Over the years, iPhone naming has had its ups and downs. There were the awkward names like iPhone 3GS and iPhone XS Max, and then there were strong industry-defining names like iPhone X. Based on the latest rumors, Apple appears to be in the early stages of moving away from an annual iPhone naming cadence altogether.
Most iPhones have an interesting story when it comes to nomenclature.
iPhone (2007). By going with “iPhone,” Apple relied heavily on consumers making the mental connection between a “breakthrough internet communications device” and a traditional cell phone. By relying on existing connotations, the iPhone sales pitch was made that much easier. Apple went on to use a similar naming strategy with Apple Watch.
iPhone 3G (2008). In retrospect, this may have been the most surprising iPhone name to date. Apple called the first update of its breakthrough mobile product after an industry term: 3G. The decision also spoke volumes about what drove iPhone adoption out of the gate. An iPhone with faster cellular connectivity was positioned as a key factor in customers' purchase decisions.
iPhone 3GS (2009). This is when things got weird with iPhone nomenclature. As explained by Apple’s Phil Schiller at the time, the “S” in iPhone 3GS stood for speed. The naming decision demonstrated how something that is now viewed as trivial - processor speed - was positioned as a key selling point for an early iPhone.
iPhone 4 (2010). Apple entered an iPhone naming scheme that would go on to last for years: a whole number characterized by a cosmetic redesign was followed by an “S” version the following year with more in the way of internal upgrades.
iPhone 4s (2011). An iPhone 4 with internal improvements. The “S” cycle provided Apple a few benefits. By sticking with the same overall iPhone design for more than a year, Apple was able to ramp up iPhone production quickly, and at a lower price, for “S” launches. The “S” cycle also reflected how consumers bought iPhones at the time. In the U.S., mobile carriers subsidized iPhones for $199 with the purchase of two-year contracts. The remaining price of the iPhone was recouped through higher monthly charges for data, texts, and service. This led to a two-year iPhone upgrade cycle and people choosing to either be on the whole number or “S” upgrade path.
iPhone 5 (2012). Arguably, this was the least noteworthy naming decision as Apple simply followed the existing pattern of using a whole number following the “S” model to denote a major cosmetic change. The iPhone 5 was the first iPhone to have a 4-inch screen.
iPhone 5c / 5s (2013). Apple faced its first major naming dilemma. In an effort to boost iPhone 5s sales and to maintain iPhone margins, Apple chose to replace the iPhone 5’s outer shell with lower cost colorful polycarbonate shells. Apple called this new model the iPhone 5c, and “c” presumably stood for color. Pundits ended up looking at the “c” as standing for cheap given the iPhone 5c’s lower price relative to iPhone 5s.
iPhone 6 / 6 Plus (2014). For the first time, Apple introduced two new flagship iPhones simultaneously - one with a 4.7-inch screen and the other with a 5.5-inch screen. Apple went with “Plus” for the model with the larger screen. The name worked as there was no other major difference between the two iPhone models aside from screen size (and battery life).
iPhone 6s / 6s Plus / SE (2015). This is where the iPhone “S” cycle began to lose much of its meaning from a feature and product development perspective. While the market would continue to look at “S” years as refinement years, Apple began to shift iPhone development so that every iPhone update contained a handful of useful new technologies and features. As for iPhone SE, Apple introduced a new model containing components from a few prior flagship iPhones in March 2016 with “SE” meaning special edition.
iPhone 7 / 7 Plus (2016). As was the year of iPhone 5, this was another uneventful year for iPhone naming. Apple followed the logical next step in an iPhone naming scheme that had been used for the previous six years.
iPhone X / 8 / 8 Plus (2017). iPhone naming seemed to cross the point of no return. Apple decided to call the first iPhone lacking a front-facing home button, something that had been rumored for years, iPhone X. For iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, instead of sticking with the “S” cycle, Apple skipped ahead to the next whole number. The decision was meant to have the new models be perceived as more advanced than what may have been implied with an “S” nomenclature.
iPhone XS / XS Max / XR (2018). Last year’s flagships were the most confusing from an iPhone naming perspective. Apple followed three general guidelines:
Apple reverted back to the “S” playbook to denote the model after a major redesign (iPhone X). Instead of this decision implying the return of the “S” cycle, in my view, Apple simply wanted to stick with the X branding for one more year.
“Max” was used to distinguish the larger iPhone model from its smaller XS sibling.
“R” was used for the lower cost alternative to the two iPhone XS flagships. According to Schiller, the “R” didn’t stand for anything, although some thought it stood for the model having a Retina display while “S” stood for Super Retina. Schiller mentioned that the letters R and S are used in the auto space to highlight special models.
The 2019 Lineup
Given Apple’s decision to go with the iPhone X naming scheme in 2017 and 2018, there aren’t too many logical paths that iPhone naming could follow unless Apple wants to try something completely new. There are two obvious choices:
iPhone XI (continue using roman numerals). Apple would say it’s pronounced “iPhone eleven” but everyone would call it “iPhone ex I.” While roman numerals could work if Apple were selling one flagship model, the fact that Apple has three flagships in the line would produce some confusion. Names like XI Max, XI Pro, or XIR aren’t as strong as the powerful iPhone X.
iPhone 11. This is a much simpler naming track. It makes more sense for Apple to use 11 than 12 as the implication is that the new iPhones are follow-ups to the iPhone X series. However, there is precedent for Apple to skip whole numbers as seen with the lack of iPhone 2 and iPhone 9.
The latest rumors point to Apple unveiling three new iPhones next week:
iPhone 11 Pro Max (successor to iPhone XS Max)
iPhone 11 Pro (successor to iPhone XS)
iPhone 11 (successor to iPhone XR)
The “Pro” would signal Apple wanting to draw attention to the differentiation between the two high-end flagship models and the lowest cost flagship. Apple has typically liked to use “Pro” to reflect models with greater specifications and capability as seen with iPad Pro, MacBook Pro, iMac Pro, and Mac Pro. In order to distinguish between the two “Pro” models, Apple would continue to use “Max” to denote the model with the largest screen.
Naming iPhones is more art than science. For example, the “R” in iPhone XR likely was chosen simply because it looked and sounded better than other letters. Meanwhile, Apple’s decision to go with “X” was likely heavily based on marketing, both in terms of marking the iPhone’s tenth anniversary and the fact that it looks cool and powerful from a branding perspective.
However, there is no question that iPhone nomenclature has been losing some of its usefulness and utility. Consumers are now routinely mispronouncing or misidentifying iPhone names and it’s easy to see why: iPhone XS Max doesn't exactly roll off one’s tongue. A similar issue will be seen if Apple ends up going with “iPhone 11 Pro Max.” People are increasingly saying “the new iPhone” or “the biggest one” when referring to the latest flagships.
It’s difficult to say if these changes have had a negative impact on iPhone sales. The iPhone business is being impacted by a number of developments including a longer upgrade cycle as people become content with what they currently have. It’s doubtful that a particular letter or number in the name would entice users to upgrade en masse to a certain iPhone model.
Based on my calculations regarding the iPhone upgrade cycle, the next marginal iPhone buyer will likely hold on to his or her iPhone for a little over four years before upgrading. As the iPhone upgrade cycle continues to extend, the case for coming up with new iPhone naming every year declines.
There are subtle clues that suggest we may be approaching the point when Apple will do away with the annual iPhone naming cadence altogether. This wouldn’t mean that Apple would just go with “iPhone.” Instead, Apple would still need a way to distinguish iPhone models with different sizes and capabilities. In such a case, one likely option would be:
iPhone Pro (iPhones containing the most capability)
iPhone (the middle of the road option for the masses)
iPhone mini (the iPhone containing the smallest screen and fewest features)
One possibility is that Apple will expand the iPhone line to include more than three flagship models. For example, an updated iPhone SE would be a prime candidate for “iPhone mini.” Meanwhile, a larger model in the $699 to $799 range would make sense for “iPhone” while Apple would have more than one “Pro” model at the high end of the line. This naming strategy would be similar to how Apple currently names iPads: two “Pro” models, iPad mini, and iPad. (The iPad Air is positioned as a lower-cost iPad Pro.)
As for timing, 2021 may be a good bet for the earliest point when Apple would use this iPhone nomenclature. Consider the following:
By 2021, “Pro” will have likely been used in iPhone nomenclature for two years.
The latest rumors have Apple unveiling both a flagship iPhone with a smaller screen and an updated iPhone SE in 2020. These models would make it easier for Apple to use a simpler iPhone naming scheme. As it stands now, it would be difficult for Apple to position the middle-priced $999 model as just “iPhone.” Instead, the iPhone XR has been the best-selling model.
In the event that Apple plans on sticking with whole numbers for iPhone naming, the 2021 iPhones would potentially be called iPhone 13 - one of the more superstitious numbers in existence. Apple could use that occasion as a way of moving past numbers and letters altogether.
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