What’s in a name?

Apple is a company of shifting patterns. For years, it has been content with a tick-tock cycle in iPhone hardware. In one year, the flagship model will have a new visual design language with modest under-hood improvements. The following year, they will be replaced at the top end by phones that have a similar — if not identical — industrial design, but with bigger improvements to the processor, cameras, and other hardware elements.

Rinse and repeat annually until you have one the most successful businesses the world has ever seen.

But we have not seen an S-branded iPhone since the XS of 2018. Its successor models — the 11 and 11 Pro — seem to have set a template for the iPhones of today: a shared industrial design language with subtle differences between the two product lines — and also some changes that set them apart from last year’s models — with one line that is more consumer-oriented, and another that has better cameras and nicer materials.

The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro models introduced today seem like a continuation of that pattern.1 But as you read through the press release or launch coverage, one thing that seems apparent is how much of the changes are on the inside. Sure, they have slightly smaller notches and the cameras on the back of the 13 are orientated differently — for technical reasons, Apple says — but the improvements are otherwise entirely about what the hardware can do, not what it looks like.

In the past, a faster processor, a radically improved camera system, a new display, and some new colours would surely have encouraged an “iPhone 12S” moniker. But the S-branded models generally receive worse coverage purely because of their looks. Instead of being seen as new iPhones, their updates are treated as more modest — even though their technical improvements have often eclipsed comparable changes in non-S models.

I still find it hilarious how the wise tech commentariat of Twitter and the mainstream press alike yawn at S-branded iPhones despite their internal improvements. It reveals so much about the often ridiculous way we consume products. But that reaction is no good for Apple. It wants people to pay as much attention to its iPhone events even when it is not creating an entirely new industrial design language. Just look at the Cinematic mode in these new models, which allows users to change video focus after capturing it. If it works as well as we saw today, that is a huge leap forward.

From a marketing rationale, I think the S-branded models are gone for good. The question is whether we can now expect the numerical branding to continue incrementing for the foreseeable future. The iPhone naming scheme is uniquely cumbersome for an Apple product, but it is hard to see how the company could change it without messing up its pricing strategy. In the U.S., base iPhone models are priced from $399 all the way up to $1,099 — and that is before you change storage options. There are nearly no gaps in the base price of an iPhone; the biggest jump is $200, between the 13 and the 13 Pro.

As long as Apple wants to continue offering such a wide range of prices while including previous years’ models, I think it will stick with this naming scheme. Dropping the “S” naming convention simplifies the line further: an S-branded phone means nothing, but it is implicit that a higher number means a better model. And, if it means less chance of people minimizing it as a tweaked version of last year’s phone, that is even better for Apple.

  1. I am glad the Mini is sticking around for another year, too. ↥︎