Product Line: Hiding Complexity Behind Elegant Simplicity
by Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First
published in Low
August 28, 2006
The story goes that a decade or so ago, Apple was a mess. The media
routinely attached the adjective "beleaguered" to the company name.
Apple was bleeding market share, losing sales to PCs running Windows -
and even to Apple-licensed Mac clones.
The company's product line was littered with models with obscure names
and numbers, confusing potential consumers. Each seemed to be on the
market for only a few months, replaced by another with a slightly
different name and number.
the Quadra 630 series - according to the very useful free Mactracker
software, a database of Mac models, this was the first Mac to adopt the
PC-style IDE bus for its internal drives when it was released in June
The 68040-powered Quadra 630 was also sold (with different software
bundles) as the LC 630 (primarily to the education market) and the
Performa 630 (primarily to the home market). Models included (under
each of Quadra, LC, and Performa names) 630, 630CD, 631 CD, 635CD, 636,
637CD, 638 CD, and 640CD (whew!), which Mactracker notes were
differentiated, along with different software bundles by different
accessories, monitors, and hard drives. (As well, some home-oriented
Performa models used the less-expensive 68LC040 CPU). The whole
collection was discontinued about a year later in July/August 1995.
You're allowed to be confused.
In 1996, Apple bought Steve Jobs' NeXT, and the following year,
following a boardroom coup, he was named interim CEO. One of his early
acts was to clean up the messy product line.
the 1998 Macworld keynote where he introduced the iMac, a slide
illustrated a vastly simplified field of Macs: there was going to be a
professional-level desktop, the Power Mac, and a pro-level notebook,
the PowerBook. The just-released iMac would fill a niche for consumer
desktop. And there was a hole in the space for consumer notebook, which
would soon be filled with the iBook.
By 1999, it looked brilliant. Four product niches, four models. Simple
and elegant, yet meeting everybody's needs.
Of course, reality is more complicated, even then. Each model came in
several configurations with different speed CPUs, different hard
drives, and/or different optical drives. In the bad old days, each of
these configurations would have received its own model number, but now
it was just an iMac or iBook.
In fact, if we look more closely, there are about as many models today
- and with about as short a life-span as a decade ago.
The More Things Change
As an example, let's look at the iMac G5, released
in August 2004 and aimed at about the same midlevel consumer market as
summer 1994's Quadra/Performa/LC 630 series. When initially released,
there were models with 17" and 20" LCD screens, and 1.6 and 1.8 GHz
CPUs, and over the product's short life-span, options for 40, 80, 160,
and 250 GB hard drives.
May 2005, these original G5 iMacs were replaced with what Mactracker
refers to as the iMac G5 ALS (also available in a variety of models),
which had somewhat upgraded graphics and processors. In October 2005,
these were replaced with the iMac G5-iSight models; a sleeker case than
the ALS models with an iSight camera built into the top.
And these were discontinued in January 2006, replaced with 17" and 20"
Intel-powered models in identical cases.
You're allowed to be confused. Over a total life span of about a year
and a half, the G5 iMacs had three major model releases in each of two
sizes (17" and 20") with versions with and without DVD-burning
SuperDrives, different CPU speeds, and hard drive sizes.
A decade previous, each different configuration of each different model
(and each different screen size) would have sported a slightly
different model number. Now they're simply marketed as G5 iMac 17" or
G5 iMac 20", giving the appearance of a simple product line.
Change Is Good
I'm not complaining about the pace of change. It would make little
sense for Apple to hold off on upgrading its products while CPU speeds
and hard drive capacities improve. And consumers are equally well
served by being able to choose between differently priced
configurations of basic models.
And Apple's relatively small number of choices for each model is much
more straightforward than the ever-changing configurations offered by,
say, Dell. (I've counted as many as three different Dell ads in a
single newspaper issue, each offering slightly different configurations
of the same base-model laptop at different "sale" prices).
But (as we saw) the G5 iMac had multiple configurations of two
different models and three upgrades all within an 18-month time span -
all with a single product name. I've got a 17" G5 iMac; maybe you have
a 17" G5 iMac purchased at about the same time, but they're different.
Confusion Is Bad
I'm not convinced that consumers are better served by hiding the
differences than a decade ago when each of these slightly different
configurations sported its own slightly different model number.
A decade later, Apple is still selling a multiplicity of models, each
of which has a short shelf life. It's just hiding the reality by giving
them all the same product name. Of course, Apple has often been noted
for hiding complexity behind what appears to be elegant simplicity.