iPhone naming: 1 step forward, 4 steps back
Every September, I eagerly await the unveiling of the new iPhones. I also feel a sense of dread, wondering what Apple is going to call them.
That’s because, when it comes to iPhone naming, Apple seems to wage a war against common sense.
Last year’s models set new standards for complexity. We had an 8, 8 Plus, X and SE. That’s two numbers, one Roman numeral, one paring of letters, plus an odd numerical gap between 8 and 10. Or, in Apple lingo, between 8 and X.
It’s hard to imagine how a family of only four products could end up with such needlessly complicated names—especially coming from the company that wrote the book on simplicity.
So how do the iPhone names look in 2018?
Let’s start with the positive. I don’t want to minimize this, because it’s really, really positive. Finally, we have a single generation of iPhones, all introduced at the same time, all sharing a common identifier—the X.
This new family of iPhones erases the naming monstrosity that was the iPhone SE. That model lived outside the family of iPhones, did not share the family number, was not featured at the annual iPhone event, and remained stuck in its original iteration since birth. Who knows what the “SE” even stood for. That style of product naming is the mark of big/cold companies—not the simplicity-loving, people-friendly Apple.
So whew, yes, I’m elated with this rebirth of the iPhone product line. But Apple’s return to sanity is not complete. Inexplicably, the company continues to struggle with four naming problems of its own making.
One: S madness
Apple clings to the notion that unveiling an S model every other year is a good idea. It isn’t.
Not to sound like a broken record, but this practice only reinforces the popular misperception that S models represent “off-years,” when only incremental improvements arrive.
This is far from the reality, as some of iPhone’s most important updates have come in the S years (64-bit processing, Siri, Touch ID).
Even if you accept the rationalization that the S indicates a model with the same form factor as the previous year, Apple is now in violation of its own rule. The iPhone XS Max is an entirely new shape.
If you thrive as an innovator, and you compete with companies that introduce a new generation every year, why on earth would you train your customers to believe there are “on” and “off” years? It’s naming insanity.
Two: Is that an X or a 10?
Customers remain confused about the X-or-ten thing, and this year comprehending the concept takes a bit more effort.
When we see a model identifier like “8S,” we read it as a number and a letter. When we see a model identifier like “XS” or “XR,” our little brains see two letters.
In general, Roman numerals and letters aren’t a good mix. Clearly not a product-killing faux pas, but also not a sterling example of naming perfection.
Three: R is for…
The R is not only confusing when paired with X-pronounced-as-ten, it’s confusing all by itself. Specifically—what the heck does that R even mean?
I suppose that with the disappearance of the SE, we need a good enigma to take its place.
Four: Mysteries of the S
In the name iPhone XS, is that a big S or a little s?
Hate to be that picky, but I still have this obsession deep inside from my early days as a proofreader. Inconsistencies drive me crazy.
In Apple literature, it’s a small s. In ads from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Best Buy, it’s a big S. Can we hold Apple responsible for its partners’ ads? Hell, yes. Apple makes and enforces a ton of rules for anyone authorized to sell its products. The devil is in the details.
Bonus: The Samsung-ization of iPhone ads
Okay, this isn’t a naming thing, but to many it is far more disturbing.
In days of old, Apple advertising was praised for its humanity. It was one of the big ways Apple created an emotional connection with its customers. Conversely, ads from Apple competitors typically focused on product specs in attempt to prove superiority. It was a clash of cold facts vs. human benefits.
On first viewing, Apple’s ad for the XS/Max felt more like Samsung to me than Apple. In fact, it is stunningly similar in style to the Samsung Note 9 ad running currently. Compare them both here.
Just as products need to stay ahead of competitors, so does marketing.
Whether Samsung has copied Apple or Apple has copied Samsung is irrelevant. The fact is, they now sit in the same place. In making a new iPhone X ad, Apple has chosen to do what Samsung has been doing, instead of creating something fresh and human. And where, oh where, did Apple’s sense of humor go?
This new Apple ad is basically an animated Keynote presentation. It’s page after page of features, coupled with gorgeous design and cool music. It’s something Samsung would be proud of.
Naming issues aside, I still feel great that every iPhone is now part of the same family, easily identified by its X moniker.
This should come as a great relief to those who feared that as iPhones increased in number from year to year, one day we would ultimately see an iPhone 23S.
Just as Apple named its macOS upgrades with numbers until it reached X, iPhones will likely go the same route. Next year, I imagine we’ll see an iPhone X2.
Then, one year later, the Holy Grail of bad product naming will be within Apple’s grasp. An iPhone X2S will feature a Roman numeral, a number and a letter, all in one name. Now that’s a breakthrough.
Yes, a humorless, animated keynote.
I agree with some of your points, but I don’t think the S naming is confusing at all.
I think the notion of “on” and “off” years makes perfect sense, especially with Apple’s mindset of iterating on a design over and over again, making small improvements and moving toward perfection. As you point out, the S year indicates the same form factor with a few refinements. (And I think people understand that you can have a bigger size of the same form factor.) Apple isn’t going to make drastic changes to the form factor just to justify a new model number, and I don’t think customers should want them to. The S model allows them to say, “This is a new phone with incremental improvements”.
Some people want the newest phone all the time, and some people want to wait for the refined version with some of the kinks worked out. With a general two-year upgrade cycle, the S model allows people to pick which one they want to follow.
(Oh, and “SE” stands for “Special Edition”, for a separate model of phone targeting a specific demographic. I thought that was perfectly clear.)
Except that that’s not what apple does. The S models are brand new phones not last years phones “with a few refinements”. Brand new. From scratch. Everything changed, other than the over iPhone look which hasn’t changed in ten years though it has evolved.
Can you point out where I said that the S models are “last year’s phones”, because I don’t believe I did. I specifically said, “This is a new phone with incremental improvements”, but with the same form factor.
Right here: “As you point out, the S year indicates the same form factor with a few refinements.”
This is wrong. It’s not the same phone with a few refinements, it’s a completely new phone in a very similar form factor.
Hell the max is a new form factor.
To openly tell current and prospective customers that you only make the big innovations every other year makes only makes it harder to market your product during the “off” years. It gives ammunition to all the critics who claim Apple isn’t the innovator it used to be—which is an unnecessary burden for the PR team.
I’d argue that Touch ID was one of the most important, if not the most important, new features in iPhone history prior to Face ID. It arrived in an S model. Yet, in your opinion, it was perfectly appropriate for Apple to say, “This is a new phone with incremental features”?
Good names or bad names, the fact is, iPhones continue to sell in record numbers. That’s because the products are great. The names aren’t a reason to buy or not buy, but they certainly play a part in the marketing. Steve Jobs never allowed any one part of the marketing effort, big or small, to be even slightly deficient.
I don’t understand why you equate “new form factor” with “innovation”. And as you rightly point out, Apple does introduce significant new features on the S models, which disproves the claim that S model signifies a lack of innovation. And especially with new hardware and software, people are often leery of the 1.0 version of a product, so the S version provides a good jumping-on point.
For most product lines (and Apple products in particular), the worst thing is to force innovation into a strict schedule. Apple knows (and I think most people understand) that you can’t just expect a major update every year. In software, developers often work on high-profile features and ignore refinements and bugfixes, just to justify a new x.0 release. But with an off-cycle, they can afford to take time to refine and improve. Again, Apple does this with the MacOS X releases (Leopard/Snow Leopard, Lion/Mountain Lion, Sierra/High Sierra), and it has worked well in the past.
As for critics who claim that Apple isn’t the innovator they used to be, a naming scheme not is going to fix that. If anything, getting rid of the S naming scheme would make that worse. “Apple announced their newest iPhone today, but it looks exactly the same as the previous generation. Apple has lost the ability to innovate!” The S model lets customers know that the form factor is intentional.
“The names aren’t a reason to buy or not buy, but they certainly play a part in the marketing. Steve Jobs never allowed any one part of the marketing effort, big or small, to be even slightly deficient.”
Steve Jobs oversaw the naming of the iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and presumably the iPhone 4S, which seem to exhibit a lot of the problems you’re talking about.
“However, I stand by my criticism because ordinary customers wouldn’t get that explanation in advertising. To them, SE would just be a meaningless combination of letters—worse yet, it existed outside the nomenclature of the ‘real’ iPhones.”
I am stunned that anyone would think that “SE” is just “a meaningless combination of letters.” “Special Edition” or “Collector’s Edition” are common terms that are used across all sorts of product lines, and those are always abbreviated as “SE” or “CE”. And yes, the iPhone SE does exist outside the nomenclature of the real iPhones, which was exactly how it was presented and marketed. So in that respect, the naming perfectly reflected its position in the product line.
First, I absolutely do not equate “new form factor” with “innovation.” That was one of the main points of my article. But I do think that is what Apple is teaching its customers (and analysts and observers) with the S-naming system. I’m talking about the perception only—that the S model is just an incremental upgrade following the previous year’s major upgrade.
I agree with you 100% that innovation does not follow a schedule, nor should it. I have often written that Apple has never innovated on a schedule. They release products when they’re ready. This is one more reason why I think S-naming does more harm than good. If Apple simply released a new phone every year—some years with a new form factor, some years not—people would simply judge each year’s model on its merits. They might say this year’s model isn’t as big a leap as last year’s, but they wouldn’t be pre-disposed to say that because of the S-name.
Though eliminating the S-naming doesn’t solve the innovation perception problem by itself, it would help. In marketing, anything that helps is a good idea. I strongly disagree with your thinking that giving an S-name to an iPhone allows Apple to communicate that the form factor is intentional. Why would you want to start marketing a product by saying it’s not as big a deal as the previous year’s product?
I don’t think Apple should have a naming system that somehow tries to rationalize the form factor. Just as you say innovation should not follow a schedule, I say innovation shouldn’t be tied to a form factor. Look at all the major innovation that was introduced in S models. And look at the one THREE-year period where iPhone’s form factor went unchanged. The innovation and usefulness that goes into every iPhone should never be judged by its looks or its name. It should be judged by its usefulness and the amazing things it can do.
True, Steve Jobs did approve the original S-naming. I (and many others) started whining about that back at the beginning. Steve was a visionary leader, and an amazing product and marketing person, but he wasn’t infallible. He made some of the biggest mistakes in Apple history. Fortunately, his balance sheet is WAY more positive than negative, and the company’s astronomical success is the result of his leadership, vision and intuition. Also, keep in mind that just because Steve started something doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t have changed his mind about it by now.
Re: the SE name. I guess I’ve lived a sheltered life, because I’ve never really noticed that letter combo in other products beyond the Macintosh SE. In my informal interrogation of people in my circle, nobody had a clue what it meant, so I don’t think I’m alone. That aside, part of my problem with the iPhone SE was that it was purposefully named to not be a member of the family. You think that’s a good thing—I think it only communicated that it wasn’t one of the “real” iPhones. Prior to last year’s intro, I offered the opinion that Apple should give it a modest upgrade and elevate its status to iPhone 8SE. That way, customers would still get the SE part (if that’s worth saving), but they’d also feel like they were getting that year’s new model, instead of an outlier that Apple didn’t even care enough about to upgrade.
Sorry to be so wordy, but you inspired me!
I am an “s”-year person. I started with the iPhone 3GS, and was fairly average in having a 2-year phone upgrade cycle. (The global average is 21 months, probably taking into account breakage.) So every time Apple released an “s” model, that was like a big “ok, your time to upgrade is NOW!” blinking sign for me. If they’d just incremented 4, 5, 6, 7… every year would have been its own decision. I think it was brilliant marketing.
I don’t doubt that you feel this way, but I do find it curious. You are convinced that a two-year upgrade is the right thing for you, and you see a “blinking sign” when Apple releases an S-named iPhone.
Wouldn’t you get the same sign if Apple numbered every phone in sequence? If you had a 5 and Apple announced a 7m wouldn’t you get the same feeling—my phone is two years old and it’s time to upgrade?
I also have to wonder what you did when Apple went from 6S to 7 to 8—with no 7S in the middle. Where was the blinking sign then? Did you buy the 8 because it should have been a 7S (internal improvements only). Or did you wait three years instead of two, so you could buy an 8S—only to find that no such phone would ever arrive. At that point, did you buy an X because you didn’t want to wait four years? And now Apple has come out with an XS? Point is, with its quirky naming system, Apple has done its best to confuse you—one of its most loyal customers.
One thing I learned from my time with Steve Jobs is that common sense should rule the day. In the past, Apple succeeded because it made the buying decision as simple as possible. That’s why the current naming system drives me buggy. I think it would customers would more clearly understand the naming if Apple simply upped the number every year, or sold iPhones as they do iMacs and MacBooks, noting the model years.
As it happens, I accidentally went swimming in the ocean with my 6s in my swimsuit pocket. I used an old phone for a bit then got the X.
I don’t disagree that the new naming scheme is awful. But I liked the old “s” system— I just think it’s time has passed.
This is a problem every versioned product has had since computing began. The “normal” thing to do is switch to the year for awhile. Or do like cars do and have models with “model years” that aren’t part of the name. The latter is I’m sure where Apple is headed once they decide to have more “courage”.
Oh, and one more thing. About the SE name. Honestly, I’d never even seen that it stood for Special Edition. I Googled when I read your comment, and yes, Phil Schiller did say that in an interview. I have been schooled! However, I stand by my criticism because ordinary customers wouldn’t get that explanation in advertising. To them, SE would just be a meaningless combination of letters—worse yet, it existed outside the nomenclature of the “real” iPhones.
I always thought it was a throwback to the Macintosh SE during the Sculley years. Back then, it meant “System Expansion,” though that was also never explained to the public at large. That was the kind of product naming that drove Steve Jobs nuts, because it felt like something offered by a big inhuman company.
Apple continues to go through this (to no good): Macintosh, Macintosh 512, Macintosh Plus, Macintosh SE, Macintosh SE/30, Macintosh Classic. Ugh. I will say, the SE/30 was the best Mac in that box ever. But, it continued with every model after.
I think Apple is getting closer with the watch: Series 1, 2, 3, 4. Two sizes. They might have iPhone series 1… 10, etc. in two sizes. Or, just iPhone and a year.
They need to stop soon with the iterative naming every year now that they’re into double digits. The product is very mature. Perhaps in the early years distinguishing between iPhone 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. made sense because there were radical changes. But at some point, it’s just an iPhone, just as they’ve done with MacBook (variations are Air and Pro) or iPad (var. Mini and Pro). Perhaps they are headed this way, with just iPhone. Drop the X, as they did with the Mac OS and just have iPhone (with var. r and max — get rid of “s”). They could do something similar to what they do with MacOS, which is to give them launch or version names, but the branding is simply iPhone.
Totally agree! I thought they would have done this this year. When the X was announced a year ago they called it “the future of iPhone”. What better time to start calling it just “iPhone”?
Can’t you just hear Tim say, “last year we introduced you to the future of iPhone. This year we’re introducing you to the future. iPhone.”
I’ve been waiting for your take on this. Thank you.
I’ve always bristled when people say “Steve Jobs would never have allowed this,” and have never said it myself… but lord am I tempted.
Do you think Jobs would have been okay with this?
I do try to avoid the “What Steve would do” question. But there’s nothing wrong with a review of the facts. Steve himself presided over the first S names, so we can’t say he would never have approved. However, he was also willing to (a) admit mistakes and move on, or (b) move on just because it’s time to move on. In 2006, Steve personally told me he thought the i-naming had probably run its course, and Apple should start moving away from those names (which they are finally doing in select products). So, if Steve were still with us, I wouldn’t be surprised if he came to feel differently about the S-names over time. So there’s a bit of “maybe” in your question—which only reinforces the folly of trying to guess what Steve would do 🙂
Thanks Ken. I appreciate your insight.
I do see another take on the naming scheme.
One selling point of Apple hardware is durability. Competitor’s phones feel old quickly, Apple design and software support let their hardware maintain usability longer and resell price higher.
Every pundits in reviewing new iPhones always, again always, say that the new one is better than previous year model but previous year owners could wait another year without much sacrifice while buying the new for older models owners is a no brainer.
iPhones are designed to be this way, little jumps that let your model age smoothly. It gives value to the iPhones line, they always don’t age too quickly.
That said, the name thing is part of this aging strategy, it helps to keep new models from shadowing previous year model too much.
SCHILLER EXPLAINS WHAT THE ‘S’ & ‘R’ MEAN:
(hint: terrible explanation)
“R” also comes before “S” in the Alphabet.
iPhone XR and iPhone XS….
Maybe next year we will see the iPhone XT and iPhone XU.
Reading Dmitri Bilgere post and Ken’s response is interesting. I would love Apple to rebrand the whole thing and go with Apple Phone.
Ken, I would like to hear your thoughts on the way Tesla names their products. We all understand the top level naming but traditional car manufactures only update their cars every few years so it is easy to identify what features are in a specific model. However Tesla seems to do updates to cars and soon as they can make the changes in the manufacturing. So not all Model X are the same…. Could Apple do something like this?