Apple’s disturbing confession

My bubble has officially been burst.

Though I’ve had issues with iPhone naming for years, I’ve always assumed there was an underlying strategy, enigmatic as it might be.

Apparently I was giving Apple too much credit.

When Phil Schiller sat down with Engadget recently, he casually confessed that the S and the R have no real meaning. They’re just letters.

This news doesn’t exactly collapse the space-time continuum. However, it does rattle my personal belief system. Let me explain—

Steve Jobs did the big things well, but as we know, he also did a lot of smaller things well. One of which was his ability to attach simple, memorable names to breakthrough products.

After all the work that went into creating Apple’s objects of lust, he wasn’t about to muck them up with confusing names. He cracked the whip on the name-crafters as heartily as he did the designers and engineers.

This was in stark contrast to Apple’s Steve-less years. When Performas and Quadras roamed the earth, the English character set was routinely looted to create ever more confusing names. (Performa 6290CD, anyone?)

It’s been disappointing to see Apple struggle with iPhone naming for so many years. With XS, XS Max and XR, we now have a family of iPhone names Gil Amelio would be proud of.

In his interview, Phil is confirming that iPhone naming is no longer born of Steve Jobs-level vigor.

After admitting that the letters have no meaning, he shared what they mean to him personally.

“I love cars and things that go fast, and R and S are both letters used to denote sports cars that are really extra special.”

I”m glad Phil has found a way to explain away the complexity. However, the internet has failed to guess this sports-car reference despite its many attempts to solve the mystery.

For most of us, the S and R have simply been unexplained mysteries. Until Phil explained.

To keep Phil honest, I searched on “fastest sports cars” and “best sports cars.” I only see a scattering of S and R models in the Top 10 lists. In many cases these letters are diluted as part of a combination, like “GTS.” Maybe he’ll offer another explanation down the road.

That aside, it’s hard to buy the argument that a single iPhone letter can evoke the feeling of a product from a different category? Given common usage, XS is far more likely to make people think “Extra Small” than “extra special sports car.”

Phil’s rationale gets even sillier when you remember how he explained the S in the very first S-named iPhone (iPhone 3GS).

“The S simply stands for speed, because this is the most powerful, fastest iPhone we’ve ever made.”

Apparently, Phil wasn’t thinking sports cars back then. One could argue he wasn’t thinking, period. After all, every new flagship iPhone is “the most powerful, fastest iPhone ever made”—even when it comes in a non-S year.

The big question is: who cares about any of this? So Phil spins a few tales. Big deal. iPhone sales keep growing and AAPL keeps rising. It’s all good, right?

If that’s what you think, you don’t truly understand Apple. It became the first trillion-dollar company because it had been investing in its future for 20 years. For Steve Jobs, it was never all about today. He built a rich ecosystem and paid attention to details other companies rarely do—including product naming.

I foolishly cling to the idealistic notion that a company’s values really do determine its long-term success. So I find it unsettling when Phil Schiller innocently tosses out the comment that the letters in an iPhone name have no meaning.

What he’s doing is casually tossing aside one of the values that has always set Apple apart.

In the world of Apple, every tiny detail is important. Some guy who used to be CEO taught me that it all adds up.