naming system that literally reinforces that belief.

It’s a head-scratcher. One would think that every new iPhone would be presented as “the next breakthrough in iPhones,” period. There’s simply no need to dilute that message with a disclaimer—which is exactly what the S has become. It’s a strange form of self-flagellation.

But wait. It could get worse.

If there was ever any value in telling people that Apple follows a tick-tock pattern—and there isn’t—that value disappears instantly if Tim Cook announces an iPhone 7, and it takes the shape of its two predecessors.

Already the Apple press (and Apple customers) are dealing with the “disappointment” of a number change in the absence of a design change. We were primed for a tick and it’s looking like another tock.

This entire conversation wouldn’t even exist had Apple chosen a simpler path at the start, or did a mid-course correction years ago. Just imagine if every model was judged on its merits, without any pre-conceptions about major and minor years.

I haven’t even mentioned the iPhone SE. This little fella gets an extra letter to make up for its lack of number—a name that’s unnecessarily complex all by itself. What happens when iPhone 7 comes out? Will the SE grow up to become a 7SE? (About as charming as 3GS.) Or does the SE continue in its own world, without a number, neither in nor out of the current generation?

Well, what’s done is done. But I will always wonder what good Apple ever saw with this S-naming business. It’s has been a drag on marketing, not a boost. The only thing it did well is feed the perception that Apple is slow to innovate.

It’s interesting that Apple so boldly does away with popular ports on a laptop or iPhone, but seems unwilling to make a simple change in iPhone naming.

The good news is, it’s never too late. Now is an excellent time to rethink the iPhone naming framework.

Sad that these are the things I fantasize about, but I do find myself fantasizing that on September 7th, Tim Cook will unveil a freshly named new family of iPhones. After firing up the crowd with product specs, he reveals the new names: iPhone, iPhone Plus and iPhone Mini.

The hell with numbers and signaling big changes vs. small changes. When you buy an iPhone, you get the latest iPhone, period. Just like when you buy an iMac, you get the latest iMac.

Too simple?

While we’re at it, let’s retire the i as well, since the death warrant has already been signed. In the age of Apple Pay, Apple Music and Apple Watch, an Apple Phone can’t be far behind.

Sure, it will take some getting used to, but at least it makes sense. Which is something iPhone names haven’t done in a very, very long time.

  • Galaxy_Surfer_007

    Fantastic column!

    Agree with you 100%. Maybe, though, their change vis-a-vis the iPad– where the Pro moniker was brought down to the 9.7″ model — portends something.

    Maybe they should just call next week’s model the “iPhone 2016″….

    Except that would hurt sales during 2017– so, do what the car companies do–name a year ahead! Hence,

    THE IPHONE PRO 2017 (aka iPhone 7)


    THE IPHONE CLASSIC 2017 (aka iPhone SE)

  • Since reading your first book I have wondered about this question a lot. As you have said the computer range doesn’t follow the same numbering problem and neither did the iPod strangely.

    I thought Apple had done away with it when they launched the The new iPad which ultimately got labeled iPad 3.

    My question is can Apple do away with numbering altogether? Like you have suggested Apple Phone.

    In comparison Tesla model’s are constantly updated during the manufacturing process yet each car comes out as a Model S, Model X or Model 3. Recently Tesla redesigned the front fender on the Model S. It wasn’t a new model or even year model. It was just an announcement they posted on their blog that all Model S fenders going forward would have the new shape.

    I would like to see Apple follow through on all their product names. For example: We have MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.
    Then we should have Mac (Mac mini), Mac Air (iMac) and Mac Pro.
    iPhone, iPhone Air and iPhone Pro.
    iPad, iPad Air (iPad Mini) and iPad Pro.
    Apple Watch, Appel Watch Air and Apple Watch Pro.
    iPod (iPod Nano), iPod Air (iPod Air) and iPod Pro (iPod Touch)

  • Jurassic

    The simplest solution would be to not use an “S” moniker on any future models… No matter how similar it may look superficially to the previous year’s model.

    The iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6S look superficially similar, but they are two completely different phones, with the 6S being better, faster, more technologically advanced, and with features not available on the older iPhone 6 model.

    From now on, Apple should just name the phones iPhone 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.

    (Using year names like “iPhone 2016” would be inaccurate since iPhone models are sold September to September)

  • Gregg Ealy

    Actually Tesla has P85D etc as number differentiating and they update that.

  • P85D is specification. Like 1,3Ghz would be to a MacBook Air.

  • Apple sells old iPhone models as cheaper versions. They need to keep those around in order to hit the low price points that are important in emergent markets. So unlike with the Mac where they aren’t trying to grow market share nor aggressively enter emerging markets in order to sustain growth, they do need model numbers in order to differentiate.

    Not a simple problem.

  • felipecn

    Another issue aside from the “selling old iPhones” is that most of iPhone support – specially outside US – is done by network operators.

    Let’s say an iPhone 5 owner call the operator complaining his 4G/LTE doesn’t work. It’s hard to a third party set a 5 apart from a 5s and from an SE.
    It’s an issue that already happens having the phones differently named, and would be much worse.

    (And for example, iPhone 5 doesn’t support Band 7 LTE, which is used on Brazil. Only 5s and newer does. So, if a customer calls you complaining it won’t work, it’s not the operators fault. Such issues would be harder to diagnosis with simpler names)

  • Ian Goss

    Dilemma is not apposite. What exactly are the [at least] two horns?

  • Ian Goss

    Define ‘better’.

  • winston smith

    Maybe they can call it the 6S 2.0
    that will solve it

  • Alongside of the bad marketing message of the S series, I’d like to see Apple ditch continuing to sell last years models at a barely cheaper price. To me that just says the old one is good enough really.

    How many countries outside the US sell the year old model? In Australia we all buy our phones for $0 and the price of the 24 month contract varies according to the model. So no one “saves” $2 a month buying the old ones – only the new models are promoted.

    I’d much rather see them ditch the numbers altogether and just use iPhone, iPhone Plus, SE, Pro etc. Works for every other things they sell.

  • Adrayven

    For some people, it is.

  • Adrayven

    I’ve been of the mind for some time they should treat it like the Macbook lineup. Drop the numbers.. It’s pointless anyway, they only release 1 phone a year.. The iPhone Pro released in 2016 or 2017.. is easy enough..

    It’s worked just fine for years .. but I think Tim Cook doesn’t think like that.. He’s a stock boy that worries about inventory thats now a CEO.. ahh well.

  • The one good part about them still selling last years here? We were able to get just over 700 bucks back, selling an almost two year old phone on eBay! That’s going to cover most of the cost of the new one, and next year the S will be on sale… works extremely well, some times you can actually profit or at least not pay more than a few dollars a month for the phone.

  • After the word better, they said “faster, more advanced” but to be crystal clear, better in every way. Better camera, better screen. Better Touch ID sensor. Better in every way. Except weight maybe it gained a slight increase;-)

  • It’s a badge too, I think 💯 is now an option.

  • Robert.Walter

    Problem is Apple had a tick (big design, small h/w changes) tock (no design, big h/w changes), and now is at a tick,tock,tock for 2016 with maybe an out of phase click every 2 years for the entry level phone. The prob is that the convention is not as flexible as the package.

    The following are my speculations:

    I always took it that the S evolved from .5, instead of 4.5 we get 4S which I think of like a half step. I always associated this half step with packing new tech in an older shell.

    I took the E in SE as Step-Extension; near current tech in a very old shell. My guess is that it wasn’t called 5SE because someone in Apple got nervous that customers would focus on the 5 and fail to appreciate all the neat 6S tech in the box. That said, someone couldn’t see a way to call it the 6SE because it wasn’t s 6 externally. This problem will reappear in a couple of years when the real 6SE is released and someone will get nervous about the near 7 or 7S tech in a 6 box and will call it SE2 for lack of a better name.

    Personally I like the numbers* much better than iPhone 2016 and iPhone 2017; Apple just needs to be more coherent about it. There is no shame in 7, then 7S, scheme.

    * just like I wish Apple would continue using sexy names for MacOS but only for fun. Let the numbers speak for the revision. macOS 10 Yosemite, macOS 11 El Capitan, macOS 12 Sierra, for marketing, but for easy comparison 10, 11, 12 are so much more relatable.

  • JoeSpaulding

    This is the best idea

  • JoeSpaulding

    I want a classic 2017 👍

  • Tyler Travitz

    I wrote about this exact thing a few months ago with the SE.

    https://medium.com/@tylertravitz:disqus /bringing-parity-to-apple-s-product-lines-7d16e77d9614#.kg8j5wmt9

  • Simple: iPhone SE will be upgraded to iPhone SEX, and iPhone 6S to 6.9S

  • On a more serious note, Apple indeed could name this year’s model iPhone 6SE and reserve iPhone 7 for 2017 for 10th anniversary to unveil on September 7th, 2017.

    But something is telling me, that’s not what’s gonna happen tomorrow. There’s a reason why Apple picked September 7th for unveiling. iPhone 7 on the 7th. Get it?

    If so, then 99% chance Apple will name next year’s model iPhone 8, not 7S.

  • FiMurca

    What makes us think the iPhone 8 will be a large revamp that comes next year? People are going nuts over speculation and bad journalism that it makes my head spin. I’ve heard rumors that this years phone will be the iPhone 6SE. That’s ludicrous. This whole rumor mill thing gets out of hand because lots of readers take it as gospel and run with it as it was news leaked from Apple itself. I’ve heard everything from curved screens, no home buttons, smart connector, Apple pencil support, very thin device, USB C instead of lighting, iPhone 6SE name, and now people acting like they know what’s going to be in iPhone 8. You are all crazy.

  • FiMurca

    This is a terrible column. It makes the assumption that everyone KNOWS iPhone 8 details as if they were leaked from Apple itself. NO rumors of iPhone 2 years out have ever been accurate. If they were iPhone 7 should have a curved crystal display with no home button. There is just as much credibility of next years iPhone being another iteration 7s than it being iPhone 8. It’s all hearsay. Nobody knows anything about iPhone 8 or even if next years model will even be called that.

  • FiMurca

    Yeah. People take the rumor mill too seriously. It’s all hearsay especially when it comes to iPhone 8. This latest rumor that it will be 6SE is crazy. There is absolutely no credibility to any iPhone 8 rumor. None. Zip. Zilch. Not this far out anyway.

  • FiMurca

    You are thinking way too much into this. Haha. Phil Schiller has told Fortune that SE stood for Special Edition and a homage to Macintosh SE.

  • FiMurca
  • You forgot the 5C.

    I always thought the S stood for ‘speed’. I think they mentioned that at the 3GS launch.

    The naming doesn’t matter though. If they had incremented the number every year, or never used a number, people would have still identified the pattern: One year you get an exciting new design; next year it gets a feature boost. Repeat.

  • Ross Wilson

    I disagree. Ask yourself if the Prius is better than a Prius S. I don’t think there’s even such a car but the S model would automatically make me think it’s better. When Apple sell an iPhone 6s they’re selling a 6 with more features. Because the thing looks like a 6. So far all S models have had the same body design as the number that precedes them. I think if the 6s was actually called a 7 then everyone would think oh hang on the 7 is really just a 6 why not buy a cheaper 6. The S designation admits it’s inheritance but then adds to it. It effectively makes it more appealing than a whole new number. That is providing the S designation models always use a body shape that’s already been used in a previous phone. So it makes total sense to me. Technology wise it might make more sense to completely rename the phone that has new or different tech, but marketing isn’t so straight forward, it’s emotional logic that trumps intellectual logic. And you can always argue the S is a proving ground for new tech, that you know will be mature by the next model number.

  • inquiringbeard

    “Apple never provided an official explanation” – yeah they did. “The ‘S’ stands for speed”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkibwXkThxA

    This doesn’t really affect your thesis, however, that it’s a drag on marketing. The main counterpoint is that when, like Apple, a tech company has one major product line that they pour their R&D and manufacturing potential into, it seems to make sense to them to invest in the external ‘aesthetic’ design elements on the ‘tick’ release, then invest in the internal technological improvements on the ‘tock.’ It probably has to do with controlling their margins and keeping each release a great value. In recent years they’ve added things like color options to the ‘S’ variants to keep some aesthetic novelty in the cycle. The public goes for the big aesthetic update, the tech nerds (at least, those that don’t buy a new phone each year) often choose the S for its performance improvements.

  • Michael Jennings

    Well, consider the names of the 9.7 inch iPad models. There has been roughly one new model every year, but there is a certain lack of coherence.

    iPad 2
    iPad – sometimes known as “iPad (3rd generation)”
    iPad – sometimes known as “iPad (4th generation)” and other times as “iPad with retina display”)
    iPad Air
    iPad Air 2
    Ipad Pro (9.7 inch)

    This makes the iPhone naming look positively sane.

  • I’d have named them based on size like they did with PowerBooks/MacBooks. The iPhone 3.5-inch, 4-inch, 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch. It’s too late now, but I think this shows they weren’t as forward thinking as they could have been with the iPhone. They probably didn’t think they would be making other sizes. I think they could course correct now with iPhone 7 mini, iPhone 7, and iPhone 7 plus, but that has problems, too.

  • The reason is Labor Day. If it wasn’t a holiday week they’d have probably announced on the 6th.

  • Funny story. When they updated the Macintosh II to with a 68030 processor they called it the Macintosh IIx. Later when they updated the Macintosh SE with a 68030 processor they called it the Macintosh SE/30 to avoid the joke you just made.

  • Joseph

    100% agree. They should take iPad and iPhone lines back to the fundamental way they named the iPod and Mac lines. You just get a 2012 MacBook Pro, or an iPod, internally known as a 7th or 5th Generation. Marketing wise it should just be “iPhone” or “iPhone Plus”

  • Ha. I didn’t know about this. Thanks for sharing. :)

  • SockRolid

    Agree with the author.
    Would love to see the naming changed to:
     Phone Mini
     Phone
     Phone Plus

    But I fear this won’t happen until next year.
    Along with the major redesign. :-(

  • I have a feeling that “Plus” moniker may be going away. There was a very long time at Apple when it was banned, and I was surprised when it came back in the iPhone.

    I have a feeling that the larger phone will be an iPhone Pro.

  • Actually, in every “S” model, the “S” has stood for a unique feature:

    3GS – Speed
    4S – Siri
    5S – Security (Touch ID)
    6S – Sensitive (3D Touch)