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Apple, Inc. Didn't Even Say What "SE" Was About

By Evan Niu, CFA - Mar 22, 2016 at 10:00AM

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Letters used to mean something.

An iPhone by any other name... Image source: Apple.

The rumors about Apple's (AAPL 0.11%) updated 4-inch iPhone were true. Sadly, that included the "iPhone SE" name. At least the company dropped the "5," since initial rumors were that "5se" was in the pipeline. Here's the thing: Apple didn't even officially specify what SE stands for.

That's a problem.

It used to mean something
Back in 2009, the "S" in iPhone 3GS stood for "speed," since that year's model was an incremental improvement to the iPhone 3G and Apple primarily focused on improving the device's performance. The beefier ARM Cortex-A8 offered double the CPU performance, and the device did just about everything a lot faster. That's mostly been the case in the years since.

Apple has fallen into a predictable tick-tock cycle, giving the iPhone a new industrial design one year and improving internals and performance every other S year. But at least we knew what S meant.

But now it doesn't
Fundamentally, the whole point of product marketing and branding is in order to convey a message to the consumer. A message about what the company, brand, or product stands for or its value proposition. If there is no message, then what is Apple conveying?

Greg Joswiak, VP of product marketing, did not elaborate on the name. Image source: Apple.

Presumably, Apple's management put plenty of thought and discussion into what SE stood for, but it's unclear why they wouldn't share that with the rest of us. I have a few ideas on what it could mean, while the Internet, always charmingly helpful, has also offered a few suggestions:

  • Special Edition (most likely)
  • Speed Enhanced
  • Small Extra
  • Super Extravagant
  • Secure Encryption (probably bad timing on this one)
  • not-Super Expensive
  • Still Expensive
  • System Expansion (like the Macintosh SE released in 1990)
  • Same Exact

Gratuitous product naming with no purpose or message is worse than a bad product name. Think about all of the other consumer electronics companies that have esoteric alphanumeric model numbers, and actually list them as such. Apple has long been the exception to the rule, enjoying simplified brands and product families. Think about the aforementioned Macintosh SE, which was launched during Steve Jobs' absence. That might say something, since Jobs led marketing and pushed for simplicity.

Time to simplify
Some industry watchers are seemingly confused by Apple's decision to use the same iPad Pro branding for the new 9.7-inch tablet. But this actually makes a lot of sense, since this is precisely how Apple denotes different Mac models like the MacBook Pro family: by display size and model year.

It would be great if Apple is overall moving away from its number naming scheme, due to the inherent unsustainability and sheer silliness over time. iPads are now clearly delineated as Mini, Air, and Pro. Why hasn't the company adopted a similar mechanism in its most important product?

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