Picking Apples

Stephen Hackett:

With the grid of four main products, it was easier to decide which machine was right for you. Do you need a portable or prefer a desktop? Need all the horsepower you can get, or is budget a bigger factor? Depending on those answers, it was easy to walk into a store and buy an iBook, PowerBook, iMac or Power Mac.

Just looking at the Mac, that’s not as clear cut as it used to be. The Mac Pro is more marginalized than ever, allowing the high-end iMac to become the default desktop machine for a lot of consumers and professionals. On the notebook side of things, its just as confusing. While I need the power of a MacBook Pro when editing audio, lots of people with similar needs can get by on i7 MacBook Air easily.

I think Apple’s computer lineup has remained fairly — even remarkably — simple, considering that its growth has consistently outpaced the rest of the industry for the past several years or more. It’s no longer the simple four-cell grid of consumer vs. professional and desktop vs. portable, but it’s not much more complicated than that. I would argue that it has simply gained a column: it’s now consumer, professional, and specialist, the latter of which contains the Mac Mini and the 12-inch MacBook.

The overlap in functionality, meanwhile, is not an entirely new issue. The iBook and PowerBook both did everyday computing tasks, and you could run some of Apple’s pro apps — like Logic — on an iBook. Not well, mind you, but you could.1 This overlap has been exacerbated by technology’s relentless strides in capability compared to what we’re actually doing on our computers: we now have way faster computers but we’re still editing HD video, for the most part.

The iPad lineup follows a similar formula: the iPad Air is the consumer device, the Pro is the professional product, and the Mini is the specialist product.

But throwing a wrench in both of these lineups is the continued existence of legacy products. For the Mac, it’s the ongoing sale of the 21-inch non-Retina iMac and the bafflingly-popular 13-inch 2012 MacBook Pro, the “TI-83” in the lineup.2 On the iPad side, it’s more confusing because the iPad Mini 2 and iPad Air (1) are not visibly different than their newer successors, nor are they named differently.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to Hackett’s main point:

Like some others, the inner nerd in me is uncomfortable with the problem of choice Apple’s given us. There’s part of our community who can’t believe someone would cool on the Apple Watch, or not be excited about the 12-inch MacBook. However, the reality is that Apple has grown, its audience has as well. The company must offer a wider range of products to sustain its size.

The Apple of today provides more choice in device types, but I’m not sure it’s become more difficult to make a decision for iPhones, Macs, or Watches. All of them perform broadly similarly to each other as far as average consumers are concerned, so they’re going to pick mostly on price and form factor. For iPads, it’s only more complex because of the similar naming and form factors.

Us nerds are overthinking Apple’s lineup. I doubt most people compare Macs or iPads on the same parameters as we do; those that do compare on specific functionality usually already know what they’re looking for.

Ultimately, Hackett is right: Apple’s lineup is broader and, therefore, fewer products will likely appeal to a given person. And that’s okay.

  1. Incidentally, the Macintosh lineup in 2005 contained the Mac Mini, eMac, iMac, and PowerMac. It was arguably more complex than it is today. ↥︎

  2. If Marco Arment’s mentions are any indication, it’s similarly popular in education circles because of its low price and DVD drive. ↥︎