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Stuff and Nonsense About the Letter “S”

There’s an article quoting a former ad executive that worked on Apple’s marketing message who asserts that the company’s iPhone naming scheme is, well, lame. The main point is that when a new model has an “S” appended to the name, it signifies a minor refresh, whereas a full numbered version means a new case design. The message sent to customers is that these “S” “off-year” upgrades are therefore insignificant.

However, those “S” changes can be quite extensive. Consider the changes from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 4s, which included more than just the Siri personal assistant. The upgraded hardware was more powerful, and the controversial antenna system was revised to provide what is essentially the equivalent of the diversity antenna on many autos, where it switched from one system to another based on signal conditions.

But since the iPhone 4s didn’t look any different from its predecessor, the media attacked it as a relatively insignificant upgrade. The full numbered upgrade, the iPhone 5, however, looked different and had a larger display, so even if the components were unchanged (which wasn’t the case of course), it would be regarded as a major model change.

So the criterion is the form rather than the function that determines whether a new iPhone gets a full number upgrade. The issue, though, is whether this sends the wrong message to customers, being that an “S” version just isn’t worth buying. So might as well choose the latest Samsung Galaxy, or the current revision of the HTC One. And notice that this year’s HTC flagship gets the same name as last year’s. And Apple takes the same approach with the iPad.

Now Apple’s naming nomenclature for the iPhone makes perfect sense from a logical standpoint. Each model refresh earns a special designation based on the extent of the external changes, or lack thereof. All so simple, so sensible. It’s not that developing a new case each year has any practical advantage, unless the screen size changes. Besides, if someone is upgrading a smartphone via a typical two-year cycle, the new iPhone will be a substantial change from the old whether the name bears an “S” appendage or not. It’s not that lots of people buy a new smartphone every single year, unless they are making a huge change, such as switching carriers or platforms.

Or at least that appears to be the logical conclusion. Besides, Apple was also attacked by tech pundits because the iPhone 5 wasn’t changed enough from the iPhone 4s, so I suppose you can’t win. But the media is saying much the same thing in comparing the Samsung Galaxy S3 with the Galaxy S4.

I suppose Apple could consider following the Google Chrome browser playbook — now adopted by Mozilla’s Firefox — in which every single minor update gets a full version change. Both are in the twenty-something range — I haven’t bothered to keep track. But if Apple followed that logic, maybe we’d be looking for the iPhone 16 by now, and skip 13 because of the veneer of possible bad luck.

But it’s not as if Tim Cook can be criticized when compared to Steve Jobs for following the same iPhone naming conventions, but the critics will continue to play the blame game regardless of the facts. Yet it’s worse with Macs, where designs will generally persist for more than two years, and the names rarely change. And sometimes, such as the 2012 iMac which dumps optical drives and is very thin for little discernible reason, you wonder why they bothered. If you look at the 2012 and 2011 iMacs from the front, they don’t seem that much different. But it gave Apple something new to advertise, and their contract factories conniptions in figuring out how to assemble the things efficiently.

The real answer to the value of Apple’s naming philosophy will inevitably arrive in the quarterly report of sales and profits on April 23. If a specific model doesn’t do well, regardless of its name, there will be pressure on Apple to make substantial changes to fix what’s wrong. Of course, in the current climate, without any actual evidence that something is wrong, Apple is being attacked relentlessly for being, well, Apple.

It also means that anyone and everyone who ever had a major connection with Apple of one sort or another will be interviewed, particularly if they say something that puts Apple in a negative light. Does it really matter what an ad executive who worked with Apple at one time has to say? Sure, that person may have developed brilliant ad campaigns that really got the messages across and produced results. But how much say did they have in a product’s design or name? Probably nothing, and being able to produce great ads doesn’t mean that someone knows anything about designing a commercial product, any commercial product.

I am more concerned about the judgement of the Microsoft executives who approved the perfectly idiotic ads the company continues to run, day after day after day. I’m so glad I watch most shows after the fact on a DVR, so I can fast forward through those unwanted interruptions.