When did Apple get so bad at naming things?

Odd name, odd design.
Odd name, odd design.
Image: Apple
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At its annual iPhone launch event in Cupertino, California, today (Sept. 10) Apple unveiled its usual spate of new gadgets and services, but it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate between one product in the same family and another, and even completely different products.

Sequels are generally a difficult thing to pull off, and they rarely live up to the original. Over the years, Apple has come up with iconic, monolithic product names that have inspired legions of copycats—remember in the mid-2000s when just about every new product seemed to be prefixed with the letter “i”? When someone says iPod, iPhone, or Apple Mac, you can probably form in your mind what that looks like. But with each new model, Apple has to come up with ways to differentiate between old and new.

In the past, that was pretty easy. Apple either straight-up replaced the old product with a new one, such as the MacBook Pro of 2014 being swapped out for the MacBook Pro for 2015, or it just added a numeral to the product, so the iPhone 4 was replaced by the iPhone 4S and then the iPhone 5 (the “S” used to signify minor updates).

But now that’s no longer feasible. Under Tim Cook’s stewardship, Apple has vastly increased the number of versions of products that Apple sells at any given time. It used to introduce one new iPhone at a time; today it introduced three. And some of those products are essentially just updates or extensions of other products, which leads to some truly uninspiring, and long, product names.

The top-of-the line iPhone isn’t just the iPhone 11, no, that would be too easy to keep track of: It is now the iPhone 11 Pro Max, signifying both that it is the top-end model with three cameras, and that it is larger than the other top-end model. This is like what car companies do to differentiate their different packages and models available on vehicles. My first car was a 2001 Honda Civic LX, which actually may be a less confusing name than the new iPhone.

Even if you think the rationale for any one Apple product name is merited, it’s difficult keeping the entire product line straight. As of today, Apple is selling four base models, but even that breaks down further to:

  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone Xr
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max

In this list, “Max” and “Plus” mean the same thing (they are bigger), and “11” is the updated model over “Xr.” How does the average consumer, walking in off the street looking for a new iPhone, make sense of this?

And there’s the fact that Apple TV is a hardware product, and Apple TV+ is a streaming service, not a larger hardware product. How does that make sense?

There are other confusions, such as the new (regular) iPad weighing just 0.07 pounds more than the one called the iPad Air. And there are other products with just garbled names—anyone interested in buying an Apple Pro Display XDR with Pro Stand?

Perhaps relatedly, the simplest products to understand (like the Apple Watch and AirPods) are also some of the company’s most engaging and enjoyable to use currently. While I can see the value in producing a model of computer and phone to suit just about every hand size and price point Apple’s pricing models can spit out (apart from, apparently, the large swath of the population with small hands), Apple’s iPhone sales are flagging. Perhaps a return to simplicity is actually in order?