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Apple’s self-inflicted naming dilemma

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Apple’s self-inflicted naming dilemma

Michael Robert

This article was originally posted by Ken Segall on his website.

Ken Segall is an advertising executive who worked closely with Steve Jobs for over 12 years spanning NeXT and Apple. He started the i-frenzy by naming iMac and helped develop Apple’s famous Think different campaign. Having also served tours of duty with Dell and Intel, Ken is uniquely qualified to point out the the stark contrasts between the practices of Apple and other iconic technology companies.

Uh-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.

You can purchase Ken's books on Amazon...

To Steve Jobs, simplicity was a religion. He built a company based on its principles, in which the complexities of traditional business were simply not tolerated. Simplicity was also his most powerful weapon—a means of humbling category leaders once thought to be invincible.

You’ll discover how simplicity influences the CEOs of The Container Store and Whole Foods. You’ll get insights on simplification from the worlds of fashion, automobiles, entertainment, and technology. You’ll even get inside the blue heads of Blue Man Group, which developed a business strategy to defeat complexity before it could take root.

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