Apple and Model Proliferation

April 23rd, 2015

Back in 1997, Steve Jobs, newly minted as Apple CEO (well “interim” CEO) began to cut back on Mac model proliferation. Stuck with loads of Performas with different model numbers but not very different specs, it was clear that Apple needed to clean out the catalog.

The fundamental change, best signified by the iMac and the Power Mac, was to have a consumer and professional model for each product line. You could, of course, custom order to some degree to select processor, memory and storage, and perhaps the graphics card. But you didn’t have to fret so much about which model was best for your needs. This was quite unlike Dell, HP and other tech companies that, to this day, have so many models with non-descriptive names that it’s hard to figure out what might work best for your needs without a scorecard, and perhaps a salesperson to hold your hand and explain it all to you.

But in recent years, Apple under Tim Cook has moved to seriously expand the product line. It’s not near as bad as the mid-1990s, but it can get a mite confusing if you aren’t in close touch with the tech media, particularly product reviews and, where it’s important to you, performance estimates. The same logic holds true for the iPhone and the iPad. With the Apple Watch, the basic product is the same, but the many differences are essentially about fashion and the statement you want to make with one of these babies on your wrist.

So placing an order at Apple’s online store is no longer so simple.

Choose Shop Mac, and you will have seven product lines from which to choose: MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, iMac Retina 5K display, Mac mini and Mac Pro. Each 2015 MacBook has two configurations, available in three colors. But you can also customize a model to include a different processor. Other Macs include different display sizes, RAM, storage and sometimes graphic chip alternatives. So after you choose one of seven, there will be dozens of other choices you will be invited to make.

These are decisions you must make upon ordering for the most part. Only some models allow you to upgrade RAM or storage later. Doing anything but RAM on an iMac is an annoying chore that starts with removing adhesive tape. The process is only simple on the Mac Pro, Apple’s workstation, where high-end users are apt to even change the processor to get better performance.

Moving to the iPhone, there are four models, two of which (the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c) are legacy products sold at a lower price. The plastic iPhone 5c comes in five colors, the others three. You have up to three storage options, and that’s before you get to your choice of carriers for a subsided package, or unlocked. I’m only including the choices in the U.S., since cellular plans vary widely around the globe. Not all the carriers are listed at Apple’s store, so you may end up buying an iPhone at a third-party dealer with more choices.

Are you dizzy yet? I haven’t mentioned the iPad.

Despite flagging sales — and one can always hope the situation will be better when Apple reports March quarter results next week — Apple hasn’t been shy about giving you choices. You have five models ranging from the original 2012 iPad mini to today’s iPad Air 2. Each is available in multiple colors, and several storage options with or without cellular capability.

This doesn’t mean you’re left to your own devices in reaching a decision about which Apple gear to buy. You’ll want to read the tech press to get a sense of which products are best suited for your needs and which configurations to choose. Remember, though, that except for a very few Macs, you need to make your final choice when you place your order. Upgrading a configuration later will not be possible.

But help is available. When you visit Apple’s online store, there’s a tiny Get Help drop-down menu where you can activate an online chat with a specialist to help you make a decision. Or you can call them. You may prefer to speak with someone you can see, with the products you’re considering on display, so an Apple Store or a third-party dealer would be your best bet.

While I haven’t had that much trouble choosing the best Apple product that meets my needs and budget, I usually have to fret over the cost to see what configuration presents the best compromise.

I can see why Apple is providing more and more choices, and that means that it’s easier to select the product that suits you. But too many choices can cause confusion. This is a reason why Apple cut back on the model numbers in the first place. Is it moving too far in the wrong direction? That’s hard to say, because you have to wonder which model ought to be discontinued to simplify. You can make a case for the original iPad mini. But choices of that sort are apt to leave customers without the one they prefer, so it’s a juggling match, and it may only get worse in the years to come.

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2 Responses to “Apple and Model Proliferation”

  1. dfs says:

    Proliferation isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as you avoid a couple of pitfalls. First, you have to indoctrinate your advertisers, distributors and sales force to the point that they themselves understand your product lineup and can help customers navigate it. Second, you can’t have a huge number of production lines each turning out a single item, with the result that if a given product excites customer demand more than you anticipated, you find that all your lines are tied up and you can’t ramp up production to meet that demand. Back in the days before Steve came back Apple suffered greatly from both these problems, they came dangerously close to bringing the company down. Which is why Steve reacted by pruning the offerings so severely. Possibly some corporate historian will even say he overreacted and went too far the other way. There was a more than bit of Henry Ford in Steve’s mentality, he too was quite capable of saying thinks like the public could have Model Ts in any color they wanted as long as they wanted black. Nowadays way Apple takes customers by the hand and walks them through all the Apple Watch choices shows that the company is well aware of the danger of possible customer confusion. And I bet their manufacturing process is set up so that a single production line can turn out multiple versions of the same product, so the manufacturing process is kept under control.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    My guess is that the iMac 5K will become a vanilla iMac and the MacBook Airs will vanish, so Apple will be back to five primary options again when the technology catches up. You get a similar taxonomy with the IOS series with the full size, mini size and phone sized. In every case, there are a few size options and a few power options, and that’s it. Yes, the issue of cellular service adds an extra wrinkle, but Apple lets you opt in or opt out.

    I’ve helped a few people buy Macs and iStuff lately, and the categories make sense to most consumers. It’s not like the bad old days at Apple, or the current days with Dell and its ilk, where there just seem to be a plethora of models with no organizing principle.

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