Apple doesn’t take naming lightly. Back when PC models were only distinguishable by the manufacturer’s seemingly random series of letters and numbers, Apple bucked the trend with a series of recognizable and memorable products names: Macintosh, Power Macintosh, Performa, PowerBook.
When Steve Jobs came back to the company, naming was one of first things he streamlined. Rather than increase the clunky number following the name to distinguish between revisions, the PowerBook 2400c and Power Macintosh 9600 became the G3 and, later, G4, eliminating the confusion and tech speak, and giving the new models a greater sense of brand recognition. The iMac, despite experimenting with a few variations, continued this trend, and following the Intel transition, Apple cut all of the extraneous monikers altogether. Customers walking into an Apple Store don’t have to do much research to know what they want: Just pick a line, and choose their options.
But that changed with the iPhone. Carrier contracts and a unique pricing scheme for older models forced Apple to distinguish releases not just by appearance or functionality but also by name. It started innocently enough with the 3G (which was actually the second model), letting customers know that it was capable of faster data speeds, but the following year, Apple did something out of character, adding an “s” to its name to signify even more speed. And with that single, solitary letter, Apple painted itself into a corner.
Three generations: The iPhone 3GS (left), iPhone 4 (center) and the original (right).
S marks the spot
Looking back, the “s” was a simple solution to a somewhat complex problem. It’s not just that Apple needed to tell people which model was newest, it also needed to create distinct separation for the sake of sales. The 3GS represents the first time Apple cut the price of the prior year’s model (in this case, the 3G) and sold it alongside the new one. Because the two handsets were virtually indistinguishable, Apple added the “s” for marketing purposes, to let buyers easily know which model was newest and, by extension, better and more expensive.
But it’s become a predictable cycle. Every other year Apple releases a redesigned model of iPhone followed by an “s” version that bumps the processor, enhances the camera, and adds a couple of features aimed at making it a must-have upgrade. A few weeks ago I wrote about how Apple’s “s” models have ushered in far more significant changes than their predecessors, and in many ways, they’re a much harder sell for Apple—customers are generally aware that a redesign is coming just 12 months later, so the “s” needs to wow with what it does, not just how it looks.
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