When Does Simple Become Complicated?

December 9th, 2008

This question may seem self-contradictory, but I have a point to make. Back in the mid-1990s, there were so many models of Macs to choose from, it was usually near impossible to pick one from the next. Even Apple’s own executives would fail this test.

This was particularly true with the low-end Performa series, the consumer models that Apple’s misguided marketing team believed would somehow expand the Mac market.

Quite often, certain models would go to strictly to certain dealers, which made even less sense, and though I pride myself in having a pretty good memory, I could never figure out what made one Performa different from another, when the actual difference in model designation consisted of one or two numbers that seemed to have little relationship to reality.

Now it’s quite true that a large portion of the consumer electronics industry plays the same irrational product proliferation game. Personal computer makers are particularly guilty. Go and look at Dell’s site, for example, and try to figure out what makes one desktop line different from another. The same holds true for their desktops.

But it’s not just Dell that suffers from the model proliferation disease. HP does it too.

I suppose they believe that having lots of models is actually good for sales. The customer can get precisely what they want, if they can figure out which selection to make, of course. Product gaps are bad. Lots of choices are good. You can’t risk having a customer go to another brand, or just return home disappointed that they weren’t able to find the one they really wanted.

Now I can see where a company can overreact to a marketing scheme that doesn’t work so well. When Steve Jobs took control of the company, he worked hard to discontinue unproductive products and simplify the ones that remained.

But I often wonder if Apple didn’t go much too far in the wrong direction. It starts with asking someone who says they have an iMac, “which one?” That entails a lot of careful calculation to provide a meaningful answer. As you know, there have been many generations of iMacs since the line debuted in 1998, and the distinctions may not always be simple to describe.

But it doesn’t stop there. So you have a Power Mac G4, G5, PowerBook, iBook? From beginning to end, you almost always need to ask for more information and I have to often explain how to figure out a proper response. It starts with the About This Mac window, but may require a few additional tidbits of information. No, I’m not about to suggest you check System Profiler to look at the ROM revision and other arcane data. That is too much.

This oversimplification nightmare continues to the present day. I have, for example, an Early 2008 17-inch MacBook Pro. That’s in contrast to the current slightly revised version known as the Late 2008 17-inch MacBook Pro. But that date scheme doesn’t actually appear anywhere on the computer itself, the manual or the shipping carton. It’s just a “technical” label that appears in support documents to define which one you actually have.

I don’t know about you, but I think that there are far better ways to deal with such matter. Yet even the beleaguered auto industry has difficulties of this sort. Particularly with foreign makes, a motor vehicle will persevere essentially unchanged for two or three years before there’s updated bodywork, or interior changes to entice people to trade in their old cars.

Since Apple is often compared to BMW, the German luxury auto maker, let’s try to separate one of their mid-priced models, a 2007 335i sedan, from a 2008 335i sedan. For all intents and purposes, they look essentially the same. And, no, it’s not that I’m in the market for vehicles that cost upwards of $40,000, but you can see where I’m going.

If you look at the manufacturing information on the body panel, there’s nothing that actually identifies which model year applies. You can, however, guess on the basis of the month of manufacture, assuming that anything dated after a certain period would become the 2008 model compared to the 2007 variation.

Of course, there is the user manual, that large book that nobody ever reads.

For Macs, Apple’s solution is simple, real simple. Put the precise model information in an extra entry in the About This Mac window. You shouldn’t have to double click to locate the serial number, then do some sort of arcane comparison to see which model line it applies to. But that, of course, is how Apple support can identify your Mac.

As I said, sometimes, in the drive to make things simple, it’s far too easy to overcompensate.

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11 Responses to “When Does Simple Become Complicated?”

  1. Dan Knight says:

    Well said, Gene. The Performa era was a nightmare, and the first few years after Jobs’ return were a breath of fresh air: Power Mac G3 (desktop or tower, each in 2 speeds), PowerBook G3 (just one model at first, as many as 3 in the WallStreet/PDQ era), iMac (one CPU speed at a time until the slot-loaders, although there were 5 different colors of the 266 MHz and 333 MHz models), and iBook (one at first, two later on).

    At Low End Mac, we try to differentiate Mac profiles, a job Apple makes difficult. Power Mac G4/400 could be one of three models: PCI graphics, AGP graphics, or gigabit ethernet. And they all used the same enclosure. That 400 MHz iMac could be one of maybe 4 versions. The PowerBook G3 name was applied to the first model (Kanga), two generations of “WallStreet”, “Lombard”, and “Pismo” – the last was quite a different beast than the first, yet the name was the same.

    And the iMac is the worst of the bunch. We can differentiate by CPU, CPU speed, screen size, graphics processor, USB version, AirPort card supported (if any), ethernet speed, type of optical drive, and more. It’s just too confusing. Apple has shorthand appelations – Late 2008, for instance – but they don’t appear anywhere on the computer. And the product number only helps if you have a way to look it up.

    I’m all for Apple simplifying things – and that means cutting through the confusion of 10 years worth of iMacs all sharing the same name. (Try to figure out which iMac someone has posted on Craigslist, for instance!)

  2. Harvey says:

    I really don’t see a problem here. If Joe Blow wants to buy a Dell computer, he goes to the web site, gets confused, calls Sales, gets confused, buys something (if he doesn’t give up in frustration), and then forever wonders if he got what he really needed. If he is buying a Mac, there’s no frustration. It’s easy for him to pick from Mini, MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, and MacPro. After he’s narrowed it down to a model, he can figure out the specifics. He doesn’t need any information about the history of the product line, nor does he care about it.

    Yes, it is hard for the curator of a Mac museum to figure out what’s in an old Mac, but it’s several orders of magnitude worse with Dell or HP. People who need to figure out this sort of historic information are generally already customers and they are all sophisticated enough to figure it out. People who are buying discontinued models on the web can ask the owner for the specs.

    Model names are for marketing purposes, and there is no need to market discontinued products.

    I get the impression that the writer was under pressure to produce an article and this is all he could think of.

  3. From a support standpoint, it’s very, very confusing. Yes, it makes it easy to select the Mac you want when you’re in the store or looking at an online offering. But that isn’t what I was talking about.


  4. Harvey says:

    Yes, it is confusing for the support technician; I’ll concede that. That’s where System Profiler comes in handy.

  5. Harvey wrote:

    Yes, it is confusing for the support technician; I’ll concede that. That’s where System Profiler comes in handy.

    And where you then have to instruct the customer how to use it. 🙂


  6. Kaleberg says:

    I think it was Alfred Sloan at GM who was big on product and market differentiation. By them mid-1960s they used to joke that the new XXX model was aimed at the guy making $137.50 to $164.00 a week, and the new YYY was aimed at the guy making $164.00 to $192.50. I gathered that if a guy with an XXX got at $40 a week raise he was expected to trade up.

    The System Profiler, and its command language version system_profiler, provide all the information you might ever want, but it isn’t useful because a set of informal categories have proven useful in handling support problems. That suggests that one could write a little wrapper for system_profiler that could produce useful designations, such as late 2004 iMac. It could also catch weirdness, such as an unexpected USB hub.

    Maybe if I had some time, and a database of those support designations I could do this. I could even set it up to send email with the profile and designation to a support email address.

  7. Kaleberg says:

    I should point out that any complaint about too many configurations is ironic given your desire for a user configurable desktop Mac. Imagine having to support someone like yourself with a MacDesk 4.1 Late 2011, except that it has the next year’s processor card, two plugged in graphics cards (neither from the original configuration), a bus clock firmware upgrade, and lord only knows what other cards shoved into all its various slots and slots in its extender chassis.

    While I think I like the idea of free configuration, I can see it as a support nightmare. Even the limited variation that Apple induces is clearly enough to cause problems in the support community. Steve Jobs always reminds me of Henry Ford with his any color you want, as long as it is black dictum. If nothing else, it jacks up the odds that your Apple Genius actually does know what he or she is doing.

  8. Xairbusdriver says:

    And this ‘lack’ of model numbers/designations make Mac support more difficult than for a Dell/Hp how? Is the info easier to find on those machines? I seriously doubt it.

    Seems to me the role of the ‘support’ person is to know how to find this info or even (shudder!) explain to the user where/how to find it. Not sure why the serial number can’t be put on the “About this Mac…” window. But that’s only part of the info that might be needed. If a computer is the least bit ‘configurable’ (and even if it’s just the OS version) then there will always be a need to have all the information available in some specific location. Perhaps it’s not all in System Profiler but it sure tells me more than I need to know! 🙂

    Sorry, I fail to see the ‘problem.’ Making ‘support’ easier for the supporter is not exactly my job…that is, unless _I’M_ the ‘supporter!’ 8-|

  9. Harvey says:

    To Xairbusdriver:

    What a great idea! In fact, putting the serial number on the About This Mac window is such a good idea that Apple already did it! The second line (under Mac OS X) states the version. Click on it, it shows the build. Click on it again, it shows the serial number.

  10. Xairbusdriver says:

    From Harvey: “… Click on it again, it shows the serial number.” Wow! How did you know MY serial number was there?! 8-| And, how do I file a patent infringement suit against Apple??!!! 😉

    See? “Support” is even easier than we thought! 😛 But I think Mr. Stienberg has a point, I don’t think he really ever said that Macs were harder to ‘support’ than PCs. What really makes ‘support’ difficult, IMHO, is the lack of knowledge of the user.

  11. Besides, the issue is a meaningful model number that’s easy for the customer to identify. The serial number doesn’t provide that information without a method to translate what those figures mean. That is NOT a seamless way. It would be better for Apple to just embed the specific model designation in that window, such as Early 2008 Mac Pro or Mac Pro (Early 2008).


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