Apple and Model Proliferation

November 13th, 2015

Some lessons of Apple history: Back in the mid-1990s, Apple suffered from a severe bout of model proliferation. The consumer-based Performa lineup was available in so many configurations, it was hard to tell one from the other without a cheat sheet. In some cases, a model number was customized for a specific dealer, meaning that two different models might otherwise be identical.

What a mess!

Now this practice was hardly different from the rest of the electronics industry, and that problem persists until this every day. The number of different Samsung smartphones in the Galaxy line can be daunting.

At one time it was rumored that Apple executives had trouble sorting things out, so when Steve Jobs took over as CEO less than a year after his return to the company, a lot of people might have applauded his key decisions. He ditched whole product lines, and cut back on the number of Macs. The lineup was reduced to a consumer version and a professional version in desktops and note-books, with a few minor variations.

A similar approach was introduced with the iPod and, later the iPhone and the iPad. But the iPod didn’t remain so simple for very long. After a few years, there were three basic lineups. The cheap one, the shuffle, a mid-priced version variously referred to as the mini and nano (the present name), and a higher-priced spread with a miniature hard drive that came to be known as the Classic.

Now there was nothing at all unusual about having three model variations, with some sub-variations, such as color or storage, in a single product line. It gave iPod users a chance to weigh different priorities, such as storage and the features, against price. Believe it or not, there are still three versions of the iPod, beginning with the shuffle, with the nano occupying the middle of the range. At the high end, the iPod touch is, by and large, an iPhone without the phone. It uses iOS and runs most of the same apps, except, of course, for those that require a cellular connection. The iPod Classic remained in the lineup for several years, but was finally discontinued.

For the iPhone there are actually five basic product lineups that start with the basic 4-inch iPhone 5s. You add to that last year’s iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and this year’s iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. But it may not be that easy. In addition to models with different storage configurations, and a choice of two or four colors, some may be configured for a specific carrier, or sold unlocked, at list price, so you can pick the carrier later. This is where it gets confusing, because you suddenly have to make decisions about whether the new features of the 2015 model can be weighed against the value of last year’s. Or if you want a 4-inch iPhone, you are stuck with the legacy 5s that was first released in 2013.

Mac model proliferation is no better. First you decide whether you want a desktop or a note-book. This isn’t as easy a choice as it was in the old days. Today’s note-books are capable of performance that approaches desktop levels combined with easy portability. If you opt for the desktop, you can choose from the two models that have no display, the Mac mini and the Mac Pro, or the all-in-one iMac, complete with keyboard and mouse.

Now the customer targets for each is fairly obvious. The Mac mini is great for people on a budget who want a reasonably snappy computer but may already have input devices and a display. A Mac mini is also well suited to a business that isn’t focusing heavily on apps that will stress its processor, customers who don’t fret over not being able to upgrade RAM, and, in fact, for datacenter use. Some time back I set up an account with a web host that had networks of Mac minis, and I actually got performance mostly comparable to the large rack servers I normally use. We’ll, maybe it wouldn’t be quite as reliable since there is no redundancy in power supplies and other parts.

The Mac Pro is dedicated to a small subset of customers who do content creation and scientific chores that require the most powerful multicore processors, and loads of external devices, such as RAID drive assemblies, breakout boxes for PCI cards and other stuff.

Once just a low-end consumer computer, the iMac is today’s mainstream desktop Mac. Prices start at $1,099, which is $200 less than the original gum drop version from 1998. It’s powerful enough for many users, and the 21-inch display is pretty good. The 4K Retina model begins at $1,499. They may seem expensive compared to a PC, but when you look specifically at all-in-ones of similar specs, Apple is highly competitive.

This is doubly true with the all-5K 27-inch iMac, starting at $1,799. There are few dedicated 5K displays available at any price, so getting one with a computer inside is a great deal.

So in the case of desktops, Apple’s three models make sense.

Superficially, it would seem note-books fit in a similar category. There is the consumer version, the MacBook Air, and the business version, the MacBook Pro. There are several versions of each, and some level of customization when you place an order. You’re forced to consider the latter, since RAM can’t be upgraded later on. Apple, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that RAM should be soldered onto the logic boards. That shortcoming applies to the Mac mini and the smaller iMac.

But it gets a tad more complicated. The 12-inch MacBook may be a potential MacBook Air replacement, or just the harbinger of a lineup that will consist of several very slim, minimalist models. There’s also one legacy 13-inch MacBook Pro that has a standard display, but can be upgraded.

As of this week, there are three current iPad models, with two legacy products still available. So you have the new iPad Pro, the iPad Air 2, and the iPad mini 4. But there are two older models, the iPad Air and the iPad mini 2, which are still being sold. Each of these five models comes with two or three color choices, several storage configurations of up to 128GB, and identical versions with a cellular radio.

If anything, the iPad appears to offer the most extensive, if confusing, setup. When you opt to buy one, there are several choices you need to make, from screen size, to color, storage, to whether you need to use a cellular network. I wouldn’t blame the model clutter for falling sales. I rather suspect Apple hopes that, by giving you lots of choices that begin at $269, you might be able to find the sweet spot for your ideal iPad.

If you want real confusion, however, look at Apple Watch with two sizes in configurations that, with the fanciest watchbands, can cost up to $17,000. You have to make some real hard choices to find the one you want. Just picking the ideal watchband can be somewhat of a chore unless you’re on a budget and accept the one supplied with your selected model.

I’m not dwelling on the Apple TV. There are only two from which to choose.

In the scheme of things, Apple’s product lineups, while fleshed out considerably in recent years, aren’t quite as expansive or as mind-numbing as other consumer electronics companies. But it’s hard to call the choices simple anymore. Perhaps that caters better to Apple’s growing roster of customers, but it’s understandable some might wish for fewer choices.

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2 Responses to “Apple and Model Proliferation”

  1. dfs says:

    Yes, there were problems with Apple’s proliferation of products before Steve came back (it was not just customers who were confused by the vast array of offerings, Apple’s own sales force got to the point they didn’t understand their inventory). But the real problem with the kind of proliferation back then was that it required Apple to maintain large number of separate assembly lines dedicated to individual products, and this precluded necessary flexibility: if one product excited more public interest than anticipated, it was difficult if not impossible to ramp up production to meet that demand. In looking at Apple today, it makes better sense to count the number of assembly lines necessary to build its current lineup than to count the number of product configurations. If someone were to do this, I suspect that he’d conclude that these assembly lines are reasonably limited in number.

  2. DaveD says:

    This article is a good read. There is that part where a starting iMac of today is $1099, $200 less than the one in 1998. I bought the first PowerBook G3 Series in May 1998. At that time it was a completely built-to-order notebook. On the bill after all the add-ons, that total amount could buy today, four 11-inch MacBook Airs.

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