The X factor: Apple's weird relationship with product numbers and names

What do Apple and Microsoft have against the number nine? We take a look at Apple's odd naming conventions and postulate future possibilities for the iPhone X.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

iPhone X

The iPhone X, which Tim Cook and company pronounce as "ten" and not "eks," is Apple's so-called "smartphone of the future." I've spent the past two weeks thinking about this product. It's not the missing home button or the still somewhat dubious Face ID that has me pondering. It's the name of the darned thing: iPhone X.

There's a thing about Apple that has always seemed odd to me. Apple is a company built on good design. The products feel right, they have a level of intuitiveness that has been sweated out not only in Jony Ive's fevered dreams, but in design labs populated by some of the world's best designers.

The company's product names, on the other hand, have often seemed like they were designed by a bunch of stoners flinging wads of damp toilet paper against the wall to see what would stick.

It all started with Lisa

This weird product naming practice is not new. In 1983, a year before the Macintosh was introduced, Apple produced a then $9,995 computer (about $24K in 2017 money) called the Lisa.

In one of the oddest tech naming stories in history, the machine was named after Steve Jobs' daughter Lisa, who at the time of the computer's introduction, he refused to acknowledge or support.

At least "Macintosh" is a variety of the apple fruit. Or, well, almost. That variety is actually the "McIntosh," without the "a". Apple changed the spelling to avoid trademark litigation with the audio company McIntosh Labs.

Since the original 128K Macintosh was introduced, there have been a lot of Mac models, some with relatively obvious and descriptive names, like "Mac mini" and some that are nearly enigmatic. Can anyone -- without looking it up -- tell me the difference between a Mac Iivx and a Mac Iivi?

Some, of course, are more enigmatic than others. For example, if I were to tell you I have a MacBook, which computer am I talking about? Is it the one introduced in early 2006 with an Intel Core Duo processor? Or was it one of the fifteen SKUs introduced between late 2006 and mid-2009 based on the Intel Core 2 Duo processor? Or the brand new, sexy one that Apple is selling today?

Hang on, because this is going to hurt your head. What about the pile of PowerBook Duo models released in the early 1990s? Were they based on the Intel Duo processors? No. Not at all. The Duo Macs were based on Motorola 68x processors.

It's painful, isn't it? And we haven't even gotten to iOS devices (which were previously iPhone OS devices, because even operating system names change with Apple).

I could keep up this pain for another thousand words, but I won't. Let's just stipulate that Apple's been playing fast and loose with product names for more than 30 years.

Year and season

Apple followers tend to identify Mac models by year and release date. For example, I have a bunch of late 2012 Mac minis. The iPad introduced this year is just "iPad," even though the first generation iPad was also just "iPad." For iPads and iPods, the products are usually referenced either by product series (mini or pro) or generation, rather than season and year.

Let's visit a few memorable products that might help inform our understanding of the iPhone X (pronounced as "ten," remember).

The closest we get to a Tenth Anniversary Macintosh were the Macintosh LC 550 and 560, launched in February 1994, ten years and a month after the original Mac. Apple also introduced the Power Macintosh 6100, 7100, and 8100 in March of that year. But Apple wasn't in a big anniversary mood that year. Jobs wasn't at Apple. He was in his "wilderness" phase with Pixar and Next. At the time of the tenth anniversary of Macs, Apple was often characterized as "Beleaguered computer vendor, Apple Computer."

Five years later, in 1997, Apple did introduce an official anniversary edition: the unique, cumbersome, and very expensive Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh. It wasn't released to mark the anniversary of the Mac, but the company as a whole. Apple Computer, Inc was incorporated in January of 1977.

Apple did not introduce a Thirtieth Anniversary anything, either in 2007 to commemorate thirty years of the company or in 2014, to commemorate 30 years of the Macintosh.

This year, 2017, marks Apple's fortieth year. That was not mentioned in Tim Cook's keynote. He did talk about the new Apple Park, and bragged a bit about how the iPhone changed the world in its first ten years. But Apple's forty year journey was never mentioned.

Of more interest to most Apple consumers, the company introduced three new iPhones. Instead of the tick-tock nature of model number increment (like iPhone 6) followed the next year by adding an "s" to the model (like iPhone 6s), Apple jumped a tock, skipping the 7s nomenclature for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.

These models add improved camera and the wireless charging capability I've been using on Androids since 2013 and on my iPhone 6s Plus since 2015. At least the iPhone 8 still has a home button.

All that brings us to the iPhone X, which is not the iPhone 10 (although it's pronounced that way) nor the Tenth Anniversary iPhone. It's just X.

Aww, heck. There's history to that X, too.

The X factor

Before talking iPhone X, we need to first talk about OS X, or well, now macOS. OS X came out after Mac OS 9. That, at least, made sense. The was Mac OS 8, then Mac OS 9, then Mac OS X (pronounced "Mac OS ten").

Mac OS X lasted through eleven major releases, from 2001 through 2016. To differentiate numerically, Apple gave the releases numbers (i.e., 10.8, 10.9, etc), but also names of animals. There was Panther, Mountain Lion, etc.

In 2016, Apple decided to unify its OS naming (by which we mean changing it again), and so OS X became macOS. This followed the style of iOS, tvOS, and watchOS.

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MacOS release 10.9 picked up the unfortunate name "Mavericks," 10.10 became "Yosemite," 10.11 became "El Capitan," 10.12 became "Sierra" and, now -- complete with the requisite sophomoric weed jokes during the WWDC keynote -- macOS 10.13 is "High Sierra."

High Sierra is another "tock" release in the tick-tock product release pattern Apple has often demonstrated. When it does a tock release of a phone, Apple often adds "s" to the name. When it does a tock release of macOS, it often adds a refinement name before the nickname. For example, there was Leopard, then Snow Leopard. Now, there's Sierra (for 10.12) and High Sierra (for 10.13).

Tock releases aren't necessarily small releases, but they're not quite as newsworthy or contain banner-level new features, seen usually in the tick releases. That's probably why the iPhone 8 is not the 7s. Even though Qi charging has been around in devices for nearly a decade, built-in wireless charging is a relatively big new feature for iPhones.

Another reason the product may have been named iPhone 8 instead of 7s is because it's not quite as big a jump from version eight to version ten as it would be jumping from version seven to version ten. After all, Microsoft was comfortable going from Windows 8 straight to Windows 10, as well.

Nine just doesn't get no respect.

All of that brings us to the iPhone X. Apple pronounces it "ten," so presumably there will be no iPhone 9. That's an open question for next year. If the X sells well, you may see an Xs. If not, or if they can't get component yields up to the levels they need, we may see an iPhone 8s.

Because Apple's naming patterns are wacky, it's entirely possible that after the pricey experiment that is the iPhone X, the next major iPhone release based on the X interface may simply be called iPhone.

Check back in with me next September. We'll know more then. In the meantime, are you planning on getting an X, an 8, or sticking with with you have? Let me know in the comments below.

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