We have entered peak iPhone rumor season. Between now and Apple's presumed announcement on Sept. 10, we'll get details about the new iPhones that will surely make Apple executives grit their teeth. The leaks will come from Apple's supply chain in Asia, from people in Cupertino and even from details inadvertently left in Apple's own beta software.
But usually, there are two pieces of the puzzle that don't leak: what the new iPhones will be named, and how they will be priced. That's causing some of the most interesting speculation in this silly season surrounding the upcoming iPhone 11 — and for good reason. More than any other tech company, Apple is a master at building a story around its products, which is why its media events are the subject of so much focus.
This year, Apple's got a bunch of marketing challenges ahead. This is the third year of the iPhone X hardware family, and the second year for the iPhone XR, so changes to the external design of Apple's phones — often the biggest driver of a huge sales bump — are unlikely. The presence of the iPhone XR adds another wrinkle as Apple continues to try to differentiate it from the company's more expensive models. And then there's the iPhone X name itself, which seems unlikely to be continued through another generation. iPhone XRM? iPhone XST? Yuck.
iPhone 11: The new iPhone XR?
Some rumors suggest that Apple is going to redefine the iPhone XR's successor as the new flagship model, perhaps even giving it the straight-up name iPhone 11. The iPhone XR's a bit of a "tweener," as they say in the sports world — in between the sizes of the iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max, but cheaper than both. While all eyes were generally on the cutting-edge tech in the XS models, the iPhone XR has been a popular phone, especially since it combines the two factors that matter most to many phone buyers: a lower price and a big screen. (It also has pretty colors!)
Consumers don't like to be confused, and the current iPhone lineup is confusing. What's the difference between XR and XS? Which one is the "real" iPhone? How do you pronounce XR and XS?
All of this can be cleared up by calling the iPhone XR's successor, which is Apple's base-model iPhone, the iPhone 11. It's "the new iPhone," and that's a level of clarity that the model deserves. Though it's much more expensive than the base-model iPhones used to be, it's still $749 versus $999 for the iPhone XS. That's a much better starting price to advertise, which is why Apple so aggressively places the XR out in front of its marketing today. (Plus, those colors!)
Get ready for two iPhone 11 Pros
But if the iPhone XR becomes the iPhone 11 this September, what is to become of the successors to the iPhone XS and XS Max? The stories I've seen point to them collectively being called the iPhone 11 Pro, which is a good fit. These are higher-end products that cost more but are made with features and finishes that go beyond those of the base model. Bloomberg, for one, is reporting that the Pro models will feature three rear cameras (the iPhone XR successor will reportedly make do with two lenses), improved video recording capabilities, reverse charging and improved durability.
This is the point when I have to acknowledge that, while smartphones are tools that business professionals use every day to get their jobs done, it feels a little funny to put the word "pro" in the name of a smartphone. But "pro" has been a label Apple has used for years to signify not just products for professional users but products for anyone who is willing to spend more to get more.
The risk Apple would be taking in calling the XS successors the iPhone 11 Pro is that consumers would misread the message and think that they're not the potential customers for a professional iPhone. That's a bit of a messaging challenge for Apple, but the higher price tag for those models was already sending this message. And I think people who want the very best iPhone aren't going to be dissuaded by the name.
Size isn't everything
If you ask me, one of the worst product names Apple has ever generated is iPhone XS Max. Apple's large ultrapremium phone takes the ridiculous Roman numeral/letter combination of the entire 2018 phone generation and, well, maxes it out. iPhone 11 Pro Max would be slightly less bad, but it's still ridiculous.
Because the people in charge of naming the new iPhones are presumably the same people who came up with "iPhone XS Max," all bets are off. But I'm hopeful that Apple will finally do with the iPhone what it has done with all its other products that have screens in various sizes — namely, give them a single name and then just differentiate them on screen size. The 15-inch MacBook Pro isn't the MacBook Pro Max. (Apple, do not get any ideas. I'm watching you.) The 12.9-inch iPad Pro I'm using right now is not the iPad Pro Max.
So why not just call the iPhone XS successors the iPhone 11 Pro? And the iPhone 11 Pro comes in two sizes: 5.8 inches and 6.5 inches. Simple is better. Why confuse things?
An end to numbers
Finally, let me shout into a black hole for a moment. I can't believe that we're probably about to go to the iPhone 11. For years, I've written that Apple would never allow the iPhone product line to end up with ridiculous numbered product names like iPhone 17, but we're still headed in that direction.
I realize there are lots of reasons for endlessly attaching numbers to the end of phone models, from the way carriers market phones in their stores to keeping track of product versions. But, again, this is an area where I feel like the iPad and Mac show a way to a better future. This iPad Pro I'm using isn't the iPad Pro 3 or the iPad Pro 3 Max; it's just an iPad Pro. It's the 2018 model, and I can refer to that when necessary, but in regular conversation, it's just an iPad Pro.
So, Apple ... iPhone (2019) and iPhone Pro (2019)? No more numbers? No more Roman numerals? I'd love it if, on Sept. 10, an Apple executive stood on stage and told us about the new iPhone — and that was its actual name.
It won't happen, but I can dream. What else is peak iPhone rumor season for?
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Jason Snell was lead editor of Macworld for more than a decade and still contributes a weekly column there. He's currently running the Six Colors blog, which covers all of Apple's doings, and he's the creative force behind The Incomparable, a weekly pop culture podcast and network of related shows.