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Clearing the air on iPhone terminology: 4th generation vs. "4G"


Plenty of discussions about the next revision of the iPhone have referred to the as-yet hypothetical device as the "iPhone 4G." As many of our readers have correctly pointed out, not only is this nickname completely unofficial, it's also highly unlikely to be the name of the next iPhone.

It made sense to call the second-generation iPhone the iPhone 3G, as the addition of a faster 3G wireless chipset and antenna was in many ways the defining feature of the device. The next iPhone, the iPhone 3GS, once again has its distinctive feature spelled out right in the name: "S" for speed, since the 3GS is a faster version of its predecessor.

So why won't the next iPhone be called the iPhone 4G? For a pretty good reason, actually: as of right now, worldwide deployment of faster, ultra-broadband 4G wireless networks isn't even in its infancy -- it's barely past the fetal stage. In the US, Verizon and Sprint are testing 4G coverage in some major cities, but they're still a long way off from nationwide deployment. AT&T won't begin deployment of 4G networks until 2011, and T-Mobile is even farther behind in the 4G race.

As for the rest of the world, only Japan, South Korea, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and Taiwan have even begun the first steps toward a 4G rollout. We will probably see a handset called the iPhone 4G as soon as there's enough 4G wireless coverage to warrant putting a 4G antenna and chipset in it. Based on the current rate of 4G network deployments in the States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, that's at least a year or more in the future.

Given that the next iPhone is almost certainly not going to be called the iPhone 4G, why is everybody under the sun calling it that anyway? Read on to find out.

Apple's official names for its products are generally simple. Although the current iMac bears very little resemblance to its 1998 ancestor, both products have the exact same name. In the hands of Sony or Dell the current iMac might be called the "iMac 12390 XMT" or something similar to differentiate it from the slightly slower and less capacious "iMac 10460 TMI" that they sold last year, but Apple keeps it simple: if it's an all-in-one desktop computer, it's an iMac. The End.

Even within product lines, the names generally remain the same. The current 64 GB iPod touch has the exact same name as the 8 GB iPod touch that came out in 2007 despite all the capacity and features it's gained since then. In fact, the iPhone is pretty much the only hardware Apple sells that's had name changes for each one of its iterations. Adding the "3G" moniker to the iPhone helped establish it as a very different device from its predecessor; naming the next iPhone after that the iPhone 3GS was a necessary evil, because both products are sold side-by-side to this day and have different capabilities.

In the case of almost all Apple hardware except the iPhone, there's a necessity for semi-official or unofficial nicknames for products in order to differentiate them. Nowhere has this been more obvious than the iPod. Officially, up until the rebranding of the hard-drive-based line as the iPod Classic, all full-sized iPods were merely called "iPod." Apple's documentation has given these various generations different names -- iPod (scroll wheel), iPod (touch wheel), iPod (dock connector), and so on -- but for the rest of us, it's been far easier to refer to iPods by generation number. Thus, the iPod (scroll wheel) becomes the first-generation iPod, and the iPod (touch wheel) becomes the second-generation iPod... or iPod 1G and iPod 2G for short.

The iPod 1G/2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G

This shorthand nicknaming convention worked well for years... until Apple threw a monkey wrench into the works by naming their second-generation iPhone the iPhone 3G. And, because there's an actual 4G network scheduled for deployment sometime between later this year and the next arrival of Halley's Comet, presumably there'll be an actual iPhone 4G as well, eventually. Confused yet?

Right now, when someone in the tech world says "iPhone 4G" what they mean is "the fourth-generation iPhone." No one's implying the next iPhone will have 4G capabilities in it (it won't) or, worse, that the next iPhone will have a 4 GB capacity (absolutely not). In fact, given how almost no one thought the iPad would actually be called that instead of the iSlate, it's unlikely we'll know what the next-gen iPhone will actually be called until Steve whips one out on stage. Meanwhile, despite any confusion it may cause, and in the interest of saving wrist strain from typing out "fourth-generation iPhone" a thousand times between now and July, it's likely that most sites will keep calling it the iPhone 4G until Apple gives us the real name.

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