On The iPhone 5 and Apple Numbering Schemes

On the eve of Apple announcing their next iPhone, there has been a lot of discussion regarding what Apple should name it (here and here for thoughts). Traditionally Apple ignores generational naming of products to stick with a simple message. You don’t have a MacBook Pro 48756E; you have a MacBook Pro. It’s an iMac, a Mac mini, a MacBook Air, an iPod nano, an iPod touch.

The only two places Apple moved away from this was the iPad and iPhone. We had the iPad and then the iPad 2. On the iPhone we have had the iPhone, iPhone 3G, 3Gs, 4, and 4s.

How do we identify different generations of devices for support purposes? In technical terms there is an ID, a short numbering system that defines the version and unique characteristics. For example, the latest iPad release is known as “iPad3,1”, “iPad3,2” or “iPad3,3”, indicating the third generation iPad where 1 is the wifi model, 2 the GSM model and 3 the CDMA model. There is also an external model number, about five or six characters that indicate the same information but more cryptically. For the rest of us, though, we tend to refer to it by its physical characteristics plus release date: “a spring 2012 iPad with AT&T 3G.”

Recently Apple dropped the generational numbering from the iPad, which made perfect sense to me (explained below). But what has been a topic for discussion has been whether Apple will drop the generational numbering from the next iPhone. I am doubtful and it seems my doubts were confirmed by the card sent to the press, which shows the announcement date casting a “5” shadow:

I believe that Apple persists with the generational numbering on iPhones and no other device because it is the only device Apple sells where they rely on third-parties to sell it. The vast majority of Apple devices sell either through its website or via an Apple retail store. But the iPhone sells a vast number of devices at carrier stores throughout the world.

Apple has no control over those employees, doesn’t train them and steep them deeply in Apple’s culture. Because of this, Apple is stuck with generational numbering for iPhones and none of their other devices.

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