Why The Next iPhone Won’t Be Called The iPhone 5 [Opinion]

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What will the next iPhone be called? Rumors have recently pegged it as being christened the iPhone 4S when it debuts in September, but would Apple really signify that the next iPhone is really just a slight revision over the current model… right in the brand name?

I think they will. Here’s why.

We won’t know exactly what’s going to change in the next iPhone over the current modeluntil Steve Jobs walks on stage and holds it aloft, but we’ve got a good idea of some of the details, and it doesn’t look like the next iPhone will be as sizable a leap tech-wise over the iPhone 4 as the iPhone 4 was over the iPhone 3GS.

Here’s what we know. The iPad 2’s debut with a next-gen A5 processor locks in that same chip in the next iPhone, so we’ll see a sizable speed bump in both processing power and graphics. Likewise, we know that the next iPhone probably won’t boast LTE speeds. Rumors are mounting that the iPhone 4 will get rid of its bezel and have an edge-to-edge horizontal display, but that’s hardly confirmed. Other than that, though, it appears that the next iPhone’s physical appearance will only be subtly different than that of the current iPhone 4. Most importantly, we know the next iPhone likely won’t be seen until September, three months later than its traditional June/July debut.

Even with that delay… for the millions of customers who just bought the Verizon iPhone or the 10-months-late white iPhone 4, there will be small comfort to be had when Apple releases a new, better iPhone just half a year later… unless Apple downplays the upgrade.

Because Apple only released the Verizon iPhone 4 in February and the white iPhone 4 in April, releasing a new iPhone model just five-to-seven months down the line risks alienating a lot of customers who just signed two year contracts. Rightly or wrongly, these customers will likely feel screwed by a substantial upgrade to their current handsets less than a year after they got their hands on Apple’s “latest” iPhone.

Apple doesn’t want these customers feeling screwed. Why? Because Apple’s perceived regularity with upgrades (and their history of only releasing sizable device upgrades every couple of years, to line up with the renewal of early adopter contracts) is a huge marketing advantage that Cupertino has over Google’s Android ecosystem.

In fact, in a recent study, Android owners said that they felt that Android and Windows Phone 7 handset makers were obsoleting their own smartphones far too quickly compared to Apple, and it’s hard to fault them: from April 2010 to March 2011, most of Apple’s competitors released over 15 new smartphones each, compared to Apple’s all-time-high of three phones (all identical in performance, if not in SKU) released this year.

The data speaks for itself. Upgrading handsets faster than your contract can be renewed alienates customers, and Apple is already skirting dangerously around this problem with their 2011 release cycle. That’s part of the reason why the next iPhone is going to be pushed to a September launch from the traditional June/July launch window. It’s also why Apple is likely to downplay the next iPhone.

But downplaying the next iPhone’s advantages over the current model is a slippery slope, and avoiding that slope is a subtle art: Apple needs to lure in new and returning customers with a meaty hardware upgrade, while at the same time placating customers who bought the “latest” iPhone just half a year before that they aren’t missing out on enough to get angry about.

The best way to do this is by branding. Apple previously used the ‘S’ iPhone branding with the iPhone 3GS: it was, from a layman’s perspective, a nearly identical phone to the iPhone 3G, except for a boost of speed. It’s the iPhone equivalent of a “0.5” upgrade.

If Apple brings back the ‘S’ branding for the next iPhone, Apple can provide rationale to customers who just bought the Verizon iPhone or the white iPhone 4 that they’re not missing much besides a slight speed boost and maybe a slightly larger display… even as Apple crows to the heavens in keynotes, press releases and ads about the iPhone 4S’s incredible hardware improvements. C

Combined with a sizable upgrade to the iOS software that brings the same new features to both existing iPhone 4s and the new iPhone 4S, Apple should be able to downplay resentment while maximizing excitement.

Long term, I don’t think this is what Apple wants to do. I think they want to stick to numerically numbering their iPhones and iPads, because it clearly and simply defines which models are current, which models are the future, and which models are the past. Due to the unforeseen delays in launching the white iPhone 4 as well as getting the iPhone onto Verizon as soon as Apple’s exclusivity deal with AT&T allowed, though, Apple’s going to have to dust off that ‘S’ moniker one last time before it puts it away again, hopefully for good.

What do you think? Will the next iPhone be called the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 or something else besides? Let us know in our comments.