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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Does Apple Offer Too Many Different Products?
March 14th, 2000

Have you paid a visit to the Apple Store in the last few weeks? If so, did you notice anything? Apple manufactures so many different Macs that there is something for everyone. At the same time, I have noticed some people wondering if there aren't too many different machines available, thus creating confusion.

If you were around during Apple's most difficult years, you probably remember how complex it was to choose the right Mac to buy. There were so many product series and configurations with so many variations that even the smartest retailers felt puzzled.

Now we can ask ourselves if this is happening again, with the iMac, iMac DV, iMac DV Special Edition, the iBook, the iBook Special Edition, the PowerBook, the Power Mac G4, and the build-to-order system at the Apple Store on top of all this!

While the offering mushroomed lately, can we compare it with Apple's past situation? Let's find out.

Before Steve Jobs

I bought my first computer, a Performa 5215CD, in August 1996. At the time, the number of different Macs on the market was amazing.

Remember the Performa family? There were the series 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 5000 and 6000. Those were not just 7 different machines, but 76 different Macs! The 5000 series, for example, had machines such as the 5200, 5210, 5215, 5220, etc., all of them with hardware or software variations. That's quite a maze. Imagine our situation in Montreal, where there are English and French Macs :-)

All those 76 machines were released from 1992 to 1996, and that's ONE family of Macs. The other was the Power Macintosh family. How many Power Macs? There were 73 of them released from 1994 to 1997, with series such as 4000, 5000, 6000, 7000, 8000 and 9000, and lots of variations in the processors.

Do you know the difference between a Power Mac 6200 and a Performa 6200? Did you know that a Power Mac 5500 and a Performa 5200 shared the same case? When I wanted to buy a Performa 6200, they convinced me to get a 5215 because they didn't have the former left and the only difference between the two was that one had the monitor integrated instead of separate?

I think I'll spare you the story of PowerBooks, servers, Quadras and the Centris made during the same period. All those computer names worked with numbers, including processor speed for machines such as the Power Mac 6100/66. This is what created the confusion: If the buyer was not an expert, the specs didn't tell him much and the zillions of different numbers were puzzling.

So if one plus one equals two in your universe, the number of motherboards (which was finally brought down during the Amelio era) and preconfigured machines was scary. How could a beginner sort all of this out and figure which computer is better for his needs?

After Steve Jobs

Steve used a Dirt Devil to clean up the mess. He worked to simplify Apple's offerings. We saw the Power Mac G3 (desktop and mini-tower) and the PowerBook G3 emerge from the pack, while the old series were discontinued gradually or drastically.

The Power Mac G3 All-in-one lived on shortly during 1998. Then Apple brought the iMac and modified its Power Mac G3 to make it blue and white. Then the iBook was announced while the iMac expanded to DV and DV Special Edition. Apple's latest baby is the Power Mac G4. And boy, do I want one!

Isn't it more simple now?

Now before you flame me and send me a "please burn in hell" card for confusing processor upgrades, let me differentiate the way Apple handles them. Apple used to rename the machine to a new number every time a new processor was included. The new Apple introduces speed bumps after naming the machines after their generation of processors.

For example, the Performa 5200 and 5300 had three differences. The first had a 75MHz processor and a 37.5 MHz bus. The second had a bigger hard disk, 100MHz processor and a 40 MHz bus. Wow, what a difference! This kind of system added to the confusion instead of helping the customer.

Now, the speed bump and hard disk changes of new models don't affect the name of the machine, until the next generation of processors. Is the iMac's name going to change if Apple sticks a G4 processor in it? I doubt it.

The PowerBook G3 has remained a PowerBook G3 since the very first one in November 1997 and it's just perfect that way. We don't need no stinking series numbers.

Apple's product line is very simple nowadays and you can customize your order at the Apple Store. Here are the four corners:

  • iMac: for consumers who want a low end desktop machine and it comes in three types. The standard, the DV with flavors and the DV Special Edition.
  • iBook: for consumers who want a low end portable. There is the standard with flavors and the Special Edition.
  • Power Mac G4: This is the tower for power users. The only variation is the one equipped with a Cinema Display if you crave a huge monitor.
  • PowerBook: The power user's portable acting as a desktop replacement. The only big difference between the available models is the processor.

Think about it. Four products with slight variations. We're not talking about wholly different series of products, but four products with variations just to please your eye or the customization freak like me.

Sure, Apple expanded its product line, but this time, it is not confusing. If you are a power user or just an ordinary consumer, you know which Mac is right for you. The names and the cases make it obvious for everybody. Anybody who's not "in the know" will understand after the first explanation. I know this from experience.

Apple's product line is just fine. Its method of modifying products is smarter than before and this is one of the basic conditions that made the Macintosh successful again.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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