The date: 16 September 2011. Sprint unveils its latest Android superphone. The specs are admirable, the brand heritage noble but a cloud mars the occasion. The heavy stink of something awry, something off fills the air. Because it's not just another smartphone launch; it's the day everyone saw coming, but was powerless to stop.
It's the day we lost control of phone names. The day we saw this improbable sentence issue forth from a press room somewhere in the bowels of Hades: "It's the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch from Sprint!"
To be clear, in case you haven't been paying attention to the absurdity of it all: that's not a device family, or a string of phones stuck together. That's one phone. A device whose name contains so many modifiers it's impossible to tell where the prefixes end and the suffixes begin.
To see what brought us to this strange place, let's take a look at how this whole thing started.
I want to be clear about something: companies were slapping names on phones well before Motorola's explosive debut of a certain "edgy" device. Sure, back then numbers dominated the landscape: salespeople pointed out the killer new 65,000-color displays on devices like the "SPH-A500" and "LG VX 4400." But even before all that, in an era where black-and-white LCDs were still common, we saw the occasional word-based phone name. The DynaTAC and StarTAC, both from Motorola. The first mp3-playing cellphone in America was one of these, too, dubbed the Samsung "Uproar:"
"64 Megabytes?! That'll cause an Uproar!"
Smartphones were some of the first to feature word-based names in addition to model numbers, with Palm's Treo line and various "Pocket PC" products the first tentative steps into the future. But dumbphones followed close behind.
Even back in those days, carriers were meddling with phone names, making an already confusing situation worse. They didn't all do this: Verizon was content to leave matters alone with the phone that first introduced OLED to Americans, selling it under the moniker it was born with: "LG VX 6000."
But Sprint, the other major US CDMA carrier, took Fleetwood Mac's advice and went its own way. Deciding that manufacturer-issued labels like "SCP-5500" were too complex and imprecise, it herded its lineup into groups organized by capability. Sounds like a reasonable approach, until you factor in the phone names that resulted: the SCP-5500 became the VM-4500. "VM" for video mail. Its sister phone, the SCP-5400 with "Ready Link," was rechristened the RL-2500 (even though the 5500 also offered that feature). The SCP-7200 became the RL-2000. The SPH-A800 retained its latter half, but the prefix was changed to "MM-" to reflect its multimedia capability.
You can see where Sprint was going with this; there's logic behind the idea of grouping all products into subsets, but the result was comically confusing. Fortunately, Motorola came along to put a stop to all this nonsense — for a while, anyway.
With the original RAZR, Motorola didn't just bring unheard-of build quality and an incredible new design to the cellphone world: it brought a bold, unified brand strategy built on a memorable name. Sure, the "V3" model number was affixed in some ad copy, tying this revolutionary device to Motorola's earlier smash, the V60, but more often than not that letter-number pair was left off, leaving the RAZR name to stand by itself.
As follow-on products came down the pipeline, Motorola stuck to the same naming convention: the SLVR, PEBL, and ROKR all met with less success than their forebear, but their names were instantly identifiable as Motorola products. Wireless carriers, terrified of messing with the formula powering the incredible sales of the RAZR, by and large left the names alone.
As the years wore on and smartphones started displacing feature phones, Motorola failed to adapt. They didn't iterate fast enough or in bold enough fashion, and sales faltered- but the branding shockwaves sent throughout the industry had already done their work. Apple's initial smartphone offering carried not a number, but a name: iPhone. Palm dropped the sequential numeric suffixes and went with the clean, stand-alone name "Centro" for its last Palm OS smartphone, before transitioning to the even simpler "Pre" and "Pixi" names. HTC, fresh from a companywide re-brand, started selling devices stateside named "Touch" and "Mogul."
The first device people erroneously started calling an "iTouch."
Of course, the trend couldn't continue this way; the simplicity was too pure, too beautiful. And products were launching at an increasing rate, creating the need for more and more phone names each month. The mobile phone landscape started to resemble the automobile industry, with names ranging from the pompous "Incredible," "Epic," and "Inspire" to the bizarre "Glisten," "Flipout," and "Devour," to the unpronounceable "G'z'One." Shopping at a carrier store became a journey through the world of lost and lonely verbs.
Then, improbably, the situation got worse as modifiers kicked in. Wireless carriers and OEMs eager to advertise new network or radio technologies started appending "3G," then "4G" to model names. Apart from the fact that some carriers were openly lying about the 4G part, this wasn't too bad. But then the manufacturers decided to start naming entire device families : Samsung's "Galaxy" devices and Nokia's "Lumia" line are examples. Having spent all the money and effort to promote these sub-brands, the OEMs didn't want them disappearing under a carrier's own naming scheme, so the market got saddled with the result of every good compromise: garbage. The Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G. The Verizon Motorola Droid Razr Maxx (with HD version no doubt coming soon). And the aforementioned King of Stupidly Long Phone Names, the Sprint Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch.
Fortunately, we may already have seen the peak of absurdity. After a dismal 2011 offering up far too many smartphone variants, HTC has consolidated its smartphone offerings under the clean, lightweight "One" brand. AT&T seems to be treating Nokia's Lumia devices with the respect that venerable brand commands, resisting the urge to append "4G" to its simple name-and-number formula. Even Sprint, lover of expansive titles, is keeping it relatively simple with its version of the One, the "Evo 4G LTE."
So there's hope on the horizon. But Samsung's just-announced Galaxy S III isn't far from release, so we shouldn't sigh in relief just yet. Because if there's one company with the burning desire to advance its own brand identity and the power to force carriers into unattractive compromises (besides Apple), it's the South Korean juggernaut.
In other words: everyone should maybe get ready to welcome the Sprint Samsung Galaxy S III Epic 4G Touch Quad SmartStare Deluxe Edition 2012. Or something like that. You know, just in case.
HTC Touch image source: FreshGear