The Apple Product Clutter Report

March 31st, 2016

This is an old story. In the mid-1990s, there were so many Mac product variations, even executives couldn’t tell them apart without a cheat sheet. I’m serious. So you had the consumer lineup, the Performa. There were minor model differences with various memory or processor configurations, and sometimes a model would be exclusive to a specific chain store.

The decision was unfortunate, and represented Apple’s foolhardy desire to emulate the PC world with loads of barely distinguishable models, and don’t forget the Mac OS clones. So supposedly customers would have a rich selection of Macs or Mac clones, but most of the time it was about choosing confusion, and it wasn’t pretty.

With Apple deeply in the red, Steve Jobs returned and, in 1997, assumed the title of iCEO, and put a hacksaw to kill products that weren’t producing, killing the clones and reducing the Mac desktop and portable lineups to consumer and business machines. While customers didn’t have the same choices, the ones they had were presumably adequate for most purposes.

When Apple’s online store arrived, there were ways to customize a Mac with different memory and drive combinations. While the prices for the upgrades were higher than a third-party alternative, there was a matter of convenience and the feeling of security. After all, Apple guaranteed everything, and your new computer was already preconfigured to your tastes. This is not dissimilar to what such companies as Dell offered, except that there were fewer choices for Mac users.

Unfortunately, Apple has sharply reduced your ability to upgrade a Mac after you buy it, by making RAM and drive upgrades near impossible on most models.

With the arrival of the iPod, there was only one, but over time the lineup split among the “classic” hard-drive equipped model, a mid-priced version with flash memory, and a really cheap version, the shuffle, which didn’t have a lot of storage for your music library, but was great for attaching to your arm for use while jogging. The high-end iPod today is the iPod touch, which is essentially an iPhone without the phone.

The first iPhone came with different flash memory options, but the lineup gradually started to splinter. So when a new model came out, Apple would offer the previous model for $100 less, and when there were enough, the model before that for an additional $100 discount.

The iPhone 6, debuting in 2014, came in two ways, with a 4.7-inch display and a 5.5-inch display. Two previous models were offered, an iPhone 5s, and an iPhone 5c, if you preferred four inches. And it appears many did.

For 2015, the lineup consisted of the iPhone 5s at the low end, the 2014 iPhone 6 in the middle, and the iPhone 6s at the high end. That changed this past week, with the iPhone SE, a brand new but cheaper 4-inch handset, replacing the iPhone 5s.

So today’s iPhone catalog consists of products no more than a year old. Each comes with multiple memory configurations and various colors. There are also models customized for specific wireless carriers, or an unlocked version if you prefer to choose a carrier without any restrictions. The last option comes in handy at a time when many cell phone providers no longer offer 2-year contracts and actually sell or lease mobile handsets.

In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard to pick which iPhone is best, but it gets a little muddy with iPads. As of last week, there are five distinct models. The legacy products consist of the iPad mini 2, starting at $269 for 16GB RAM, and the iPad Air 2, starting at $399 for 16GB. The other three models are current.

With five separate models, you have a choice of two, three or four colors, plus two or three memory options with or without cellular data capability. Add it all up and it comes to 77 choices. There are more with the iPhone, but some of those choices depend strictly on which wireless carrier you want.

I’ll be brief about Macs. There are plenty of models there, too, but the use cases are very distinct, with the iMac being the mainstream desktop model for consumers and the enterprise, and the MacBook Air serving the volume position for notebooks. The MacBook may be a bit of a fly in the ointment, since it appears to be essentially a slimmed down MacBook Air with Retina display. Perhaps it will replace the Air in another generation or so.

While some may feel that Apple should lean the product lineups a little, I’m not altogether sure that’s a good idea. Right now, Apple has a decent selection of options for customers. Maybe the MacBook is a bit of an outlier, but it also showcases a design for the future, and I actually find the concept attractive, but wouldn’t consider it unless a 15-inch version was built.

Compared to all or most consumer electronics companies, the choices Apple offers aren’t that complicated. Indeed, the selections are far less confusing than what Samsung offers in the smartphone space, or what Dell or HP offer when it comes to personal computers. There is a good argument to be made for each product, and it’s nowhere near as confusing as the Performas of old, where it was just essentially the same product duplicated with minor and confusing distinctions.

I suppose you can argue that the Apple Watch is far more confusing, what with so many with bands. But it’s as much jewelry as a gadget, and tastes in such merchandise are going to vary considerably. All in all, I’m happy with the choices that exist now, but if Apple fleshed it out any further, I’d be a little concerned.

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