The case for the next Apple phone being the iPhone 6, not iPhone 5S

Former Apple ad man Ken Segall has done some thinking about the tendency to assume that the next iPhone will be called the iPhone 5S — and he thinks it’s a pretty bad idea. He argued in a blog post Thursday why Apple should call the next smartphone it releases next the iPhone 6, no matter what.

It’s true: even though Apple(s AAPL) has released (in order) the iPhone 3GS in 2009, the iPhone 4 in 2010, the iPhone 4S in 2011 and the iPhone 5 in 2012, that doesn’t mean the company has to or will stick with that pattern. We’ve seen with the iPad in the last year that Apple has been unafraid to ditch naming conventions mid-stream and go with more descriptive names instead of numbers: after the iPad and iPad 2 in successive years came the third-generation “new iPad” in early 2012, which was quickly followed by a fourth-generation “iPad with Retina display” in October of the same year. Apple apparently doesn’t necessarily feel bound to tradition with naming its mobile devices.

One of the reasons Segall thinks “iPhone 5S” is unwise is because it tells potential buyers that it’s an “off year” for Apple innovation. He also says this kind of thinking has been a huge favor to Samsung, which has laid out hundreds of millions of dollars to paint the iPhone as old and behind the times.

You might be thinking, who cares? It’s just a name. But that’s Segall’s expertise: marketing. Whether or not the naming is supposed to reflect the device’s specs or speed or whatever (we actually don’t know the true meaning of the “S”), it’s critical for selling the product to new customers. As Segall puts it:

The simplest path is to give each new iPhone a new number and let the improvements speak for themselves. If anyone wants to say that the 7 isn’t as big a leap as the 6, that’s their business. Attempting to calibrate “degree of innovation” in the product name seems like a needless (and self-diminishing) exercise.

I think it’s safe to say that if you’re looking for a new car, you’re looking for a 2013 model — not a 2012S. What’s important is that you get the latest and greatest.

And I agree with his take: why lower expectations for a device from the outset by telegraphing to buyers that this year’s device isn’t as new or “innovative” as the one coming in the next year? There are plenty of smartphone reviewers and tech bloggers willing to do that for Apple.