Going Pro

Back on August 17, I tweeted this prediction on the naming scheme for this year’s lineup of new iPhones:

I’ve been pushing for iPhones “Pro” at least since the iPhone X. Makes sense to me:

  • iPhone XR → iPhone 11
  • iPhone XS → iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone XS Max → iPhone 11 Pro Max

My record in this particular regard is abysmal. As noted in my tweet, I’ve been calling for Apple to go “Pro” with its high-end iPhones at least since the iPhone X was just a rumor. And even when the string “iPhone X” was revealed in a last-minute software leak the weekend before it was actually revealed, I confidently predicted that it would be pronounced iPhone Ex, not iPhone Ten. Anyone who’s been betting based on my iPhone naming predictions is deep in the hole at this point.

But — lo! — like a stopped clock being right twice a day, I might actually have called it this time. Mark Gurman — who correctly predicted the “iPhone X as ten” name in 2017 — described this year’s lineup on August 22 thus:

Apple is planning to launch three new iPhones, as it has done each year since 2017: “Pro” iPhone models to succeed the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max as well as a successor to the iPhone XR.

Here’s why I think an “11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max” naming scheme makes perfect sense. First, I hate Roman numerals with an irrational passion, so I’m not even going to get into the idea that Apple might have even considered “iPhone XI”. Just no.

Second, the most common suggestion in response to my “iPhone 11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max” tweet was that Apple should just drop the numbers completely, and go with:

  • iPhone (new XR)
  • iPhone Pro (new XS)
  • iPhone Pro Max (new XS Max)

In the abstract, such a naming strategy would be better. It would match Apple’s other product lineups — MacBooks and iPads — where higher priced models are Pro and lower priced ones are not. MacBook Pros and iPad Pros don’t get numbered sequentially by product generation. When new ones come out, they’re just called “MacBook Pro” and “iPad Pro” and Apple uses model years (e.g. “late 2019”) to specify exact models in support documentation — but never in advertising or product packaging.

Nice and clean. And it would do away with the ungainliness of ever-incrementing integers in product names. Are we really going to have an “iPhone 19” at some point? I get that.

But we don’t live in the abstract. In the real world, there is a huge difference between how Apple maintains the iPhone lineup compared to MacBooks and iPads. When new MacBooks and iPads debut, they almost always replace the preceding models. When you go into a store to buy an iPad Pro, the only models available are the latest and greatest.

The iPhone lineup works very differently. Older models hang around — in production — for years. Apple just slots them into lower price points as they get older. And one thing many people don’t know is that the lineup of iPhones Apple itself sells online and in its own retail stores is not the full lineup of iPhones they continue to manufacture and sell through other channel partners. The lineup Apple promotes makes it look, for example, like the iPhone X went out of production a year ago after the iPhone XS was introduced. But carriers around the world still sell it, as do big box retailers (dying breed that they are) like Best Buy. You can still buy brand-new iPhone 6S models in some countries.

I didn’t really know the extent of this myself until recently. Two years ago I was behind the idea that the phone we now know as the “iPhone X” should have been the first “iPhone Pro”. Then last year’s XS models would have been the new “iPhones Pro”, and this year’s models the new “iPhones Pro” again. But given that Apple wants to keep making and selling the older models, this non-numbered naming scheme would be confusing. It wouldn’t work unless Apple were to drop its decade-long strategy of keeping years-old iPhones in production at lower price points, and I don’t see any reason why Apple would drop that strategy.

Apple Watch is similar to the iPhone in this way. They’re using the “Series #” naming scheme so that they can keep older models in the lineup at lower prices. I’m not saying Apple has to keep using numbers for new iPhones, but I do think their fundamental strategy of using years-old models to fill lower price points in the lineup necessitates unique names for each model year. Especially so given how the fundamental industrial design doesn’t change for years at a time. The iPhone XS didn’t look any different from the iPhone X externally.

One thing I like about an “11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max” naming scheme is that by calling the new XR the just plain “iPhone 11”, it would implicitly establish the new XR model as the default iPhone, the iPhone most people should buy. It should be branded as the default new iPhone because it should be considered the default new iPhone. Most people don’t notice or care about the difference between the XR’s @2x LCD display and the XS’s @3x OLED display. They don’t care about the slightly bigger bezels surrounding the XR display (if only because they immediately put their new iPhone in a protective case). They don’t care about the fact that the higher-end iPhones have more cameras on the back, because they take all of their photos using the default 1x camera lens.1

And the fact that the iPhone XR gets the longest battery life of any iPhone — something I would expect the XR’s successor to maintain, because it’s mainly attributable to its use of an LCD rather than OLED display — is a factor that typical iPhone owners do appreciate. I declared last year’s iPhone XR the best iPhone for most people, and I expect this year’s XR successor to be the same. Fun colors, lower price, longer battery life — that’s all you need to say. Thus, calling it the just plain “iPhone 11” would be spot-on branding-wise.

Some object to the notion that any iPhone can be “Pro” in the sense of “professional”. That’s nonsense. For one thing, plenty of people buy MacBook Pros and iPad Pros for non-professional use. They just want them because they’re better and/or bigger. If you want a 15-inch MacBook or 13-inch iPad, you’re getting a Pro model because it’s your only choice. “Pro”, in Apple product marketing parlance, does mean professional sometimes (e.g. Mac Pro and iMac Pro). But sometimes it just means premium. Second, iPhones are absolutely used professionally, and the better camera systems alone can justify the nomenclature. For many people, their phone is their most-used and most-important work device.

A better argument is that there’s no reason to call the bigger model “Max”. Just call them both “iPhone 11 Pro” — like Apple does with MacBook and iPad Pros — and people will buy the size they prefer without confusion. “Pro Max” sounds a bit like a vitamin supplement for weightlifters, frankly. (Update: “Pro Max” actually is the name of a nutrition supplement.)

I will note, though, that in advertising, Apple advertised both sizes of iPhone XS under the “iPhone XS” brand umbrella last year. This print campaign, for example, never mentioned the word “Max”. This TV spot did, but only for a split second, after the slogan “It’s not just one amazing new iPhone. It’s two.”

If they really do go with “iPhone 11 Pro Max” for the 6.5-inch model this year, I would expect them to do the same, and mostly advertise both 11 Pro models under the name “iPhone 11 Pro”, and simply show that it comes in two sizes.

Postscript: Why I Think Last Year’s iPhone XR Will Fill the Mid-Range Price Slot

So assuming the rumors are correct and we get “iPhone 11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max” new models next week, which of last year’s models will Apple keep around in its own product lineup?

I think it’s pretty simple. The XS and XS Max go away (or, as explained above, remain available only from non-Apple retailers, like carriers and Best Buy) and the iPhone XR stays in the official lineup at a lower price point. Aluminum, not stainless steel. LCD display, not OLED. Just one camera on the back. All of those factors make it obvious just by looking at it that the iPhone XR would and should be a lower-priced phone than all of the new phones for 2019.


  1. I use the 2x “telephoto” lens on my XS, and perhaps you do too. I particularly enjoy the superior Portrait Mode experience it affords. (Portrait Mode on the X and XS always and only uses the 2x lens for the photo — you can neither zoom in nor out in Portrait Mode.) And I look forward to using the much-rumored wider-angled third lens on the new Pro iPhones. But I’m a photography enthusiast, and the vast majority of iPhone owners are not. Every iPhone owner actually benefits from better optics when they do “zoom in” for a photo using an iPhone with a 2x lens, but I don’t think an extra camera lens feels worth a $250 premium to most of them. ↩︎