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.

What next?

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.