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.