The Startup
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The Startup

Why Apple Stopped Using The ‘i’ Prefix

Since their founding in 1976, we’ve seen many changes in Apple product’s hardware and software, but most people haven’t noticed the subtle change in how Apple names those products. If you were an Apple fan in the early 2000’s, you may’ve used an iMac, iBook, or iPod. But fans today may be using an Apple Watch, Apple TV, or Apple Pencil. And although there are still products from what I call the ‘i’ era, like the iPhone and iPad, it’s worth exploring how Apple’s product naming strategy has changed over the last two decades, and learn why those changes was made.

Apple’s first computer ever, created by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs themselves back in 1976, was called the Apple I. Its successor, released a year later, was called the Apple II. It proved to be one of the most influential computers of that period and provided Apple a steady stream of revenue for the next decade. And they would need it, since the company tried creating a followup computer in 1980 called the Apple III, which was primarily targeted to the business market. It failed miserably, selling only 70,000 units in its lifetime, 20% of which were defective. At that point, Apple shifted their focus to other projects like the Macintosh. Now the Macintosh project had been in development since 1979 and was initially led by Jef Raskin, the person responsible for naming the product. And the reason why Raskin chose the name Macintosh was simply because it was his favorite type of apple.

And that marked a very significant point in the company’s history, since most of their following machines would use the Mac name. Although there were exceptions beginning in the early 90’s when Apple named their first notebook computer the PowerBook. And with Steve Jobs return in 1996, the company continued to leave the Mac name out of their notebook computers with the introduction of the iBook. But it’s very important to understand why this decision was made. Because looking back today, it seems strange that Jobs would name a notebook computer iBook instead of MacBook, especially when he was part of the original Macintosh team who fought to secure the name. But you have to consider the iBook in the context of Apple’s product line. Because one year before it was released, Apple had introduced the iMac. Which, at the time, was the company’s most successful product in history and helped save them from bankruptcy. Considering the iMac was the first product to use the ‘i’ prefix, it’d make sense that Apple would capitalize on the name’s popularity by using the lowercase ‘i’ in other products like the iBook, which was marketed as an iMac to go. Adopting its translucence, colors, and bulbous design.

And if you’re wondering why Apple chose the name iMac in the first place, it’s because the ‘i’ was supposed to stand for internet, which the iMac was primarily built for. But there were additional meanings ascribed to the letter, like individual, instruct, inform, and inspire. The name was created by Ken Segall with the ad agency Chiat/Day. And initially, Steve Jobs didn’t like it. Instead suggesting the name ‘MacMan’ which he found particularly appealing. But no one else did, with Segall saying the name made his blood curdle. The following week Jobs was presented with more names to choose from, but all were rejected. From then on, the ad agency didn’t hear anything directly from Apple. Although they did have friends that told them Jobs was testing the name iMac on prototypes of the computer and trying to decide whether or not it looked good. Apparently it did, because the final product was named iMac, which came to a surprise to Segall. He said, “[Jobs] rejected it twice but then it just appeared on the machine. He never formally accepted it.”

So with the iMac and iBook enjoying more success than Apple could’ve ever wished for, and with the company roaring back to profitability, the ‘i’ prefix became a very valuable asset. That’s why it was used for the vast majority of new Apple products during that era. Their music player released in 2001 was called the iPod, their smartphone released in 2007 was called the iPhone, and their tablet released in 2010 was called the iPad. The ‘i’ prefix became so strongly associated with Apple that they actually filed for a trademark on the letter, arguing that no other company should be able to use it since customers will think those products are made by Apple. But their case failed in 2010, with the court asserting that “a person of ordinary intelligence and memory” would not assume that just because a product has the letter ‘i,’ it was made by Apple.

And this is when things started to get interesting. Because 2010 is about the time when Apple stopped using ‘i’ for new products. For example in 2015 the company released the Apple Watch. A product many expected to be called the ‘iWatch.’ In fact, Tim Cook was asked this exact question during an interview with David Rubenstein. He said, “Why was it called the Apple Watch and not the iWatch. Because you have iPhone, iPod, iPad. Why not iWatch?” Cook replied, “It was something we thought of at the time, but I kind’ve like Apple Watch, what do you think?” So while we didn’t get any real insight from Cook’s non-answer, it seems to suggest that Apple is simply moving in a different direction when it comes to their naming strategy. They could’ve named it the iWatch, but they chose Apple Watch instead. And I think one of the reasons is the name Apple is trademarked, whereas the ‘i’ prefix is not. So when a customer is shopping for a smartwatch and they see the name Apple Watch, there’s no question who makes the product. This is also an effective branding strategy which forces customers to directly associate a product with a company. For example, when I was young, many of my friends didn’t know about the company called Apple, but they all knew about the iPod. So maybe if it was called the Apple Music Player instead of iPod, there would’ve been more brand awareness among my peers.

Now this sort of name strategy is nothing new to Apple. Remember the iBook? Well, that product doesn’t exist anymore. And it’s because Apple replaced the iBook with the MacBook in 2006. Steve Jobs even gave a reason for the name change, saying, “We wanted all of our computers to have the word Mac in them.” Which is also the reason why they replaced the PowerBook with the MacBook Pro the same year. And that same naming approach is taking place today. We have the Apple Pencil instead of iPencil, Apple Card instead of iCard, and Apple TV instead of iTV. Although I should make it clear that the Apple TV was introduced in 2006 and really shouldn’t be included in the ‘i’ to ‘Apple’ transition happening today. Mainly because Apple wanted to name the product iTV, and it was internally referred to as such until weeks before its release. Its name was changed from iTV to Apple TV last minute due to a copyright dispute with a British television network of the same name. That’s why, if you watch the 2006 sneak peek, Steve Jobs introduced the product as the iTV. When Apple realized they couldn’t win the trademark dispute, they were forced to use the name Apple TV instead. But that could be considered a happy accident for the company since the Apple TV appears to have kicked off a naming strategy in Apple’s product line that proved to be useful after they failed to secure the ‘i’ prefix trademark three years later.

And it’s quite clear when Apple made the decision to stop using ‘i’, with the iPad in 2010 being the last product to feature the prefix. But this shift didn’t only apply to hardware, it was carried through to Apple’s software as well. In iOS 11.3 Apple renamed the iBooks app simply “Books.” In 2015, the iPhotos application in macOS became Photos. And finally in macOS Catalina Apple completely rewrote the iTunes application and called it Music instead.

So it’s pretty undeniable that Apple is no longer interested in the ‘i’ suffix. But this brings up a problem, what’s going to happen to their existing i-products? Two of which are Apple’s most successful in history, the iPhone and iPad. Well, there are a few possibilities based on how Apple has handled these situations in the past. First, Apple may change the products names when a new version is released, just like with the iBook and PowerBook. The iPhone could become the Apple Phone in the near future. But considering how recognizable the name iPhone has become globally, I doubt it will change.

So that brings me to the second possibility. Apple could simply keep the names as they are until a completely new product cannibalizes them. Similar to what happen with the iPod. Apple introduced the iPhone, and it caused iPod sales to shrink so dramatically that most of the models were eventually discontinued. Or, finally, Apple may keep the ‘i’ in their existing products and simply avoid the prefix for new products, which has been the case so far.

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