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iPhone 9? iPhone XI? Apple's next big thing should just drop the numbers

13:00, Sunday, 11 March, 2018
iPhone 9? iPhone XI? Apple's next big thing should just drop the numbers

No more numbers, no more upgrade treadmills: When Apple launches its new lineup of iPhones, there's only one thing it should call them, and that thing is "iPhone." Period. Full stop. The end.

We already have a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPod Touch, but Apple continues to develop its most popular device through a series of numbered, annual updates. It went from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6, and then to the iPhone 7. Sure, it's a useful way to get people to pay attention to product launches every year, but the formula is straining under Apple's recent marketing decisions. It's time for something new — something better for consumers, and the planet, though maybe a bit worse for Apple.

Because iPhone numbers are really just a way to drive sales of new iPhones, at a time when Apple has made it clear that people should understand its smartphones as "zero waste." New iPhones mean new garbage, suggesting we ought to buy them less often. Rumor has it that three new iPhones are on the way this year, but it's never been less clear what Apple's branding will be.

To reiterate, we'd suggest "iPhone." Without a number. (If we must, we'd concede one could be the iPhone Pro, iPhone Plus, or iPhone Edition to follow the Apple Watch's branding.)

Pause for a second and think about who an iPhone number is for. Neil Cybart, a well-known Apple analyst who blogs at Above Avalon, explained that tallying iPhone upgrades — the iPhone 6 one year, 6S the next, and 7 the following — helps us keep track of the specific value offered by each new device.

"My thinking is that as long as Apple sticks with a consistent, annual upgrade pattern for iPhone, nomenclature should denote the uniqueness found with each update," Cybart said. "This would suggest that it's not quite time for Apple to drop the numbers (and letters)."

In other words, if Apple's going to roll out new iPhones every year (as it has for an entire decade), numbers help us parse which is which. The 6S is the one with 3D Touch, the 7 is the one that killed the headphone jack. More to Cybart's point, a larger number is a clear way to indicate to potential customers that there's some major new feature to pay attention to.

But numbers also denote age. To some, the iPhone 8 is the one with wireless charging. More likely, to the layperson, it's the one that makes the iPhone 6 sound especially old and worth upgrading.

Macs aren't measured like this — for good reasons. People don't buy new computers as often, there are fewer obvious features to upgrade on an annual cycle, and Apple doesn't sell nearly as many Mac products as iOS ones. (The company sold 5 million Macs in the last three months of 2017, 13 million iPads, and 77 million iPhones.)

The iPhone is Apple's cash crop. You are very specifically encouraged by the company to get a new one every single year via Apple's "Upgrade Program," and in fact, Apple will only guarantee that the device lasts a year. Meanwhile, each year's new release is touted as something beyond merely iterative. Consider what happened in 2017, when Apple launched both the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X, pronounced "ten," in one single keynote event.

The X was announced as "a product that will set the path for technology for the next decade" and "the biggest leap forward since the original iPhone" by Apple CEO Tim Cook. This was a pretty remarkable gambit: Apple had just unveiled the iPhone 8, itself described as "a huge step forward for iPhone," then immediately introduced what it described as a premium, future-looking alternative packed with exclusive features.

This was the sea-change moment for two reasons. First, because it put Apple's raw marketing strategy in plain sight. There was a "step," then a "leap" for the iPhone; somehow consumers were supposed to understand both devices as paradigm-shifting, but one as paradigm-shifting-er. Second, the company broke precedent and skipped an iPhone generation altogether. We went from 8 to 10 in the span of an hour. No iPhone 9.

And this is where things became very clear — Apple's numbered iPhone lineup doesn't make sense anymore. What do you call the next three devices? Why would anyone buy an 8S or 9 with a X on the market from last year? Would the people who pronounce iPhone X as "iPhone ecks" wonder what happened to "iPhone 10" if Apple released an iPhone 11? Would an iPhone XI suggest Apple had created a new product line called iPhone X? Welcome to a new and confusing line of iPhones.

Eliminating the numbered branding solves this problem, while also communicating that there's no need for consumers to buy a new iPhone every single year — or more to the point, reinforcing Apple's stated "zero waste" goal by marketing the iPhone as a product that doesn't tick numbers toward obsolescence.

Sure, there could still be breakout categories (an iPhone Plus or Pro, like we said), but axing numerals means a cleaner world for the iPhone in terms of branding, and — perhaps! — literally, as fewer of us feel the nagging itch to buy a new, numbered gizmo every single year.

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