In September 2017, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) introduced three new iPhones: iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X.

Since the announcement of the iPhone X, many have wondered what Apple would name the phone's successor. Observers have speculated about many possible names, but a recent leak published by 9to5Mac indicates that Apple may have chosen the name "iPhone XS."

Apple's iPhones in a "mosaic" pattern.

Image source: Apple.

Apple, of course, won't comment on the branding of the new devices until its formal product launch keynote on September 12, but I'd like to offer up my take on the rumored branding. 

The return of the "s" branding?

Traditionally, Apple branded new iPhones numerically (e.g. iPhone 4, iPhone 5, and iPhone 6), adding both specification improvements as well as changes to the basic appearance and/or form factor in each successive iteration. In between the launches of new-numbered iPhones, Apple would launch "s" devices, which didn't look that different from their predecessors but often had significant performance enhancements and feature additions.

Take, for example, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s. These two products had the same basic look and shape, but the latter had a significant number of improvements relative to the former, including:

  • The addition of 3D Touch, a technology that Apple says "senses how deeply users press the display."
  • A doubling of system RAM from 1GB to 2GB (the RAM type was also upgraded from LPDDR3 to LPDDR4).
  • An A9 processor that represented a substantial generational leap in CPU and graphics processing capabilities.
  • Use of a stronger type of aluminum to construct the casing.
  • An upgrade from an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera sensor to a 12-megapixel sensor.

Apple seemingly did away with the "s" branding when it introduced its new iPhone lineup in September 2017. Under the traditional naming scheme, the successors to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, respectively, should've been called the iPhone 7s and iPhone 7s Plus. Instead, they were called the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.

With the upcoming premium iPhones, it appears that a variant of the "s" branding has returned with the iPhone XS (although I should note that the suffix is reportedly an uppercase letter instead of a lowercase one, as previously had been the case).

Indeed, the naming of the new iPhone models leads me to wonder if the dropping of the "s" branding with the 2017 iPhone models was merely an exception to a long-standing rule (perhaps to avoid having the mainstream models seem too far behind the premium ones) rather than an outright abandonment of the "s" naming convention.

A long-term concern

Some, like my Foolish colleague Evan Niu, have long advocated for Apple to abandon numbered iPhones, and it's not hard to see why.

If Apple continues with the naming pattern it seems to be following, then 2019 should see Apple introduce the "iPhone XI" with the "iPhone XIS" landing in 2020. While the former seems reasonable, the latter name seems extremely clunky. It will only get worse with time -- by 2024, Apple could introduce a product named the "iPhone XIIIS."

While Apple might want to give its new, premium iPhones distinct names at each generation to highlight the innovations in its latest products, Apple's marketing team might be backing itself into a corner with its current iPhone branding strategy.

Ashraf Eassa has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.