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  • 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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