Great for Now: iPad Air Name Review


Apple surprised the tech world today by naming its new tablet the iPad Air. This gutsy naming choice pulls from the company’s established naming lexicon while emphasizing the product’s main selling point: its thin and light design.

However, there are some risks to this naming strategy. It’s a great short-term solution that will work long-term only as part of an evolving naming system. By analyzing the trade-offs involved in this kind of short-term solution, we can clarify and learn from the difficult choices product managers have to make when extending a brand within an existing naming architecture.

The iPad’s Meandering Naming History

iPad naming, at first, followed the iPhone’s pattern. It began with the iPad, then followed a year later with the iPad 2. But for the iPad 3 and iPad 4, which maintained roughly the same form factor as the iPad 2, the company went back to the plain extensionless iPad name. This was a wise move, since the simple name didn’t over-promise substantial new features which the newer versions of the iPad lacked.

However, it created the strange situation where the iPad 2, still being sold, was actually the older model. The plain iPad was the latest-and-greatest incarnation.

iPad Air: Two Competing Metaphors

In calling the latest incarnation the iPad Air, Apple is pulling on an established brand extension. “Air” has already been applied to several products. Perhaps the most important product, and the one this new name is meant to evoke, is the MacBook Air. This laptop’s main characteristic is its thin and light form factor; it’s as light as air. That’s the main new feature of the new iPad, so this metaphor is a perfect fit.

Other products, though, also share the “Air” extension with a meaning relating to radio waves. AirPlay is Apple’s protocol for the wireless streaming of media. Apple calls its WiFi router the Airport for similar reasons. So there is a dual meaning to “Air” in Apple’s naming lexicon.

Both meanings work for the new iPad; it’s both very light and includes new wireless features. But by far the most distinctive new feature is its thin and light design. That’s the main point of “Air” and the other meanings detract a bit from the impact of this new name. It’s the thin and light aspect that will make people upgrade from their current iPad or switch from a competitor’s product. Wireless features, on the other hand, aren’t key selling points.

Will the “Air” Name Ultimately Be Dropped?

Beyond the possible confusion of the competing metaphors, there are some risks in this naming strategy. For one thing, adding the name Air to the main brand sets up a dichotomy with the iPad Mini. Since the Mini is actually lighter than the Air, the naming doesn’t meaningfully distinguish one from the other. This is in contrast to the MacBook Air, which is always thinner and lighter than other MacBooks. The “Air” extension really only distinguishes this new iPad from previous models rather than current offerings.

Creating a name that distinguishes a product from previous models works great in the short term. It marks the new version as special and gives people a reason to pay attention. However, this only has impact in the short run. In the longer run, most tablets will be as thin and light as the iPad Air. This will no longer be a dramatic selling point, and it will be time to drop the “Air” extension or switch to a new one.

The Genius of a Short-Term Strategy

I’ve identified the short-term nature of this name, but so what? In a quickly changing market, short-term strategies are often the best ones. At some point in the next few years, the company will come out with an iPad that offers radically new features. At that time, “Air” will be probably be dropped and some other extension will replace it to emphasize the new product’s selling points.

In other words, I don’t expect the next iteration of the iPad to be called the iPad Air 2. The company will likely come out with improved versions of the iPad Air until a radically new design is ready. Then the time will be ripe to launch with a new brand extension to excite and intrigue customers just like the iPad Air name did today.

Grade: A