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Macintosh Model Implosion: What's in a Name?

Back in late 1993, I teed off on Apple for the proliferation of Macintosh models that were then appearing. That was around the time the Performa line (which often had models identical to the LC line) expanded beyond understanding, with model numbers sometimes indicating nothing but different software bundles or retail outlets. I based my complaints primarily on the fact that the huge number of models available made technical support far more difficult than it had been before. Makers of software and peripherals also suffered, since they had to create slightly different products for different models and somehow convey to customers which version was necessary for any given Mac. In short, by releasing many different models of the Mac, Apple caused confusion, and confusion costs money.


Recently, Apple has slimmed the product line to just a few machines in a four-cell product matrix, with the Power Macintosh G3 and the PowerBook G3 serving the desktop and portable professional markets, and the iMac and the long-forthcoming consumer portable serving the desktop and portable consumer markets. Unfortunately, Apple has over-simplified, creating new problems to replace the old ones.

Incoherence Through Simplicity -- Apple's mistake in 1993 was being too specific. Every Mac received a new model number, even if the difference was that it sold in Sears instead of CompUSA. In attempting to rectify this mistake, Apple is now erring too far in the other direction, applying the same name with no differentiating model number to machines that have significant technical differences. Apple even admits the mess, devoting Tech Info Library articles to how to identify the different machines.

Consider the PowerBook G3. In 1997, Apple released a machine called "PowerBook G3" in a case that looked like the PowerBook 3400. Then, in 1998, Apple introduced a range of PowerBooks with different processor speeds and different screens, collectively called the "PowerBook G3 Series." In 1999, Apple confused the issue further by releasing another 'PowerBook G3" that sports USB ports and a bronze-colored keyboard (which Apple officially refers to as "PowerBook G3 Series [Bronze Keyboard]" - more specific, yes, but quite a mouthful). The original PowerBook G3 uses different memory modules from the PowerBook G3 Series or the bronze keyboard PowerBook G3. And the bronze keyboard PowerBook G3 can't accept batteries or media bay devices from the earlier PowerBook G3 Series.

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Alternatively, think about the iMac. At least here we have colors to offer a little help. The original Bondi blue iMac actually came in two versions, Rev A and Rev B. The Rev B iMacs came with Mac OS 8.5, Adobe PageMill, a different video controller with more video RAM, and a few other minor changes like a different location for the reset button and support for larger amounts of RAM. Then Apple introduced the second generation of iMacs in five colors, which had faster processors and eliminated the infrared port. These iMacs are referred to in some places on Apple's Tech Info Library as Rev C iMacs, though an article on Apple's developer Web site explicitly says they are not Rev C and instead calls them iMac 266s. Since then, Apple has increased iMac CPU speeds again without changing anything else.


Finally, we have the Power Macintosh G3. Before January of 1999, there were three Power Macintosh G3 form factors: Desktop, Minitower, and All-in-one, all in platinum (more commonly called beige) cases. Then Apple released a completely different Power Macintosh G3 in a curvaceous blue and white case. Differentiating the models is of course trivial, but Apple has chosen to refer officially to the new machine as the "blue and white Power Macintosh G3." The recent revisions to the line were only processor speed increases, but what happens in the future if Apple decides to release new case colors, along the lines of the iMac, or worse, changes something significant without changing the case color? What then is a "blue and white Power Macintosh G3?"

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A Modest Suggestion -- This situation is spiraling out of control. Devoting Tech Info Library articles to how to identify different Macs with the same name borders on lunacy. Apple and the Macintosh community need a coherent way to refer to each different model of Macintosh without having to resort to describing it physically or knowing when it was purchased. I propose that Apple adopt a model numbering scheme from the software side.

Software packages are updated frequently, with version number changes indicating the relative importance of the changes. Major releases garner integer increases, so a major release would increment a version number from 2.0 to 3.0. Minor updates, perhaps those that are released for free, generally increment the number after the decimal point, so a small feature changes could bump 3.0 to 3.1. For the purposes of argument, we'll ignore the bug fix updates that would take a version from 3.1 to 3.1.1.

What if Apple were to apply this standard numbering scheme to their computers, purely as an aid to identification? Case changes or changes that affect hardware compatibility would pick up integer releases, with decimal releases being reserved for minor changes. So if a PowerBook changes its case or takes a different RAM module from a previous model, that's an integer change. If, on the other hand, a newer iMac gets a different video controller with more video RAM, that warrants only a decimal change.

Under this model, the original PowerBook G3 would be a 1.0 product, the PowerBook G3 Series would be a 2.0 product, and the PowerBook G3 with the bronze keyboard would be a 3.0 product. These integer releases would be warranted because the case designs and other internal specifications differ significantly from model to model.

Speed increases wouldn't warrant a number change at all, since they affect only performance and have little impact on the system's fundamental capability or compatibility with other software or hardware products. Plus, speeds often appear anyway. So the platinum Power Macintosh G3s would be 1.0 machines (still separated by Desktop, Minitower, and All-in-one), and the blue and white Power Macintosh G3s would be 2.0 machines. Put it all together and you could have a Power Macintosh G3 2.0/300 to indicate a 300 MHz blue and white Power Macintosh G3.

The system shines with the iMacs, since the Rev A original Bondi blue iMac would be 1.0, with the Rev B Bondi blue iMac at 1.1. The five-color iMacs would then be 1.2, since the changes were still minor.

Keep It Simple -- This system should not be a marketing tool. Version numbers should appear only as a sticker on the back or bottom of the machines instead of being integrated into case designs or marketing materials. It's also important that the numbers remain strictly sequential. With software, many companies co-opt version numbers for marketing purposes, jumping several decimal numbers to reflect the fact that an upgrade has a fair number of new features, though not enough to warrant an integer change. Since these proposed hardware version numbers would exist only to simplify Macintosh identification for the purpose of buying RAM or getting tech support, Apple would have no reason to play marketing games with the numbers.

It may be too late to repair the confusion caused by the existing similarly named Macintosh models, but if Apple acts quickly, they can avoid exacerbating the problem, as it will every time a new Mac is released without any unique identifying features. And if Apple fails to address the situation, my next book will be entitled "Identifying the Species Macintosh: A Field Guide."


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