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.
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.
But after eight monumental revisions, Apple is at something of a crossroads. Releasing an entirely new product every year is exhausting (even with the same outward design), and Apple is starting to run out of ways to make the redesigned model significantly different than the prior one. Each whole-number model of iPhone has brought a major screen change—Retina with the iPhone 4, and size with the 5 and 6—but the iPhone 7 is almost certain to keep the same 4.7- and 5.5-inch displays. A Galaxy-esque incremental increase to, say, 4.9 or 5.7 inches, just isn’t Apple’s style.
The next most likely change is the elimination of the Home button, a move that Apple has already taken transitional steps to accommodate. But beyond that, the changes are all going to be iterative—thinner, lighter, better battery life, wireless charging—and it’s going to be that much harder for the iPhone 8 or 9 to make such a splash commensurate with its name.
Changing the locks
The annual iPhone cycle may have been the result of carrier contracts, but it’s a perfect fit for everyone involved. Unlike any other product in Apple’s catalogue—including the iPad, which saw the Air unceremoniously skipped over for an update this year—Apple is beholden to releasing a new iPhone every year, and the “tick-tock” cycle, as John Gruber so aptly describes it, perfectly fits. It guarantees that once your two-year contract is up you’ll be able to get an iPhone in a brand-new enclosure, whether you’re on a tick year or a tock one.
But the subsidized lock-in model is on the precipice of blowing up, and with it could come a change to the way iPhones are released. Without such stringent 24-month upgrade cycles, Apple needn’t feel the same pressure to unveil disparate models each year—the spirit of the “s” will certainly stay, but I think we’re only one or two versions away from “the new iPhone” or even (gasp!) the new Apple Phone.
Apple has already toyed with the idea of breaking away from the numbering nomenclature with the iPad. When the was third-generation was released, it was simply “the new iPad,” rather than the iPad 3 (and the same was true of its successor). Similarly, the iPad mini 2 was actually the iPad mini with Retina display (though it was belatedly branded with a 2 alongside the iPad mini 3 a year later).
It’s hard to imagine Apple being so cavalier with the naming of a new iPhone model (though we’re still trying to figure out what the 5c was all about), so once it decides to make a change to its naming convention, it’s going to be permanent. But the dissolution of the 24-month contract opens up all sorts of possibilities, starting with the elimination of the “s” model.
Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program has shifted the landscape virtually overnight, and as a result, more people are going to be getting every iPhone model, not merely every other one. And that takes much of the pressure off of the “s” model.
No longer does Apple need to convince a generation of would-be contract renewers to upgrade this year rather than wait. And Apple might not need to keep the older models around either—the difference between a two-year old iPhone 5s and the brand-new 6s works out to less than $10 a month (and even less through some carriers), and without any up-front costs, I’m thinking more people than ever are going to opt for the latest model.
With a revolving cycle of Upgraders, Apple could keep a particular handset design around for an extra year or switch up the release schedule without any fear of losing sales. But I think we’ll still see an iPhone 7 next year. A change this drastic is more than likely to occur in an “s” year, and by the time the iPhone 7s is ready to ship, Apple could simply ship a new iPhone, with all of the same “s” enhancements, but without the modifier. In fact, the iPhone could start to become a bit like the Mac, with annual refreshes and occasional redesigns that embrace the soul of the “s” but aren’t beholden to the pattern. And eventually, Apple would just release a new iPhone redesign when it’s ready, whether that’s 24, 33, or 40 months after the last one.
Curiously, the iPhone 6s is the first model Apple chose to brand with a boxed-in “S” on the device itself. But it may be a collector’s item, because something tells me it will also be the last.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.