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A Look at the Apple Naming Problem

Once upon a time, when Apple was losing money hand over foot, many of us played guessing games, trying to identify the differences between the various models in Apple’s Performa line. No, I won’t bother to list the models, beyond the Performa 6110CD, typical of the breed. It’s not a very pleasant trivia game, at least not to me.

In those days, the differences were so subtle, the various model designations might refer to a minor change in standard equipment, such as whether there was a built-in CD player, the speed of the processor of the amount of memory with which it shipped.

But at least different models had different names.

Now look at the iMac. Which one? Well, give me a week and I’ll explain the differences between the various pear-shaped models, the lamp shade replacement and the current iteration, all of them.

But I think you’re seeing a glimmer of the problem that Apple has created for itself in its quest for the ultimate simplicity in product names. The iMac in 1998 and the one in 2007 share almost nothing in terms of the external and internal layouts, or even the parts themselves. But the name doesn’t convey any of that difference.

The iPod. Is it a 3G version, a 5G or a 5.5G? Sigh.

You see, Apple no doubt had good intentions, but they’ve only succeeded in confusing the hell out of everyone. For example, I’m writing this story on a 17-inch MacBook Pro. Which one? Well, the short-lived original generation version, with the Intel Core Duo processor, as opposed to the current iteration that has an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a few other changes, including an AirPort card that supports the emerging 802.11n standard.

For the latter, I feel jealous, because I just acquired one of Apple’s new AirPort Extreme base stations. All right, here I go again. You see, this is the just-released version that eschews the saucer shape of the original in place of a design that matches that of the Apple TV; in effect, half a Mac mini. Well, more or less.

Apple has its own way of drawing distinctions in its model designations. If you check the support pages at their site, you’ll encounter references to, or example, the Power Mac G5 (Late 2004), as opposed to the Power Mac G5 (Early 2005) or the just plain old Power Mac G5.

I presume the latter is the original version, although I suppose I could be wrong.

When it comes to the AirPort Extreme, the model designations are, for now at least, a trifle less confusing. The latest version is known as the AirPort Extreme (802.11n), as opposed to the AirPort Extreme.

Now this may all be clear as mud, but I suppose you shouldn’t be concerned until the present AirPort Extreme is upgraded to a different version. Then we start all over again.

So what is Apple to do about resolving model name confusion?

I suppose putting some identifying information in parenthesis helps a bit, although telling someone that you just bought a vintage Power Mac G4 (Digital Audio) isn’t going to necessarily invoke a clear-cut image of what you actually have and when that model was in production.

As a practical matter, though, what is Apple’s alternative? That’s a good question. Certainly I don’t want to see them adopt the eternally confounding model designations that are rampant in the PC industry. They recall the Performa disaster, as if those companies will just never learn.

Perhaps Apple could take its inspiration from the auto industry, which they’ve done in part, at least when such things as “Early 2005” are used to draw the fine distinctions. You just know, for example, that the 2004 Infiniti M45 is a very different car when compared to its successor, the 2006 Infiniti M45, right?

Or maybe you don’t. But no harm done, because you have to know something about cars to understand what I’m talking about. On the other hand, having a 2006 Mac Pro, as compared to a 2007 Mac Pro — assumng such a thing is forthcoming — ought to deliver the proper images.

Or maybe not. Now about that Performa 6115CD or whatever it was called.