Could Apple Ditch Its Increasingly Clunky iPhone Model Numbers?

iPhone 12 lineup on box Credit: rzoze19 / Shutterstock
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While most of us are expecting this year’s iPhone lineup to be dubbed the “iPhone 13,” it’s important to keep in mind that nobody outside of Apple yet has any real clue as to what the company will call its 2021 lineup.

After all, almost every leak about what we’ll see in new iPhone models comes from Apple’s supply chain, where there are folks well-positioned to know things like physical dimensions, camera capabilities, and screen designs.

However, since Apple hasn’t ever stamped anything beyond the name “iPhone” on the back of its smartphones — and in fact it stopped prominently using numbers even on the boxes with the 2014 iPhone 6 — there’s really no way for anybody outside of Apple to know for sure what it’s going to be called.

In fact, we usually don’t find out for sure until Apple takes the stage at its annual iPhone event and unveils the newest model. Occasionally, there are reliable leaks in the days leading up to that event — such as last year’s leak of the labels from Apple’s silicone iPhone cases — but most of the time we’re just left guessing until almost the very last minute. It’s one of the few things that Apple still manages to keep at least a bit of a surprise.

Of course, it’s usually easy to make educated guesses, since the numbers are largely sequential, with “S” models often thrown into the mix.

In fact, there were seven years during which Apple named its models so predictably that there were no surprises, until 2017 came along, when the rumoured “iPhone 7S” turned out to be the iPhone 8 alongside the groundbreaking new iPhone X.

That was the first and only departure Apple made from the “S” models until last year’s iPhone 12 lineup, which justifiably skipped over that naming convention due to a whole new design and the debut of 5G technology. It was, for all intents and purposes, the return of the 2012 iPhone 5 for a whole new generation.

With this year’s iPhone expected to feature the same basic design — and the same four models — this has led to speculation that it will actually be the “iPhone 12S.” From everything we’ve heard so far, it really does sound like a typical “S” model, making some significant internal improvements to an existing design.

However, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, who was actually the first major source to predict a possible “iPhone 12S” name back in January, has backed away from that theory and now believes that Apple could go in an entirely different direction.

In the latest issue of his Power On newsletter, Gurman joins the chorus of those who believe that this year’s models will at least be the “iPhone 13,” due to it being “year two of the big 5G push.”

Despite the light upgrades, I do think these new models should be called the iPhone 13 — rather than the 12S. Apple uses “S” branding to signal that a new iPhone isn’t as significant an update, but such models still often have key new features that consumers have clamored for (one exception: the iPhone XS, which didn’t change much).

Mark Gurman

As Gurman notes, 5G is a big enough deal — especially with the rumoured expansion of mmWave into several new markets — that Apple may want to continue emphasizing the significance of it by giving the iPhone an entirely new integer.

If so, it could signal the end of the “S” model era for good, but Gurman also suggests another possibility that some of us have been wondering about for a while — when will the numbering end?

Clunky Numbers

Year two of the big 5G push is a fair marketing reason to jump to 13 — despite the number being considered unlucky in some regions. The smaller notch also could give Apple reason to move to 13. Or Apple can avoid this whole discussion by finally ditching numbers like it did long ago on the iPad. Can you imagine Apple rolling out iOS 19, the iPhone 15S and the Apple Watch Series 11 in 2025? That sounds absurd.

Mark Gurman

The iPhone is actually the only product for which Apple officially uses numbers as part of the product name. While most Apple fans colloquially use numbers when referring to other products like iPads and AirPods, these in no way make up the product name. Instead, Apple uses years and generations to distinguish them for support purposes.

For example, the newest iPad Air is referred to by many as the “iPad Air 4” but you’ll never hear Apple call it that. It’s simply the “iPad Air” in all marketing materials, and the “iPad Air (4th generation)” in Apple’s support documents.

The same applies to Apple’s AirPods. The second-generation AirPods released in 2019 are just “AirPods,” and not “AirPods 2” as far as Apple is concerned, and this year’s new AirPods, which we could see arrive as soon as next month, will almost certainly not actually be the “AirPods 3,” even if it is easier for those of us who write about and follow Apple products to refer to them that way.

The problem is that unlike iPads and AirPods, Apple regularly sells more than one version of the iPhone. When Apple released the second-generation AirPods, it discontinued the first model, so when you walked into an Apple Store to buy “AirPods”, there was only one product you could be buying. Support documents had to differentiate, for obvious reasons, but the marketing name didn’t.

With the iPhone, however, Apple has always kept selling at least the prior-year model, and in recent years, that’s been extended to two- and three-year-old iPhone models. The 2017 iPhone 8 was only discontinued early last year in the face of the new iPhone SE, and as of now you can still buy the 2019 iPhone XR and the 2020 iPhone 11 alongside the entire iPhone 12 lineup.

There’s no reason to assume that won’t continue this fall, where we expect that the iPhone XR will drop out of the roster, with the iPhone 11 slipping down into the $499 price point, and the standard 6.1-inch iPhone 12 landing in the $599 zone.

While that would be a bigger drop in price this year, we’re pretty confident that Apple has no plans to continue selling the beleaguered 5.4-inch iPhone 12 mini, and the new iPhone 13 mini will likely take up the $699 price point.

So, in that context it would understandably be confusing to drop the numbers entirely, but at the same time we agree with Gurman that it seems odd that Apple would continue with the current numbering system ad nauseam. At some point, it’s going to have to buck the trend.

[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]

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