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Apple’s product line: from prix fixe dinner to dog’s breakfast

by Michael Gemar (michael@macedition.com), January 15, 2002

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Offering limited options is not always a bad thing. Many fancy restaurants, even vegetarian ones that Steve Jobs might frequent, offer prix fixe menus, with a set number of courses for a single price. You can choose among some alternatives, but you only get to pick one appetizer, one salad, one entree – your choices are limited, but clearly laid out. There is an elegance, a clarity, to such rationally limited choice.

Apple used to have a product line like that. There were the famous “four boxes,” a beautifully straightforward 2-by-2 table – consumer and pro, each with a single desktop and laptop form factor. Indeed, the scheme was even more orderly than that, because the consumer and pro distinction followed strict processor lines: G3 for the consumer machines, be they desktop or laptop, and G4 for either type of pro models. It was simple, organized, clear – even elegant.

Now, post-MWSF 2002, the picture is decidedly less upscale dining, and more leftover fry-up, with the wonderfully ordered four-box scheme unceremoniously dumped all together into the Tupperware. What was once a straightforward product line is now a mess.

For starters, there is no longer a clear processor distinction between the pro and consumer models – the flat-panel iMacs now come with G4s, some as fast as the pro models, while the consumer laptop still languishes with a G3. Despite the modest advantages in bus speed, extra cache and the like retained in the Power Macs, the fundamental separation between the pros and the schmoes has been breached.

The picture is even more confusing within the former consumer boxes, as there are now two form factors per category. The old iBook gets a large-screen version, whose only market seems to be for those who like chunkier pixels, since its screen resolution is the same as its smaller sibling. Why this justifies tooling a completely new set of plastics is beyond me, although I suppose some folks don’t want to shell out for better glasses.

The consumer desktop box is even messier. Although the flat-panel G4 iMac is clearly the star, the original gumdrop G3 is still around – you can see a mention of it tucked discreetly at the bottom of the new iMac spec page, for instance. This isn’t just until the current inventory clears out, either, as an Apple source tells MacMinute in a January 8 story that the CRT G3 systems will be made indefinitely, because “it’s an essential part of our education and low-end consumer strategy.” At least Apple realized that the iLamp is not appropriate for the education market – just imagine a bunch of grubby-handed hyperactive fourth graders trying to determine just how far that monitor arm will bend…

So, now within a single box, we have two radically different form factors – one iconic but dated, one futuristic – with two completely different processors – one old and cranky, one the best that can be wrung out of Motorola’s miserly hands. It’s like taking newly-made lobster thermidor and mixing in yesterday’s meatloaf.

Of course, this messiness is likely to be partly just transitional. For example, there is no doubt that the Power Mac desktops will be getting some serious upgrading, and pronto, so the embarrassing similarity in specs between the low-end pro model and the top iMac will be erased. There’s already considerable debate and speculation as to whether Apple will restore a fundamental consumer/pro processor difference and put G5s into these new machines – and a further question of whether such a name will reflect a real architecture difference or just G4s in marketing-mandated facepaint. It is also entirely possible that the 14" form factor is the shape of iBooks to come, and the smaller screen size will eventually be dropped, bringing the consumer portable box back to a single model type.

And, to be fair, the current Apple offerings are nowhere nearly as confusing as those dark days of the ’90s, when Apple seemed to have fifty-three different models based on forty-seven different architectures. Steve’s return did bring some order to the place, thank heavens.

But the brief moment of true minimalist product-line elegance is gone, at least temporarily. Steve has made a hash of the four-box scheme, at least in its purest form. Clearly there are good reasons for the current lineup (with the possible exception of the large-screen iBook), and I have no doubt that the range of offerings will get even clearer with time. And hopefully not too much time, either.

Steve is like any great chef, even down to being overly dramatic and temperamental; and, like a master of nouvelle cuisine, he loves minimalism and elegance. I’m sure he’ll be serving up delicacies like spicy hot new Power Macs before too long, and that the menu will return to its former sophisticated simplicity. Now if we could only get cheaper entrees…

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