Ken Segall on iPhone naming conventions

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Ken Segall, former creative lead at TBWA/Chiat Day and author of Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success, expressed his dismay at Apple’s iPhone naming conventions in a recent blog post. Specifically, he dislikes the “S” nomenclature that Apple introduced with the iPhone 3GS:

“Tacking an S onto the existing model number sends a rather weak message. It says that this is our “off-year” product, with only modest improvements. If holding off on the big number change achieved some great result, I might think otherwise. But look what happened with iPhone 5.”

The knee-jerk reaction is to agree. On some base consumer level, the “S” seems to signify a minor update to its predecessor. If  you own the full number update, there’s no need to buy the S follow-up. It’s only marginally improved. But sales tell a different story, as this chart from MacStories indicates:

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While some customers might poo-poo the S models, I see them as the perfected version of the full-number upgrades. The iPhone 3G was a nice device; the 3GS a lot nicer. Likewise, the iPhone 4S is a more appealing phone than the iPhone 4.

At one point in his article, Segall writes:

“I think it’s safe to say that if you’re looking for a new car, you’re looking for a 2013 model – not a 2012S. What’s important is that you get the latest and greatest.”

No, I’d much rather have the 2012S with improved braking system, perfected suspension and tweaked gas mileage. It’s the superior version of the 2012 model.

But that’s not the only reason to “go S.” The S updates often mean a speed bump, which prompts developers to release richer games and denser apps. Plus, pre-existing apps that push the full number version hard run a little easier on the beefed up S release.

Another good reason comes down to cases. Those who buy a full number model as well as a pricey environment case like the LifeProof case (which I love)  or a battery supplement like the Mophie Juice Pack (I love this, too) can upgrade without having to sacrifice their case, should they choose to buy the S.

I’ve been buying S-only since the 3GS. I have a 4S now and I’ll buy the iPhone 5’s successor. I suspect that the S has more of a negative effect on the “trendy” buyers who use name alone to decide if an iPhone is cutting-edge new or simply a rehash.

Even with all of that said, there’s no guarantee the iPhone 5’s successor will be called “iPhone 5S.” I’ve heard that the “S” in “3GS” stood for “speed,” and in the iPhone 4S it meant “Siri.” So unless the next iPhone has a marquee feature that starts with the letter S, it might not bear that moniker at all.