Attention Apple: Please Don’t Make it Too Complicated

December 30th, 2011

When Apple was really down in the dumps in the 1990s, their strategy seemed to make no sense. Efforts to build an industrial-strength operating system to replace the aging Mac OS had come up short. There were many Mac models, often with only slight variations, bearing different model names. It got so confusing even company executives had difficulty sorting things out. Consider the failed Performa line for home users, often left catching dust in the rear of an electronics store.

When Steve Jobs slimmed the Mac lineup, and cancelled products and services that hadn’t shown enough potential, you almost felt he made things too simple. Take the iMac. No matter how the configuration changed over the years, it was still the iMac, although these days they are subdivided into a 21.5-inch version and a 27-inch version. There are also different processor configurations, but they are clearly labeled; well, sort of. You still have to explain to people which processors offer such advanced features as hyperthreading, in which a quad-core processor can simulate the function of an eight-core version.

But they are still iMacs.

When it comes to the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro, once again the model differentiators are mostly screen size, followed by different processor and/or storage configurations.

The real confusion comes from differentiating this year’s model from last years. For that, Apple will identify the model year or product generation in parenthesis such as a 27-inch iMac (Late 2009) or an Apple TV (2nd generation). While the form factor of the newest Apple TV is quite different from the original, which closely resembled an AirPort Extreme, you cannot just look at any recent iMac of any screen size and realize which one you have. The display in About This Mac will identify the processor type and speed, but it won’t be exactly clear in which year the product was produced.

At least in the automobile industry, you have a 2012 Honda Accord versus a 2009 Honda Accord. You may not know about the actual differences, and there are modest visual changes, but at least you’ll have some indication of what you’re looking at. Well, maybe. Take the 2011 Honda Accord, which is, except for a minor difference or two, identical to the 2012 model, thus is readily identified without knowing the differences in the VIN, or checking the manufacturer’s label on the inside left door.

But at least the owner of a car will usually know the year in addition to the make and model, particularly if there’s a major style change. But it”s on the registration and insurance card. It’s not as readily apparent on a Mac. If you don’t know what to look for, you will be justifiably confused.

When it comes to the iPhone 4s, it gets more complicated. Yes, there is one model in two colors, each of which is available with storage ranging from 16GB to 64GB. But the model you buy, unless unlocked, will be attached to a specific carrier, such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless in the U.S. And don’t forget the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s, both of which are still being sold to customers who want something relatively cheap. But if you just look at them, you will be thoroughly confused.

At least the newest iPhone is a “world phone,” because it supports both the GSM and CDMA networks. The situation is rather more confusing with the iPad 2, where the 3G version will support one or the other. I suppose Apple will change that setup with the iPad 3, but that’s another story. At present, it means you have 18 iPad 2 choices, nine in each color.

This may all seem a mite complex at first blush, but if you compare Apple’s model lineup to other companies, it’s downright simple.

Take Dell, for example. They divide their personal computers offerings into four separate online stores devoted to home and various business-oriented customers. And I haven’t covered Public Sector. But each department will have loads of barely differentiated models bearing such inscrutable names as Inspiron 15, Inspiron 15R, Inspiron XPS 15, and Inspiron XPS 15z. And I haven’t considered the Alienware lineup, or the business oriented product lines that include the Vostro, Latitude, and Precision Mobile.

Are you ready for a few doses of aspirin yet?

But Dell is just taking a cue from the rest of the electronics industry, where there are loads of models, often with slight differences that aren’t readily apparent in either the model designation and, sometimes, the more detailed product descriptions. When it comes to a Panasonic 3D TV, other than screen size, you have to figure out how an ST30, GT30, VT30, or DT30 differs from each other, except for price. I suppose the more expensive model is meant to be better, but you’d have to compare the specs of one against the other to figure out why. Even then, the visual differences in picture quality may be difficult or impossible to recognize, even for a purist. Indeed, I’ve read reviews where the cheaper model garners a better rating than the more expensive version. Go figure.

As for Apple, there’s talk next year of an expanded iPad lineup, perhaps beginning with this year’s iPad 2, or a slightly refined version, along with the iPad 3. There could, the rumors suggest, even be a smaller screen size, although Steve Jobs said they weren’t very useful. But if the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire is making big inroads into the iPad’s market share, I suppose you can never say never.

In the scheme of things, though, Apple’s product lineup isn’t quite as hard to grasp as that of the competition, where model names often mean absolutely nothing.

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11 Responses to “Attention Apple: Please Don’t Make it Too Complicated”

  1. gopher says:

    The real confusion is that the models that support installing Lion only, while others which support Snow Leopard installation even though they were prebundled with Lion. From 2006 to July 2011 you could look right in the eye at any Intel Mac and read its Machine ID and serial number and tell if it had Displayport, DVI, enough RAM for Snow Leopard, and or even only the ability to install Snow Leopard. Then in 2010 all that changed where the serial number no longer could tell you the year and week of manufacture. xxABC…. was the way of doing it by serial number, where A was the last digit of the year, and BC was the week of the year.
    Now, I’ve had to write the following portion of the tip regarding Machine IDs:

    Mac Mini 5,x and later only run Lion and later. Mac Mini 4,x and earlier can run Snow Leopard with at least 1 GB of RAM (that’s greater than 768MB of RAM).

    MacBook Pro 13″ Core 2.4, 2.8 Ghz only run Lion and later, 13″ 2.3 & 2.7 can run Snow Leopard, and can 7,x and earlier Machine IDs.

    MacBook Pro 15″ “Late 2011″* only run Lion and later, 15” MacBook Pro “Early 2011″ can run Snow Leopard, and can 7,x and earlier Machine IDs.

    MacBook Pro 17” 2.4 & 2.5 Ghz can only run Lion and later. 2.2 & 2.3 Ghz can run Snow Leopard and earlier.

    Mac Pro 5,1 and earlier can run Snow Leopard.

    MacBook with no Air and no Pro on the screen as of 11/30/2011 can all run Snow Leopard with at least 1 GB of RAM.

    MacBook Air 4,x and later can’t run Snow Leopard, while 3,x and earlier with at least 1 GB of RAM can run Snow Leopard.

    iMac 12,1 i3 can’t run Snow Leopard, while the 12,x i5 and i7 can run Snow Leopard, and the iMac 1,1 through 11,x can run Snow Leopard with at least 1 GB of RAM.

    * The release names Early and Late can be gotten by plugging the serial number of the machine in

    As you can see, those that came out after July 20, 2011 did not have different Machine IDs, rather had an Apple website identifiable characteristic.

    Sadly the confusion will be worse for those with logic boards replaced, with no serial number.

  2. jfutral says:

    I hate comparing the computer industry to the auto industry, but your notion of naming reminded me of comparing, say GM to BMW.

    BMW’s naming convention is to accomplish two things, as it was explained to me by a former BMW marketing person. First BMW wants their cars to be known by and within the BMW brand. The numbering naming of their cars helps ensure this. Under that brand their is the model line ups, 3 series, 5 series, 6 series, etc. There are variations within each series, but basically all 3 series sport similar form and function. This is comparable to Apple’s philosophy.

    GM, doesn’t really focus on the company brand. Each make has to have its own brand—Buick, Chevrolet, and I forget what the third line is they kept. Ultimately all GM lines are the same (although they seem to be trying harder to differentiate each line these days). Buick Regal=Olds Cutlas=Pontiac Grand Prix=Chevy something (I can’t remember)=Cadillac something else (again I can’t remember). The Oldsmobile line got cut because it was too similar to Buick and Pontiac without really being either as luxury as Buick or as sporty as Pontiac.

    But the variations between each line was also barely differentiated. And each model was allowed to have its own brand that often supplanted the make—Camaro and Firebirds for example. Those cars would have been great (though YOMV) regardless of being a Buick or Olds make. And while Ford and Chrysler have fewer lines, they suffer the same branding issues.

    Dell is like GM.


  3. jfutral says:

    @ gopher,

    The thing is, since Apple has no desire for their products to be known by specs and they don’t market based on specs, while those things may be important to you or me, it is not how Apple defines their product lines and not important to the everyday person Apple defines as their largest market. That you can find any of this esoteric information at all is actually kind of surprising. Or at least a subtle nod by Apple recognizing that there are still people like us out here buying their products.

    Either way, these kinds of specifics are not how Apple wants their products to be known or branded, so they will always be “confusingly” difficult to ascertain. Take heart, though. It just means their will always be a need for your services!


  4. Peter says:

    Take Dell, for example. They divide their personal computers offerings into four separate online stores devoted to home and various business-oriented customers.

    Unlike Apple, which has only one store. And one store for education. Oh yeah, and one store for business. And another store for government.

  5. DaveD says:

    @ jfutral,

    All very good points.

    The PC industry is just like the automobile industry with its twisted brand naming exercises. Yet, I can recall more automobile model names from the past such as Nova, Pinto, Dart, Pacer, etc. The PC model names are lame attempts of sounding techno. Names that go in one ear and out the other. Whenever I see Dell Inspiron, I see Dell Insipid.

  6. jfutral says:

    I personally think Jobs’ greatest contribution to Apple on his return was stripping down the product lines. There really is little confusion about why each product line exists. I remember when Gates and/or Ballmer used to chide Apple’s OS for not being “task oriented”. Never really knew what that meant, but it seems to me each of Apple’s product line’s “task” has never been clearer to me.


  7. dfs says:

    I don’t know if stripping down the line was Steve’s greatest contribution, but it was an important one. Apple had so many lines (and, worse, pretty much the same products sold under different names for different markets) that even their own sales force didn’t understand it. And it was not just a matter of eliminating confusion: when Steve reduced the number of models in the line, at the same time he was reducing the number of assembly lines Apple had to operate, which was both both cost-effective and eliminated situations where Apple couldn’t meet the demand for its most popular offerings because its assembly lines were tied up making other stuff. Surely its similar profusion of product offerings must be a major cause of Hewlett-Packards perennial woes.

  8. DaveD says:

    @ Gene,

    Ha! Think of the brainstorming sessions that came up with Vostro (rhymes with nostril). Other memorable car names such as the Corvair that thrust Ralph Nader into the limelight. Who could every forget the “mighty” Yugo as in “You go. Car stays.”

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