The headline of Alison Johnson’s otherwise informative review of the iPhone 14, for the Verge, caught my eye this morning:
Apple iPhone 14 review: meet the iPhone 13S
Johnson nearly repeated that line in the video version of the review, asking why Apple would even “call it a 14 when you could just call it a 13S?”
This sentence illustrates a marketing and branding conundrum Apple faced since the third-ever iPhone: how does it communicate a new iPhone where everything except its physical design has been upgraded? Apple’s solution was to add an “S” suffix, resulting in the iPhone 3GS, and beginning a pattern that would carry it through 2017. The iPhone model of one year, sporting a new industrial design and usually modest technical updates, would be followed by an iPhone the next year sporting significant changes to its SoC and camera, and maybe a handful of other goodies. The iPhone 5S was the first with TouchID; the iPhone 6S was the first with 3D Touch, may it rest in peace; the iPhone XS was the first iPhone — though certainly not the first phone — to feature dual SIM support.
But the S-model phones have always received a pretty lukewarm reception by the tech press, perhaps because their updates are solely about what is inside the phone. There is little to nothing for a reviewer to write about how the phone looks or feels; it looks and feels the same. It also has the same name but for the suffix which can make it seem like a more subtle update than it really is.
Apple knew this ever since it began that naming scheme, but stuck with it. After a brief flirtation with dropping its use in the iPhone 8, the iPhone XS was the last of the S-model flagship phones. Apple simply increments the number for each successive model, and puts on any number of its new favourite descriptors — “Plus”, “Pro”, “Max” — to describe its size and class.
The reason I wanted to write about this is because the iPhone 14 does not follow this pattern at all. Its branding is actually quite strange. Like an S-model, it lacks a new industrial design; unlike an S-model, it also lacks the technical upgrades that line was known for. As Johnson writes in her review, it carries basically the same SoC, the same display, and most of the same internals. Its camera upgrades are more substantial for a non-Pro iPhone model but, like the iPhone 13, are really hand-me-downs from the previous year’s Pro line. The biggest changes are the edge-case technologies it shares with the iPhone 14 Pro and newest Apple Watch models: car crash detection and emergency satellite connectivity. Are those things worthy of the “S” nomenclature?
The whole iPhone lineup clearly has more delineation now than it used to. Where Apple once sold a flagship model — and later in two different sizes — and then those from the two previous years at lower price points, it has since added to that at the bottom end with the iPhone SE and at the top end with the Pro line. That means the plain “iPhone” released every year is not packed full of the latest ideas and technology. Some of those things — increasingly more of those things — are only done on the Pro line.
All of this is to say that the iPhone line has become a little more complicated and Apple’s strategy is less straightforward than it used to be. When the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro brought back the slab-sided industrial design language last seen on the iPhone 5S, they were common in every way except their material and camera system — and, even then, only the Pro Max actually received notably different cameras. The 13 and 13 Pro mostly carried that physical design but updated the internals — more like an S-year iPhone. This year’s models are not like that at all. They are both named “iPhone 14”, but are radically different from each other. Their displays are different, their camera systems are different, their SoCs are different, and the enhancements to each are very different. Neither set of phones really fits into the historic mould of either an S-model or an all-new product number. You could make a case for the cutout display of the Pro to be either of those things, I think, but the regular iPhone 14 is just a new iPhone.
That is totally okay with me. This is not a “good” or “bad” thing; it is barely even newsworthy. But these branding choices and the way Apple positions its iPhone lineup are a curiosity. Apple is often very deliberate in the way it names stuff, often choosing to give something an Apple-y name to call specific attention to it. The cutout display of the iPhone 14 Pro is called the “Dynamic Island” because it is part of the phone’s user interface. Apple can sometimes stray into innovation speak that disguises rather than illuminates a choice it made. You could make a case for that with the iPhone 14 which, on paper, has fewer differences from its predecessor than it has similarities. I do not think this is bad, per se; most people do not get a new phone every year, and that is likely even more true for those shopping the non-Pro line.
What is in a name? The iPhone 14 is not a radically new device on the outside, and it is not that different on the inside either. The iPhone 14 Pro is more obviously differentiated from its predecessor. Neither one advertises its newness as loudly as new number iPhones were several years ago, nor as quietly radical as the S-year products were. Apple has simplified its naming, but the iPhone lineup is more complicated than ever in its details.