Today, the idea of iPod, iPhone, and iPad “generations” is so widely understood that everyone takes the nomenclature for granted. Each time a new iPod comes out, it’s naturally a “next-generation” model, right? Well, not really.
Years ago, Apple didn’t use the word “generation” to describe iPod sequels—each new iPod was called “the new iPod,” a cool and minimalist naming convention that nonetheless started to confuse people after several consecutive years of change. Since Apple wasn’t differentiating at that point between the full-sized models, iLounge actually helped to coin the “1G/2G/3G” concept, shorthand for “first/second/third-generation,” and consulted Apple to make sure everyone got the generations right. The “generation” reference helped companies to develop clearer accessory packaging, and customers to more easily understand which iPods they were shopping for. Confusion was reduced, and all was good.
There was a brief flareup back in June 2005 when Apple renamed the “iPod photo” as just “iPod,” using the same name as the prior black and white fourth-generation model. The “new iPod” had a completely different color screen than the original fourth-generation model, plus better chips inside, and for the first time ever, TV-out capabilities. Was this the “fifth-generation iPod?” Reasonable minds disagreed. So we contacted Steve Jobs to ask whether the color model was a “fifth-generation” model or something else. His answer: go with “4th generation.” From Apple’s perspective, apparently, changing the screen, CPU, and other features wasn’t enough for a new product generation. It was confusing, but we shared the news with our readers anyway, and did our best to explain it.
Since then, Apple has released a number of new iPods and iPhones that weren’t complete generational sequels. Despite screen, battery, and capacity changes to the late 2006 iPod, Apple wanted it to be referred to as an “enhanced fifth-generation iPod,” which some people called “5.5G” or “E5G.” It has also never segregated iPod classics by generation, even when adding capacity or remote control support. On the other hand, it has recently used the “generation” name for certain comparatively small updates. For instance, what Apple calls the “third-generation” iPod touch was an awful lot like the second-generation version, and all but impossible to differentiate from the outside. That led once again to confusion, since Apple spent late 2009 and most of 2010 selling a mix of second- and third-generation models, only the latter of which supported multitasking, Bluetooth keyboard support, AirPrint, and Home Screen wallpaper.
Apple might be changing its tune somewhat on product names. Take the iPhone, which broke with tradition by getting a new “iPhone 3G” name for its second-generation model. Retrospectively, the iPhone 3G was nearly identical to the original iPhone, with only a new casing, lower initial price, and 3G/GPS support to differentiate it. Then there was the cosmetically near-identical iPhone 3GS, which like the third-generation iPod touch was different from the prior year’s model under the hood, but still similar enough that the iPhone 4 subsequently stood out as the first huge upgrade since the original model. In sum, Apple now gives every new iPhone a new name, regardless of how much or little has changed. As contrasted with the iPod naming minimalism and resulting confusion, this seems to work pretty well.
But it does obscure the bigger question, and the one everyone will really want to have answered when Apple introduces the “new iPad” next week: is the new tablet going to be a great leap forward like the iPhone 4, or just an iterative “speed bump” model like the iPhone 3GS? More importantly, is there really something much bigger and better coming out later this year, as Apple-sourced blogger John Gruber has guessed? If what he’s postulated is true, namely that a comparatively revolutionary update will hit shelves only three or six months after the minor one, would it be smart to advise people to go out and buy anything right now? A $500 to $800 purchase is a substantial outlay of cash for most people, not the sort of money to be spent in a hurry.
Regardless of whether or not Apple calls next week’s product the “iPad 2”—and you can safely ignore the “iPad 2” markings on rear shells that have been floating around, since iPod backs all say “iPod,” if anything at all, and iPhones all say “iPhone”—it seems clear from Apple’s “2-themed” special event invitation that the company will call the device the “second-generation iPad,” even if the new features might have merited only “enhanced” or “S” naming conventions in past iPod and iPhone devices. There’s no question that the new device will represent what Apple’s interested in selling to consumers for the time being; we’re going to have to look past the name and the marketing to focus on whether the new product is really worth buying, or whether it’s worth holding off to see whether something considerably better is just around the corner.