The subtle brilliance of Apple's product names

While recently browsing through some Sony camcorders on Amazon, I was struck by how nonsensical and downright confusing tech companies can be when naming their products.

How can the average consumer, without engaging in an extensive amount of online research, really differentiate a Sony HDR-CX430V camcorder from a Sony HDR-PJ380/B camcorder? Both are mid-level Sony camcorder models released in 2013, but if you want to find out how they differ, you better start scouring the web for reviews or reading the fine print on Amazon product pages. Of course, you could try and wade through Sony's own website, but it's a jumbled mess not intended for the faint of heart.

While Sony has a notorious reputation for product names that would fit more aptly on a line of industrial robots, it's not the only offender. Let's say I'm looking for a new laptop. Should I go with an HP 2000-2b19wm notebook or maybe an Acer C710-2834?

Compounding this problem is that tech companies have a bad tendency to release a slew of new products every year in a misguided effort to appeal to every type of user under the sun. The end result is utter confusion.

Apple, of course, does things much differently.

If you want an Apple laptop, you can choose between a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and a MacBook Pro with Retina display. There are also only three desktop devices that Apple offers: the iMac, the Mac mini and the Mac Pro. There are two iPad models Apple currently advertises on its website -- the iPad Air and the iPad mini, both with Retina displays.

What's brilliant about Apple's naming scheme is that the product names themselves help potential customers, from the very start, understand who the product is tailored for and how it differs from other models. The MacBook Pro moniker, for example, signals that the machine is geared toward professionals and consumers looking for extra horsepower. The MacBook Air moniker, on the other hand, points to a product that's light, thin and uber-portable.

Even consumers who don't know much about technology can likely appreciate, at first glance, the difference between an iPad mini and an iPad Air.

Coupled with a streamlined product line, Apple's product lineup is easy to digest and comprehend. There's no need for pushy salesmen trying to explain the differences between various product models, nor is there a need for endless lines of fine print detailing obscure technical specifications. Apple's simplified naming scheme helps remove a layer of confusion and intimidation that often accompanies tech related purchases. In doing so, the shopping experience at Apple is much more streamlined as consumers find it easier to make more informed purchasing decisions.

With Apple releasing new products every year, ensuring that product lines and names remain simple isn't always a straightforward task. Apple, though, has demonstrated a unique awareness and commitment to keeping its product line simple across multiple generations.

The iPad, in this regard, provides a perfect case study.

The original iPad hit store shelves in April of 2010, soon followed by the iPad 2, which was released in March of 2011. When the third-generation iPad was released in March of 2012, Apple by and large decided to forgo the numeric naming scheme and instead advertised the device simply as the all-new iPad.

Instead of a scenario with the original iPad, the iPad 2 and iPad 3 floating around, Apple kicked numerical suffixes to the side and started anew. When the fourth-gen iPad was released, Apple, again, didn't refer to it as the iPad 4. Rather, it often began referring to it as the iPad with Retina display.

Just one year later, Apple simplified things even further when it unveiled the iPad Air, a product whose name itself embodies its appeal. The iPad Air is 20 percent thinner and 28 percent lighter than its predecessor, impressive improvements that would have been otherwise more challenging to convey if the device was merely referred to as the fifth-generation iPad.

With respect to the iPhone, Apple has done things a bit differently. While the company traditionally abhors naming its products in numerical succession, it has no problem doing so when it comes to the iPhone, its largest cash driver.

Nonetheless, keeping abreast of which iPhone is which is rather straightforward for two reasons.

One, Apple releases a new iPhone model every year in and around the same timeframe.

Two, and more importantly, the flagship feature in each new iPhone model, thanks to Apple's marketing prowess, often comes to define each new iPhone model. As a result, using numbers to differentiate between new and old iPhone models doesn't add a significant layer of confusion.

The iPhone 4s, for example, was largely heralded for Siri. The iPhone 5, the first iPhone with a larger display, was easy to differentiate. The iPhone 5s, meanwhile, is easily differentiated by the device's fingerprint-authorization sensor. In other words, when new features are so great that they themselves serve to differentiate a product from earlier models, a number-based naming scheme is not terribly confusing.

By way of contrast, I hopped on over to Samsung's website and here are a few of the smartphone models I came across.

  • Samsung Galaxy S 4

  • Samsung Galaxy Express

  • Samsung Galaxy Amp

  • Samsung Denim

  • Samsung Comment 2

  • Samsung Galaxy Rush

  • Samsung Galaxy Reverb

  • Samsung Array

Good luck trying to figure out the differences between these products. I myself am curious as to how the name Samsung Denim ever got green-lit, but I digress.

Ultimately, Apple has an advantage over the competition with respect to naming simplicity on account of its relatively sparse product line. With so few products, coming up with descriptive names for said products is remarkably easier.

In contrast, let's take a look at the laptop and ultrabook lineup of Lenovo, one of the more popular PC manufacturers today.

There are 14 different categories to choose from. And as if that wasn't confusing enough, it's seemingly impossible for anyone to practically differentiate between any of them. The T Series, for example, covers premium laptops while the X Series offers thin and light laptops. Are we then supposed to assume that thin and light laptops are not premium laptops? They surely aren't machines to be used for gaming, listening to music and video editing because that's what the Y and Z series are presumably for, right?

Indeed, this is a problem that has plagued tech companies for years.

Looked at from this perspective, it's not so much that Apple gets product naming right as it is that the competition gets it oh so wrong.