Apple is coming dangerously close to losing control of how consumers make sense of its mobile and tablet lineup. The culprit: the company's ever more complicated naming scheme for its proliferating product lines. With today's announcement of a new 4-inch iPhone, called the iPhone SE, and a new 9.7-inch iPad Pro, we now have a dizzying number of choices to make when considering which Apple smartphone or tablet to buy, and all have almost identical sounding names.
At first glance, it's near impossible to tell the difference between an iPad Air 2 and similarly sized iPad Pro, or an iPad mini 2 and an iPad mini 4. And you'd be hard pressed to find anyone outside die-hard tech circles or watch enthusiast clubs who knows whether the Apple Watch Sport or the plain-old Apple Watch is the one with an aluminium case, how much each costs, and why.
Does the next iPhone SE become the iPhone SE 2?
The future doesn't look any simpler. Does the next iPhone SE become the iPhone SE 2? Does the next iPad Air simply replace the iPad Air 2 and drop its numerical modifier? How about the next Apple Watch, which may end up in an online shopping cart with the name Apple Watch Sport 2 38mm Silver with Yellow Sport Band? Right now, we’re stuck referring to the new iPad Pro as the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, or the smaller iPad Pro. Going forward, we may have to tack numerals onto that as well.
These are all questions borne out of a product lineup that’s grown from a single-sized iPhone and iPad to five different iPhones, five different iPads, and dozens of smartwatch configurations. Apple has long prided itself on simplicity. Soon enough, however, the company could be performing the same contortions its fans have long mocked companies like Samsung for, releasing new devices with winding monikers like Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch.
I want to make the "simplicity" joke but I'm saving it for the iPad slide. pic.twitter.com/o4e3cAmwzr— Ben Thompson (@benthompson) March 21, 2016
The underlying change in Apple's approach to choice is a welcome one. It's great that we can customize our Apple Watch bands and now choose between a myriad of colors, storage capacity options, and screen sizes for tablets and smartphones. At the same time, however, it gets harder for a company to stand apart for its simplicity while slapping a new name and processor into a four-year-old phone and updating a tablet it released just six months ago. In its search for new customers, Apple is trying to squeeze new juice out of old ideas and the wear is beginning to show most prominently in how these products can be told apart.
Apple is trying to squeeze new juice out of old ideas
The company could certainly go back to basics, with just one model of tablet and smartphone for each available screen size. That would require a great deal of house cleaning, given the amount of clutter surrounding an iPad lineup with names like iPad mini 4, iPad Air 2, and 9.7-inch iPad Pro. For smartphones, it would mean simplifying the entire iPhone category into three easy-to-understand size choices and starting anew.
Of course, that would entail ensuring all of these devices are operating on the same playing field. Right now, purchasing one Apple phone or tablet typically means losing out on a key feature available only on another. Buy the iPhone SE and you don’t get 3D Touch. Buy the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and you don’t get a 12-megapixel camera.
Or Apple could embrace its new complexity and stop pretending to offer a simple product lineup. In CEO Tim Cook’s vision for the iPhone maker, choice is more important than having a laser-focused lineup with no room for extraneous options. If that’s the case, the company still needs to get its product names in order. Because the iPhone SE 2 sounds just as strange and bloated now as it will to consumers who have even more devices to choose from come next spring.
Apple's iPhone SE event in 10 minutes
Read next: Our iPhone SE review