iPhone Pro vs iPhone 8

The rumor mill for the next Apple iPhone launch is reaching fever pitch; looks like we collectively pretty much know what to expect in terms of new features. Faster iPhone 7s and a new expensive iPhone called… we don’t know.

I pretty strongly believe it’ll be called iPhone Pro (or possibly iPhone 7S Pro). The reason for this is simple, and it’s all got to do with customer expectation management. But let’s begin with some background.

Starting with iPhone 3G, Apple reliably followed a bi-yearly device update strategy. Every other year Apple bumps the iPhone generation number up and adds new significant features and update the external physical design of the device, and every other year they introduce the S version, which is an iteration on the previous phone, made better in every respect. Pricing wise, the device prices have largely remained the same on each update, where consumers have to pay the same amount after the update, but get more bang for buck for the new phone.

I’m not sure if most consumers even realize it, but Apple has also done a huge favor for their customers and developers by adopting a simple principle in terms of iPhone features: if they add a hardware feature to their phones, they never remove it. On the contrary, the feature is iterated on and improved with every generation of the phone. As an example, the first iPhone didn’t include a GPS chip but did include WiFi positioning. iPhone 3G added a GPS chip for much better accuracy, but was relatively slow to get a fix on the position and was a crazy battery hog so people avoided geolocation apps on principle. After generations of iteration, iPhone 7 is so efficient with the system that users don’t even have to think about positioning consuming the battery, while getting a location fix nearly immediately when satellites are available.

This is in stark contrast to the world of Android, where it’s extremely hard for consumers to know what hardware features their phone actually contain, or how the hardware features are implemented. This has resulted in phone owner surprises, such as a fair amount of people being disappointed the Pokemon Go AR mode not working on their phone, or Google Nexus 6 having an incredibly slow memory system, leading to long initial app launch times. Consumers shouldn’t have to care about this; I think the device manufacturers who still ship smartphones with a gyro (and other features consumers now take for granted) are doing the industry a disservice.

So how does this tie to iPhone naming?

First, if Apple indeed comes out with a new iPhone tier better than the other iPhones, that product will instantly become the one people really want. But if the price indeed starts at $999, most people won’t be able to afford it and thus have to settle for a cheaper model and thus compromize between what their heart desires and their wallets. Speaking as a game designer, I know that’s a decision point people really, really dislike. So Apple is likely to want to mitigate any hard feelings at this decision point.

Second, another important purchase decision point to consider is what happens next year, when the 2018 models are rolled out. Apple has so far taught people that even if you don’t purchase the most expensive model, you’re getting a current generation phone, which Apple has so far communicated using the device generation number.

Third, the rationale given for why Apple would want to introduce the high tier model boils down to the above discussed feature set promise. Apple is hitting the ceiling on scaling their production, where if they add a feature to their phones, they immediately need to be able to ship over 50 million high quality components that supply the feature. Most companies cannot manufacture at this scale, so Apple is locked to only implementing features on their devices they can ship at this massive scale. Unless they introduce a new class of devices where consumers can rationalize the feature set being different and which don’t ship in scale.

Now, Apple has two options for the phone: iPhone Pro and iPhone 8. Looking at the above two purchase decision points the two names differ hugely in terms of what’s being communicated to the customer.

If Apple launches iPhone 7S and iPhone 8 this year, they’d be doing several things that don’t pan out too well:

  1. Most customers purchasing a device this year would immediately be signaled they’re getting an old generation device
  2. The branding would likely to be very confusing the next year, where using the old logic, Apple would launch 8 as the lower end device and 8S as the new hot update, where they’d need to suddenly scale the features they couldn’t manufacture at scale this year to 10x the capacity. Would this be followed by 8S for masses and 9 for high end?

Compare this to iPhone Pro, where Apple can easily make branding promise to the customers that whatever the numbering logic of the phones is, Pro is always the high-end device with capabilities not found in the other models, but that some of the features will trickle down when it’s time. So with this:

  1. Launch iPhone 7S and iPhone Pro this year. 7S is the iteration on top of the current iPhone 7, iPhone Pro is the current generation high-end device, with no brand signaling saying 7S is older than the Pro.
  2. Next year, launch iPhone 8, with one or more features from 2017 Pro, and iPhone 8 Pro, with something new and exclusive.
  3. Next year, launch iPhone 8S, with one or more features from 2018 Pro, and iPhone 8S Pro, with something new and exclusive.

So there you have it. The number in iPhone name is for the phone generation, the extra word mark after iPhone is for features. I’m fully aware this is all semantics, but when building brands and building consumer desire, words and names is often the only tool we have, and words have power.

Update: it was pointed out I left the Plus size phones out of the writeup!

The logic with iPhone Plus seems to so far been it’s a superset of the iPhone features, with a larger screen. With the Pro, this is likely to remain in terms of features: the Plus will remain a larger size phone with the better camera, while the Pro rumors pan it at a form factor with the same size screen as the Plus, but on a smaller device due smaller bezel. Pro’s camera will probably be even better than the one in Plus. What remains to be seen is how Apple will treat the screen sizes in the future generations and if the thin bezel design will trickle down to the cheaper models over time.