Apple had a lot of new features to announce with its iPhone 13 lineup this week. The iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Mini, iPhone 13 Pro, and iPhone 13 Pro Max have better battery life, faster A15 Bionic processors, smaller display notches, upgraded cameras, and, when it comes to the Pro models, high refresh rate 120Hz ProMotion displays.
It’s a nice collection of updates, but take a step back and the range starts to look an awful lot like an iterative update over last year’s iPhone 12. They have an almost identical look to the squared-off design introduced with last year’s models, and Apple was careful to not directly compare the performance of its new A15 Bionic chip to last year’s A14 Bionic, only to its competitors. There’s also no major new initiative like the MagSafe ecosystem that Apple kicked off last year, and on the bottom of the phones you’ll see the same old Lightning port rather than USB-C. It all feels very familiar.
So it’s no wonder that much of tech Twitter immediately responded to the phones’ announcement by referring to them as the “iPhone 12S,” aka a minor update to last year’s iPhone 12. That’s how Apple used to name its phones. There’d be a major update one year, usually with a big design change, followed up with a more minor revision that changed some internal components and features but kept the overall look and feel the same. The iPhone 3GS, 4S, 5S, 6S, and XS all used this approach. So what changed?
Apple started to move away from this formula with 2016’s iPhone 7. Not only did the iPhone 7 break the cycle by using a very similar design to the previous year’s 6S instead of a new look (aside, of course, from the infamous missing headphone jack), but it was never followed by an S-model of its own. Instead, the next year Apple jumped straight to the iPhone 8, a minor revision that absolutely deserved to be called the 7S, and which ended up being completely overshadowed by that year’s iPhone X.
Ever since 2018’s iPhone XS, it seems like Apple has abandoned the S-suffix entirely. Every year gets a new number, regardless of whether it offers a major overhaul like the iPhone 12 or a more minor update like the iPhone 13.
Of course, Apple’s closest competitor in the US, Samsung, has been using this approach for years. Every subsequent Galaxy S device has had a bigger number than its predecessor, and nobody wants to be the company with the lower-numbered phone than its rival. In fact, if Apple had released an iPhone 7S in 2017 it would have competed against Samsung’s Galaxy S8. No wonder Apple jumped straight to 8 and skipped the iPhone 9 entirely.
It’s wild in retrospect that Apple willingly advertised its “off” years
In retrospect it seems absolutely wild that Apple was willing to proudly broadcast that it was having an off year. Unless you were the kind of smartphone user that wanted to have the most up-to-date iPhone year after year, that S-suffix was a helpful indication that a new model only contained minor changes. “Don’t worry about upgrading this year, folks,” was the implicit message.
But the reality was that smartphone technology was advancing so quickly at the time that even a “minor” upgrade could still contain massive new features. The iPhone 3GS was the first iPhone that could officially record video in addition to taking photos, the iPhone 4S introduced Apple’s Siri voice assistant to the world, and the 5S was the first iPhone with biometric security (a fingerprint sensor). These are all major additions that we now take for granted on modern Apple devices, and they arrived with the relatively muted fanfare of an S-branded iPhone. The S-branded iPhones also offered big camera improvements over the years: the 4S was the first with an 8-megapixel camera, the 5S added slow-motion video, and the 6S increased the rear camera’s resolution to 12 megapixels. Every year, Apple gave its customers a pretty good reason to upgrade.
The smartphone market is now a very different place. Smartphones have matured, and even midrange models offer basically everything most people actually need a phone to do. Every year we’re told about the latest phones’ performance upgrades and edge-case camera improvements, but it’s nothing that’s going to completely change your life.
Consumers have noticed. Far from upgrading to the latest iPhone every year, as of 2019 CNBC reported that US customers were waiting an average of over two years to upgrade their phones, while in the UK people were waiting almost 28 months. At the time, these figures were all trending upward, and it seems safe to assume that they’ve grown even longer in the two years since. It was also around this time that iPhone sales started to plateau, and Apple stopped reporting on iPhone sales numbers, opting instead to bundle their numbers in with other device categories.
Instead of focusing on big upgrades, Apple seems to be prioritizing a bigger lineup with devices to appeal to different tastes and price points. As recently as 2017, the company was selling just two flagship phones, the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus. The following year it released three (the 8, 8 Plus, and X), and last year it switched to four with the iPhone 12, 12 Mini, 12 Pro, and 12 Pro Max. With so many form factors to keep updated, it’s not surprising that big overhauls have become less common.
People upgrade much less frequently than they once did
Unless you really want the latest and greatest technology, there really isn’t much of a reason to upgrade every year, and that’s a good thing! It’s much more affordable for those people who opt to buy their phones outright, and it’s worlds better for the environment. Apple may now be using more recycled materials in its devices, but manufacturing them and shipping them in the first place still uses resources.
In this context, it isn’t surprising that Apple has changed with the times. For starters, it’s making more of an effort to make money outside of hardware, like its increasingly broad array of subscription services covering everything from music and video streaming, to gaming and home fitness. If it can’t make money from selling you a new iPhone every year, it’ll sure as hell try to make money from you streaming the latest season of Ted Lasso.
That doesn’t mean that Apple has given up on the idea of selling you a new phone every year. Far from it. If branding this year’s phones as the iPhone 13 tells us anything, it’s that Apple is more keen than ever to convince its customers to upgrade, by branding this year’s phones as an all-new range as opposed to a more modest update to the iPhone 12. The slowing progress of smartphone technology means that Apple can’t afford to rest on its laurels with an S-branded device. Everything needs to be brand-new and as exciting as possible.
So yes, this year’s iPhones could, and arguably should have been branded as the iPhone 12S. But the smartphone industry has changed, and Apple has changed with it.