What does S stand for in iPhone 3GS, 4S & 5S?


What does S stand for in iPhone 3GS, 4S & 5S?
Why does Apple change the physical design only once in 2 years?
Why 3G & 3GS had plastic body while all others had premium metal/glass body?
After 3G & 3GS, why 4 & 4S but not 4G & 4GS? Why inconsistency in naming?

Short answer:
S in 3GS stood for “Speed”
S in 4S stood for “Siri”
S in 5S stood for “Security”

What does “i” stand for in iPhone, iPad & other Apple products:

Long answer:
While some companies like Samsung follow a predictible, linear naming convention for flagship products (Galaxy S1, S2, S3, Note1, Note2), some others like HTC follow unpredictible naming convention for their flagship products (HTC XL, One X, One X+, One etc). Apple’s convention is somewhat in the middle path and interestingly uses suffix ‘S’ for every alternate upgrades i.e 3G’S’, 4’S’, 5’S’. In order to understand what the ‘S’ stands for and the story behind this naming convention and design philosophy, lets rewind back to the first iPhone and find out it’s evolution.

Steve Jobs Announces the iPhone in 2007

Steve Jobs Announces the iPhone in 2007

iphone 2g

The first iPhone had an Aluminium body

First launched in 2007, the iPhone (without any suffix since it was the first version) was showcased as a 3-in-1 revolutionary device i.e Phone + music player + internet. However, there were severe criticisms pointing out that the device lacked 3G which had already become mainstream and was very popular among mobile internet users. In order to address this, the team began working on the next model with a new physical design & focus on the 3G capability and hence the next iPhone launched in 2008 was aptly named ‘iPhone 3G’ to highlight the new 3G feature.

iphone 3g

iPhone 3G/3GS with plastic body

¬† Surprisingly, the iPhone 3G was made of plastic. In a way, this was a downgrade from the earlier iPhone which had an aluminium body. The reason for this was the cost factor. When the original iPhone was launched, it was priced at $499 with contract. This had not gone down well with customers who were generally used to buying Motorola & Blackberry smartphones for $99-$199 with contract and thus felt the iPhone commanded very high premium which was not justified. Within 2 months of the launch, Steve announced a $200 price cut and brought the price down to $299 with contract to boost sales and it in turn affected the profit margin considerably. The following year, it was decided to price much lower ($199 with the slogan “the new iPhone 3G that is twice as fast at half the price”). In order to accommodate this aggressive pricing and maintain the profit margin, something had to be compromised and hence it was decided to go for a plastic body. However, over the next 2 years, due to increased sales, Apple was able to negotiate for bulk purchase of parts and also due to falling costs of hardware over time, the iPhone 4 was made of premium material like glass & metal and still retain similar profit.

Although Steve Jobs acknowledged that technology has always been volatile and computing products need an upgrade every year (processing speed becomes outdated in an year), he was also of the opinion that the exterior design of a device has a shelf life of atleast 2 years (Consumers can withstand a design for atleast 2 years before getting bored of it) and hence had decided to upgrade iPhone’s exterior design only once in 2 years. When it came to naming conventions, he was always against using numeric suffixes for upgrades because he believed that a company must always offer the latest & best portfolio like the automobile companies thereby eliminating the numerals and confusion (For example, Honda has been refreshing Civic but never called it Civic 2, Civic 3 etc. Similarly, Apple was also refreshing the iPod, iMac and other line-up every year but never associated them with version numbers. Apple has never introduced an iMac with a formal name like iMac-8 or an iPod Shuffle 5).

Strangely, by suffixing 3G (to highlight the 3G feature) to the iPhone in 2008, he had set the suffix counter ticking inspite of suffixes being against his philosophy. Since the iPhone 3G was just an year old and due to the reasons mentioned above, the next iPhone would still have the same exterior design but improved tech specs. The plan was to improve processing speed and hence the next upgrade (in 2009) was named iPhone 3GS where S stood for Speed. Phil Schiller had mentioned it in the launch keynote.

The next major upgrade was in 2010 which involved an exterior design change as well as improvement in several technical aspects. Since the last two names were 3G & 3GS, the next logical name was 4G but naming it so would have been highly misleading because 4G popularly meant the next generation mobile broadband network (4G LTE) whereas the phone in 2010 did not support that capability. Hence, the ‘G’ was dropped and it was named just ‘iPhone 4’ to convey continuity.

iphone 4 ad

iPhone 4 in 2010 with a new design.

As expected, the next phone in 2011 retained the same physical design but improved upon hardware specs. One of the major highlights of this upgrade was the inclusion of a voice assistant called “Siri” and hence this phone was named ‘iPhone 4S’ where S stood for Siri.

In 2012, the physical design as well as tech spec was revamped and named ‘iPhone 5’. But in 2013, it was time to bring some major feature (& retain the same design) which would justify the upgrade. This major feature was ‘Security‘. A fingerprint sensor was included in this phone for added security and hence launched as ‘iPhone 5S’ where S stood for Security. (Although the 64 bit architecture and M7 co-processor were major features in their own terms, from the end user point of view, the fingerprint sensor was something which was very much evident and visible and hence the star of the show).

Now that the above naming convention has been strongly ingrained in Apple’s DNA, we can expect a new exterior in 2014 which will be called iPhone 6. But what will the version after that (i.e 6S) in 2015 feature? Will it be S for ‘Screen’ supplied by Samsung i.e The upcoming revolutionary flexible screens? Only time will tell.







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