A short history of Apple product suffixes

Most electronics companies have sprawling product lines, which means they are constantly struggling with naming. As product variants accumulate, so do modifiers attached to product names… Until eventually some poor soul in marketing ends up with the unfortunate job of trying to sell me an iMX9600 S8 Ultra even though my iMX8700 M9+ works just fine.

Apple famously avoids this, of course. When Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, he axed all complicated product models and name modifiers… All, except one: the hot new PowerPC G3 processor was deemed desirable enough to have a place in the product names of the “Power Macintosh G3” and “PowerBook G3”. (The preceding models had been called Power Macintosh 9600 and PowerBook 3400, numbers that had absolutely no significance.)

Since then, Apple has been exceedingly sparing with suffixes in product names. The modifiers that Apple uses have become ingrained into consumer conscience by now. Are your computing needs more “Air” or “Pro”? Do you buy a new iPhone on the “S” model cycle every odd year, or do you go for the new numbers?

This post is a visual inventory of those humble product name suffixes. Here’s something slightly surprising I noticed about these present-day Apple suffixes: they were all approved by Steve Jobs. None of the suffixes adopted in his absence during the 1986–1997 interregnum have survived, whereas some of the ones still in use today go back over 30 years.

It begs the question: when will Apple introduce a suffix that was approved by a different CEO? Will Tim Cook put his mark on product naming history, or is the Jobsian repertoire of suffixes going to last them forever? (Personally I’m holding out for “Apple Watch IIIvx Hero SE”.)

+ / Plus

The original modifier. The Apple ][+ was introduced in 1979, two years after the groundbreaking model ][. (Yes, that’s really how Apple wanted you to write the roman numeral two.)

Apple ][+ with two floppy drives

The plus made another appearance in 1986's Macintosh Plus, again two years after the initial 1.0 product:

Mac Plus in its cool platinum color (the first non-beige Mac!)

For the next 30 years, the plus sign only made insignificant appearances in 1993's Macintosh LC III+ and 2000's iMac DV+, pictured below…

…Until it finally re-emerged in Apple’s 2014 take on the infamous “phablet” form factor, the iPhone 6 Plus:

C

The letter C accompanied a radical redesign of Apple’s cash cow computer model in 1984:

The future is monochrome but nearly portable

Designed by Frog Design, the Apple IIc was externally quite different from the previous clunky Apple II models. The “c” suffix stood for “compact”. A whole design language known as “Snow White” was created together with this particular computer design. It’s often mentioned that working with Frog on the Apple IIc and “Snow White” had a lasting influence on Jobs’s design thinking.

In 1989, the lowercase C appeared in the Macintosh IIcx and IIci models:

The IIci was the first reasonably affordable color Mac. I suspect the letters stand for “color integrated” because this was also the first model to have built-in monitor support (in other words, you didn’t need a video card).

After that success, business at Apple was slow for the letter C. Only 1992's PowerBook 5300c and PowerBook Duo 2300c made use of it:

The “Duo” suffix indicated docking capability

Here, the “c” clearly stood for “color” because it was later also used on some PowerBook models that had both color and monochrome variants.

After 20 years off the stage, “C is for color” resurfaced in 2013 with the iPhone 5c:

Pastel plastic? That’s so 2013.

Personally I was rather disappointed that an iPhone 6c didn’t happen in 2015, but apparently my preference for non-metallic phones is in the minority. (Sadly, color seems to be out everywhere right now — even Lumias don’t come in yellow anymore.)

S

Ah, the S. We all know it means “speed”, or in practice, “unchanged design with a new CPU and some semi-useful new feature thrown in”…

By my reckoning, the first S product was the Apple IIgs in 1986:

This computer was a complete reinvention of the Apple II. It had much better graphics and audio capabilities and a faster CPU — up to a neck-breaking 2.8MHz! Hence it seems likely that the “g” stands for graphics and the “s” for “speed”.

The next S model was 1990's Macintosh IIsi:

It wasn’t a speed demon but had a new slim case, so the “s” could mean “slim” or “streamlined”.

In 1995, there were a few models like the PowerBook 5300cs:

Big bones. This truly was the low point of Apple’s laptop design.

Here the “s” indicated “dual-scan color”. I actually have no idea what that means… I’m sure it kicked the ass of lame old single-scan color, though.

In 2009, we meet the handsome suffix from “Apple IIgs” again with the introduction of the iPhone 3GS:

That skeumorphic microphone app was actually pretty awesome.

This was a watermark for the capital letter S. Followed by iPhone 4S, 5S and 6S every other year, it seems quite probable that we’ll see an iPhone 7S in September 2017.

mini

The next suffix brings us firmly into the Second Jobs Era. The iPod mini was announced in January 2004, and it would be the model that really turned the iPod from a luxury gadget into a household name:

Can we have this lime green on a MacBook Pro please?

It’s surprising today that the iPod mini actually had a tiny 4GB hard disk rather than Flash memory — those memory chips were still expensive back then.

The next mini-Apple came a year later in 2005:

The Mac mini survives largely unchanged today, down to the minimalist packaging: a keyboard and mouse are not included.

The final mini to date is 2012's iPad mini, famous for being a 7.9" tablet released some years after Jobs had declared 7–8" tablets uselessly small:

An “iPhone mini” has been rumored on occasion, but so far there has been no sign of it. (I could possibly see it happening as a marketshare-expander for emerging markets — maybe an iPhone 4S screen in a 5c-style plastic case with the cheapest CPU that can run iOS 9, at less than $99 off contract?)

Pro

Although it now seems like a mainstay, the Pro suffix was introduced as recently as 2006. Before that, Apple’s professional Mac lineup had long used the “Power” prefix (as in PowerBook and Power Mac), but it was associated with the PowerPC processors. With Apple switching to Intel CPUs, a new naming scheme was in order.

The MacBook Pro was the first to appear:

It looked just like the PowerMac G4 it replaced. The same applied to the Mac Pro announced in mid-2006 — it reused the Power Mac G5's casing design even though the internals changed considerably.

The Mac Pro finally had its design revolution in 2013:

It’s a computer that looks unlike anything else in Apple’s lineup. The same doesn’t apply to 2015's iPad Pro, which looks just like a big iPad with an optional stylus:

Is there any room for an “iPhone Pro”? Apple has recently been talking quite a lot about iOS moving into the enterprise, so who knows… It wouldn’t hurt their bottom line to have companies buying a more expensive Pro model. (Perhaps something similar to Microsoft’s “Continuum” feature in Windows 10 Mobile could be a “pro-only” feature on a phone, but I can’t quite see it happening simply because iOS apps aren’t designed to be used on desktop-style peripherals.)

Air

The newest product suffix at Apple, MacBook Air was pulled out of an envelope in January 2008:

After a rather slow start, the Air lineup’s performance eventually caught up and it became a bestseller that replaced the plain MacBook completely for a while.

The only other Air is the iPad Air introduced in 2013:

From the hypothetical department: a super-thin “iPhone Air” would probably be a success among the fashion-conscious. A “Mac Air” is hard to imagine, except perhaps as a stick-style small unit connected to a HDTV similar to Chromecast? However, what I really want is an “Apple Watch Air”. Bulk is the main problem of smartwatches: if Apple could thin out the device to a band-like form factor, I’d fall for that.

Odds and ends

This concludes the pictorial of suffixes currently in use. There’s also the iPod touch, but as the only one of its kind, it’s not getting a whole section of its own.

Other recent suffixes were iPod nano and iPod shuffle. I suspect we may yet see another “nano” someday… But “shuffle” is hopefully done for.

Now it’s Tim Cook’s move. Will he dare to add to this hallowed lineup?

Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)