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Attention Apple: Please Don’t Make it Too Complicated

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.