Mac Notebooks: Simplifying the Product Lineup

November 2nd, 2016

When he dispatched all the extraneous and confusing Mac models in the 1990s, Steve Jobs split the lineup into two camps — the consumer Mac and the professional Mac. This was best exemplified by the iMac and the Power Mac. The notebooks became iBooks and PowerBooks. The distinctions were obvious.

Even after the first Intel-powered Macs arrived in 2006, the lineup remained relatively simple. Desktop models consisted of the Mac mini, the iMac and the Mac Pro. Notebooks included the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. It was pretty clear which products fit a particular market, and, even with the addition of the Mac mini, which debuted in 2005.

This is quite unlike the situation in PC land, where manufacturers usually have dozens of models and categories of products. From name alone, it’s usually not possible to see where they fit even if you find them in a specific place on a manufacturer’s site. With Dell you have an Inspiron and XPS, with several variations of Inspirons depending on its purpose. The work notebook is the Latitude. But obviously there’s nothing in these names that explains their focus. You have to know, ask, or check the site to grok the fine distinctions. Worse, different model names are divided even further in ways that appear to represent the type of notebook as defined by a Series number, such as 3000 Series, 5000 Series and 7000 Series.

I haven’t begun to include the Education Series and the Rugged Series. Well, at least the latter’s purpose is defined by its title. The rest of the lineup remains a confused, cluttered mess.

Compared to that, anything Apple does is simplicity personified despite the occasional lapses.

So Apple didn’t rest on its laurels as notebooks began to assume a larger portion of Mac sales. In 2008, the MacBook Air arrived. It was the first thin and light notebook and thus influenced PCs for years. Indeed, Intel’s UltraBook reference design was heavily influenced by the MacBook Air.

I still remember how Steve Jobs demonstrated how the Air could fit into a slim envelope, and some notebook cases of that sort were soon released.

So the Mac notebook lineup soon coalesced into three lines. The MacBook Air, the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, but the MacBook, with the exception of one legacy model, was mostly supplanted by the MacBook Air — until 2015, when all bets were off.

The 2015 MacBook was thinner and lighter than a MacBook Air, had a single USB-C port plus a headphone jack, a slimmer keyboard, and had the advantage of a Retina display. It was only available in one model, with a 12-inch display, listing for $1,299. So those who wanted the cheapest Mac notebook, or a model with a little more connectivity without dongles, stayed with the MacBook Air, which started at $899.

But the MacBook was also launched as a harbinger of the future, and that future has begun to arrive.

So the 2016 MacBook Pro is also thinner and lighter, but doesn’t scrimp on CPU horsepower. Meant as a professional notebook, its touchstone feature is the Touch Bar, a context-sensitive display that replaces the function keys. It’s also a political statement, again demonstrating Apple’s belief that a Mac’s display shouldn’t have touch capability. There will be no 2-in-1 Mac, and if you want a touchscreen, there’s always an iPad or an iPhone.

The MacBook’s focus is also becoming clear. It is the MacBook Air replacement; in turn, the MacBook Air is on its way out, with only the 13-inch model still available for $999. The 11-inch MacBook Air, formerly listing for $899, has been transitioned strictly to the educational market.

If the MacBook follows the MacBook Air, it will be several hundred dollars cheaper in a year or two. The MacBook Pro will also become cheaper, and thus Apple will have returned to just a pair of notebook models, each with a strictly defined focus.

Back to the way things were in the 1990s when Jobs simplified the lineup.

Now when it comes to desktops, beginning in late 2009, the iMac took on both consumer and business tasks. A well-equipped 27-inch iMac, now equipped with a 5K Retina display, can serve the needs of the majority of professional users except for a small subset who still require the power of the Mac Pro. In turn, Apple has said nothing of its future, and a full slate of Xeon chips has yet to be announced for the Kaby Lake seventh generation processor family from Intel. So maybe there will be a minor refresh with faster parts next year.

The Mac mini? I still see a need for one, but with a declining PC market, sales may not be enough to justify its existence. But it’s not that Apple is going to tell us. On the other hand, a simple processor upgrade wouldn’t be expensive to do, and the mini has gotten a decent reception in the low-end server market.

There are still predictions that Apple is slimming down the notebook line in anticipation of eventually phasing out Macs. But I don’t see that happening for quite a number of years. Such a plan would not explain all the development that went into creating the Touch Bar and slimming the MacBook Pro.

| Print This Article Print This Article

3 Responses to “Mac Notebooks: Simplifying the Product Lineup”

  1. DaveD says:

    Thanks for noting that Apple appears to returning back to product simplification. Apple has been working the MacBook line for years very actively. I know that only the 15-inch MacBook Pro appeared to be a stagnant model due to Intel’s Broadwell processor fiasco and Apple stayed on Haswell. It did get a few other internal upgrades in 2015,

    The 13-inch MacBook Air took flight in 2008 at a pricey $1799, but two years later with an additional USB port and the introduction of the 11-inch brother at $999, the price dropped to $1299. In 2014, the price dropped to $999 where it stands today. With the brother transitioned to the educational market, it does look the Airs will be history.

    Looking at the MacBook line introduced in 2006 with two plastic colors, white and black. The white model had a base price of $1099. In late 2008, the black model was gone and white one priced at $999. Along came an aluminum unibody $1299 model without a FireWire port. It was gone in mid 2009. But made a return in 2015 going from a 13-inch model to 12-inch one with a single, do all USB-C port replicating the first MacBook Air with its one USB port except the Air had a display port and MagSafe.

    I thinking that next year we might see the 12-inch MacBook new price at $999 (with a second USB-C).

  2. dfs says:

    I couldn’t agree more. When Steve came back as CEO simplifying the Mac lineup was one of his first and most important steps towards turning the company around.

  3. dfs says:

    When Steve simplified the Mac lineup, more than pruning a confusing jungle of names was at stake. Except for Macs which were assigned different names for different markets, every name in the lineup represented a different assembly line. There was at least one memorable occasion on which demand for a particular model was greater than anticipated and Apple was not able to meet it because its assembly lines were tied up making other models, which cost the company a goodly sum. Steve wanted to simplify the manufacturing process so as to make it more flexible and nimble in reacting to the market, I don’t know how modern laptops are made so have no idea whether this problem has been reintroduced, but it strikes me as a possibility.

Leave Your Comment