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Apple Watch: The danger of proliferation

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Performa 540 in the version for Japan. Photo / Vectronic's Apple World
Performa 540 in the version for Japan. Photo / Vectronic's Apple World

Almost everyone knows the current Apple lineup: Mac mini, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac Pro. iPhone 4s, 5c and 5s, iPad and iPad mini. Ten major devices, with a few variations of each in storage and CPU speed, plus a few Apple-badged cases, wireless devices and a monitor. It's a relatively simple lineup - it's easy to remember, very easy to choose what you want. This simplicity was a hallmark of the Apple cofounder (and late CEO) Steve Jobs. He enforced it ruthlessly.

After Jobs went into the NeXT hinterland, having been ousted from Apple in 1985 just a year after the introduction of the Macintosh (which was introduced 30 years ago this January, by the way), the Californian company went through a protracted period of decline which led to Jobs being brought back to rescue the company in 1998. Luckily, he did just that.

The first thing Jobs was rationalise the offerings. Let's look at the lineups. When Jobs left Apple in mid 1985, you could buy the little Macintosh 128K with the 9-inch diagonal black and white screen, the same-footprint Macintosh 512k/512Ke and the Macintosh XL.

Four Macs. There were also two Apple computers: the Apple II and IIc. Six computers. Simple.

Meanwhile, the computer market place was arguing that Apple needed more models. After Jobs left, Apple went through three different CEOs: Sculley formerly of Pepsi, who had effectively ousted the mercurial Jobs, then Michael Spindler, then Gil Amelio.

In 1985, after Jobs left, these three CEOs went on a product spree. In 1986 Apple introduced the Apple IIgs, a sort of Mac-like Apple with a mouse. Meanwhile the original Mac evolved into the Mac Plus in 1986, the Mac SE and Mac II were introduced alongside the Plus in 1987, and the Mac Classic and Mac LC in 1990. So far, not so bad, and Apple was doing pretty well. Apple computers, in New Zealand, were running at about 12 per cent of the New Zealand market, and figures were similar elsewhere, with the US, Japan and Germany having higher rates of the PC market share. In 1989, the Macintosh II got IIcx and IIci variants, plus the Macintosh Portable appeared.

But by the 1990s, the IBM-based PC market was exploding, and that's when market criticism really started to strike home at Apple corporate. Apple was selling the Macintosh IIfx (the pro machine), the Mac Classic (a revamped take on the original all-in-one Mac), the Macintosh LC and the Mac IIsi, along with laserwriters and grey-scale and colour monitors, since the IIfx, LC and IIsi did not have built-in screens.

New Macintosh lines appeared: in 1991, Classic II, Quadra 700, Quadra 900, PowerBook 100, PowerBook 140, PowerBook 170, three models of LaserWriter (this was the era of 'desktop publishing') plus the Inkjet StyleWriter and a colour and a greyscale scanner, and a 16-inch and 21-inch monitor.

The year 1992 was more confusing for Mac fans: Macintosh LC II, Quadra 950, IIvi, IIvx. Performa 200, Performa 400, Performa 600/600CD, PowerBook 145/145b, PowerBook 160, PowerBook 180/180c, PowerBook Duo 210, PowerBook Duo 230, plus the Personal LaserWriter NTR, the Color (sic) Display and the Performa and Performa Plus displays.
Confused? I sure as hell was. So was everybody else. But that's nothing. In 1993, Apple was selling the Macintosh Colour Classic, LC III, Centris 610, Centris 650, Centris 660AV, LC 520, LC III+, LC 475, Macintosh TV, Quadra 605, Quara 605, Quadra 610, Quadra 650, Quadra 800, Quadra 660AV and the Quadra 840AV. If that's not bad enough, it didn't stop there: Macintosh Performa 250, Performa 405, Performa430, Performa 430. And 450, and 520, and 275, 410, 460, 466, 467, 476, 550. And the MessagePad (a PDA and distant ancestor to iPhone/iPad). And the Apple Adjustable Keyboard, Laserwriter Pro 600, 630 and the Apple Colour Printer. And StyleWriter II, LaserWriter Select 360, Personal LaserWriter 300, Personal LaserWriter 320, LaserWriter Pro 810, Workgroup Server 95, 60 and 80. And AppleDesign Powered Speakers.

And I forget to mention the PowerBook 145/145B, PowerBook 180/180c and PowerBook 165 and 165c. Sorry.

There must have been a launch every few days! In 1993 ... OK, I think I've made my point. Actually, there were 54 distinct Apple products in 1993, and 'only' 39 in 1994. And 37 in 1995, but not because Apple was learning, no. Because Apple market share had nosedived. It simply didn't have enough money to maintain the crazy proliferation, although Apple still wanted to. Apple users had gone from being able to choose from a simple array of first class products to being presented with a bewildering array of articles with slight variations of features and loads of different price points. When things broke down it was harder to get the correct replacement part. It was a nightmare. Models seemed to be outmoded as soon as you plugged them in.

Steve Jobs was brought back in 1996, but right at the end of the year in December. This also meant Apple software engineers could get their hands on the advanced NeXTstep Operating System, which is what eventually led to OS X and all its variations. Apple's percentage of the PC market had dropped to around three per cent. Over 1997, a little rationalisation of products was undertaken as Jobs, who replaced Gil Amelio as CEO in July '97, got to grips with his ravaged former company. Thirty lines were available through 1997, and then came Jobs' master stroke in 1998: the introduction of the iMac and his extreme, brutal, beautiful simplification: just 12 products. These were the iMac, and all-in-one in beautiful translucent plastic with a built-in Colour CRT monitor and internet connectivity out of the box. The other products were the Apple USB mouse, Power Macintosh G3 Desktop for which you could get the Apple Studio Display 15-inch, and the G3 all-in-one. The laptops were PowerBook 2400c, PowerBook G3 (in two series: May-August and September top May 1999), and Macintosh Server G3. Plus Mac OS 8.1 which was replaced by 8.5 in October.

To my mind, a clear, beautifully designed lineup that's easy to keep track of is one of the most important things Jobs brought back to Apple. It's not just opinion: the iMac was a revelation of beauty and functionality (begone, beige plastic!) and people responded to that and the simplified offerings with enthusiasm - and their wallets. Apple had been restructured and the iMac was selling at a staggering one million units a year, very impressive for the day. Computers still weren't household items, but that was starting to change. After that came the master stokes of iPod, iPhone and iPad. Apple today is a massive success, and a household name, and leads the market which is flooded by competitors products inspired by Apple's product introductions.

What's my point? Apple iPhone 4s, 5c and 5s ... iPad mini, iPad. Not so bad, but rumours of Apple introducing, say, an additional bigger iPad or iPhone make me quail. Not just because of the proliferation it portends, but also because Apple responding to market calls has been such a disaster in the past. It's something Jobs managed to stay very cannily resistant too, despite the pressure form so-called experts outside of Apple.

And I lump the iPhone 5c in that boat: there's nothing inherently wrong with the device, but it was Apple responding to demands for a 'cheaper' iPhone. One: it's not cheap, and two: it doesn't look like it's selling very well. If people want cheap, they buy the 4s, which is still a very good iPhone. If they want the best, they go straight to the 5s.

Please consider all this, Apple! (And Happy New Year.)

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