Series: A Mac by Any Other Name
Can you identify a Macintosh just by looking at it?
Article 1 of 3 in series
Anyone who has tried to buy a Macintosh in recent years or who supports them professionally or personally has no doubt cursed Apple for the proliferation of Macintosh modelsShow full article
Anyone who has tried to buy a Macintosh in recent years or who supports them professionally or personally has no doubt cursed Apple for the proliferation of Macintosh models. What processor did the LC II have? How fast is the IIvx in comparison to the LC III? Why does the Quadra 700 support 24-bit internal video whereas its faster sequel, the Quadra 800 doesn't? These are among the questions that I and many others continually ask, along with the question at the root of these evils - what are they putting in the drinking water in Cupertino?
This problem shows up frequently in what are now historical looks at the Macs of yesteryear. In the BMUG Glossary (I used the version in the massive Spring Newsletter), they list the Classic II in the 68000 line, but they also list it, along with its Performa 200 clone, in the 68020 line. Buzz! Buzz! The otherwise-excellent second edition of Rich Wolfson's "The PowerBook Companion" mentions that the Classic II uses a 68000 chip . Buzz! In Robin Williams's wonderful new book "Jargon," she says that all Mac II-class machines use the 68030 except for the Mac II, the LC, and LC II. Buzz!
These excellent books come from respected authors, and they all miss the fact that both the Classic II and the LC II use a 16 MHz 68030 with a 16-bit data bus. We don't blame these authors or even their technical editors for the mistakes; we've made similar ones in TidBITS. The blame lies with Apple for introducing many variations on the theme and for eliminating all printed traces of information for older models when a machine becomes obsolete. Try finding a spec sheet on the SE/30 these days.
The Solution? -- By now you're thinking that this is an old complaint, although admittedly one which Apple has generally ignored. In a feeble move in the right direction, Apple will reportedly drop the Centris name in the future, calling all Centris machines Quadras, which may reduce the number of Macs, but will leave the current Centrises isolated in the history books. To balance that bit of sanity, the new Quadra 605 rumored for this fall will sport yet another case design, slimmer even than the LC case. How many cases is that now?
Some time back, Guy Kawasaki wrote in his Macworld column that Apple should drop all but three models of the Mac, the Color Classic, the PowerBook 160, and the Centris 650 (see TidBITS #174 for my initial comments on that suggestion). Such a suggestion fails miserably in the marketplace for two reasons. First, there isn't enough flexibility in those three Macs to satisfy a large number of purchasers. Second, with only three Macs in the line, Apple gets almost no shelf space in computer stores in comparison to PC clones.
Over the past few months, Tonya and I have talked about this problem at length (as a tech support person, Tonya is painfully aware of the problems in keeping up - try helping a novice restart a Mac when you have no idea where Apple put the restart or power switch on a new model). Although perhaps not perfect, we think we've come up with a solution that satisfies most everyone.
Apple should create four lines of Macs, each of which would have different case designs for which you could choose individual configurations specifications like processor speed, RAM size, monitor, and hard drive. First comes the Home/Education/Individual User line, which encompasses the Color Classic or LC 520 case and the standard LC case. Second, we have the Business/Power User line, which encompasses the Centris 610 case, the Centris 650 or Quadra 700 case, and the Quadra 900 case. Third comes the PowerBook line, with PowerBook and Duo cases. Fourth and most interesting, comes the Collectible line, in which the case changes with each new Mac, but only one new Mac appears every nine to twelve months. The most important part of this is that within each line, the motherboards are identical other than size or number of slots. That eliminates the model-specific quirks as much as possible. Let me explain.
The Explanation -- You seldom hear complaints from the PC world about number of models because it's relatively easy to compare machines, even from different vendors, based on the chip speed and options. You don't run into quirks like the IIci and the IIsi sharing RAM between applications and internal video, but every other Mac with internal video using VRAM. PC clones are generally stamped out on a production line and the customer chooses options after picking a base unit. That method works well, because it provides flexibility to the user as well as standard configurations to track (for the moment we'll ignore the much-touted myth of "PC compatible"). So we recommend moving the main Macintosh line to the PC model, as suggested above in the first three lines of Macs.
However, the PC model fails in terms of creating machines with personality, machines that have characteristic quirks, machines that you can name. One 25 MHz 486 is basically the same as any other 25 MHz 486. Many people (although not many businesses) like personality, and I think, for instance, that it says something about me as a person that I work on a PowerBook 100 and on an SE/30, (although admittedly an SE/30 with two screens, 20 MB of RAM, and a 1.2 GB drive). I identify with my SE/30, and when I buy a new machine, I'll hold on the SE/30 and use it as a file server or something. Same goes for the PowerBook 100 - it's a sweet machine that does what I need it to do, under-powered and obsolete though it may be. That's why we suggest the fourth line, the Collectible Mac, so those wishing to spend the money could have a cool Mac that screams individuality.
Just to show that this suggestion isn't accompanied purely by a lot of hand-waving, let me share some the specific details of how this could work.
Home/Education/Individual User Details -- Apple would aim these machines at the individual user or school that didn't anticipate needing high-end software or specialized hardware. At most these machines would have one PDS slot, and RAM and VRAM expansion (16-bit video maximum) would remain at the current limitations of the LC III. The Color Classic or LC 520 case (pick one, it doesn't matter) would satisfy people who wanted it all in a single box, where as the current LC pizza box design would satisfy users who wanted a different monitor (larger, third-party, Pivot, etc.). For these machines, low cost (no math coprocessors) and ease of use are paramount, and the only real upgrades would be to faster processors, more memory, or larger hard disks.
Business/Power User Details -- These machines would more or less encompass the current Quadra and Centris lines, although under one name. The three case designs allow the price range to vary significantly from the one-slot Centris 610 case (perfect as a general machine for a large company to purchase in quantity) to the three-slot Centris 650 or Quadra 700 case (pick one, it doesn't matter), to the six-slot Quadra 900 case. Within each case you could choose the processor speed, RAM size, VRAM size (although all would support up to 24-bit video), hard drive, and monitor, although they all come with an FPU and Ethernet on board. Again, upgrades to faster processors (even if they require new motherboards) as they come out would be simple, since the same case designs should stick around.
PowerBook Details -- The PowerBooks are some of the most confusing Macs around, since the numbers are so numerous. How does the 165 compare to the 145 to the 170 to the 180? No one can keep them straight, so there should be just two cases, a normal PowerBook case and a Duo case. Within each case you choose the processor speed, whether or not it has an FPU, the RAM size, hard drive, and most importantly, monitor type (monochrome, gray-scale, or color in either passive or active matrix). Ports will be standardized on the current ones, so all PowerBooks will have video out and the standard ports, whereas the Duos will still only have a serial port and the docking port. Speaking of the docking port, I see no reason to change the line of docks since with only three possibilities (floppy adapter, MiniDock, and Duo Dock) they are easy to track.
Collectible Mac Details -- Here's where Apple's engineers can strut their stuff. One new Collectible Mac should appear every nine to twelve months, and there should be only two configurable options, RAM and hard drive size (or perhaps a floppy-only version). Each case should be designed by a different renowned designer, and they should feel free to avoid the standard computer look. Maybe we'd see a round Mac covered in teak, or a black Mac with mirrored insets (you can tell I'm not a renowned designer). If you buy a Collectible Mac, you are buying a Mac and making a statement about your life-style. Sure, there might be more quirks and compatibility issues, but you don't buy a Collectible Mac because you rely on utter stability day in and day out. Apple's engineers can use the Collectible Macs as test beds for features like those in the new AV Macs. Innovative features might disappear with the next Collectible Mac, or they might migrate to one or more of the other lines. There's a risk associated with a Collectible Mac, but the people buying them won't care - they're the same people who buy fancy cars and seldom drive them. As far as expansion goes, there wouldn't be any short of adding more RAM or a larger hard disk, since these Macs are one-shot deals. That's fine, since the purchasers of Collectible Macs will either hang on to them to keep the collection going or will sell one to buy a newer model. Of course, Apple probably can't say that a Collectible Mac is a dead end in the documentation, but no one thought the IIfx was a dead end when it came out either.
Naming Schemes -- I haven't mentioned names yet, but simplicity rules here. There should be one name for each line, and to reduce confusion, the names should be different from the current ones. Let's use Turbo as an example. Since all Turbos will differ only in details, when you are talking about your machine, you'd say, "I've got a 25 MHz 68040 Turbo in a one-slot case." If you upgraded to a PowerPC processor, you'd simply say "Now I have a 50 MHz PowerPC 601 Turbo in a one-slot case." No more confusing name and number changes and trying to figure out why the Quadra 800 is faster than the Quadra 900.
The Collectible Macs are another story. Each one must sport its own name, much as each Mac has a code name during development. So you would buy a Macintosh Flame, or a Macintosh Zodiac, or whatever, but that name would uniquely identify that machine, so there wouldn't be any problem with confusing numbers or letters after the name.
Overall -- I won't pretend that this scheme solves all of Apple's problems, or that it would be easy to implement. Nonetheless, if Apple wants to play the PC-clone game, they have to do it right. Although machines with individual character are part of the Macintosh philosophy, confusing the user with a myriad of differences is not. There is a time and a place for individuality, and smack dab in the middle of the product line is not it.
I welcome comments in discussion groups on this issue, since I think it's a major problem. I somehow doubt Apple will listen, but maybe if we all speak up...
Article 2 of 3 in series
Truth is stranger than fiction. I didn't do a careful count, but last week's article on the October crop of Macs elicited as many irate comments as did my editorial on the subject several weeks beforeShow full article
Truth is stranger than fiction. I didn't do a careful count, but last week's article on the October crop of Macs elicited as many irate comments as did my editorial on the subject several weeks before. Maybe people didn't believe me the first time around - we have a problem on our hands.
Software companies have a major stake in the outcome. Technical support is no joke these days. It's not something you can have the programmer do when she's taking a break from hammering out code. Support in today's real world requires staff trained to not only know the products in question cold, but also trained to handle the occasional irate customer. Support seldom earns money directly, despite Microsoft's recent addition of paid support for people who want to call at odd times or want priority into the calling queue. So Macintosh developers must consider the increased costs in testing and supporting their products on what seems like an exponentially increasing number of Macs, and once they have considered those costs, decide whether or not they should add their voices to ours in calling for a more sensible product line. Perhaps Apple will listen to the developers who keep the platform moving forward if they won't listen to the customers whose dollars contribute to Apple's bottom line.
A number of people commented that the reason Apple is creating differently numbered Macs for specific retailers is probably because that way each retailer can safely offer a guarantee that they will beat any price on the same system from another store. Since many of the stores won't carry the same models, there's no worry about the competition.
In any event, here are a few of the letters we received after TidBITS #195 that make the point especially well.
Saurabh Misra <firstname.lastname@example.org> writes:
Lunacy. That is how you can describe Apple's naming scheme for new computers. Complete lunacy. I thought I kept up with new models better than anyone I knew, but I give up. LC 475, Performa 476, LC040... oh, forgive me isn't that a processor?
Buyers don't like being confused by smart naming schemes. If Apple doesn't stop, maybe one day there will be more Macintosh models than there are buyers.
Clint Laskowski <Clint.Laskowski@mixcom.mixcom.com> writes:
I have been very involved in the Mac revolution. For 6 years I sold Apple II and Macintosh personal computers (and Intel-based PCs too). I also worked for two Macintosh software developers. Most recently, I have spent the last 4 years providing Macintosh consulting services in the Midwest. I think I have a credible background regarding the Mac.
I agree that the number of Macintosh models is insane. There is no way anyone can follow these things. My customers are confused. I am sure retail sales people are confused. I am sure third-party vendors are confused. The Macintosh market is confused. I'll bet if we put Apple's top executives on a stage and asked them simple questions about product features vs. product models, they too would be confused. And this state of confusion is leading customers to consider other computers. Any military expert will tell you that confusion is a major reason for poor performance by a well-trained fighting team on a modern battlefield. Can the marketplace be all that different?
I love Apple and the Macintosh. I have based my career on them. I can understand some of Apple's problems. But I cannot stand to see them fragment and confuse their market. Why are they doing this? A competitor couldn't do a better job of destroying Apple's potential! [Hmm, perhaps it's time for a conspiracy theory. -Adam]
Mark Maris <email@example.com> writes:
My first letter to you folks, but I couldn't help it. The latest issue of TidBITS is so ridiculous that I must vent my outrage! I mean really, how could you foist off the Performa article (in "The Proliferation Continues") as serious, when we are not even close to April 1st? Everyone knows that Apple has some of the most astute marketing people in the industry, and would never, ever follow a path that might confuse (or Heaven forbid) anger its customers!
Given that Apple marketing is much too intelligent to follow such a monumentally stupid course of action, and also given that I believe you are both honest, may I offer the following alternative reality?
I think that the announcement of the new Performa models must be the product of a cabal of PC clone makers, probably headquartered somewhere in south central Texas. Sitting around a conference table, sipping something way too strong for a normal business lunch, these ingenious fiends mused on various ways to derail the competition.
"What could we do to induce users to leave Apple products in droves?" they asked. "What would virtually guarantee that people would be so confused and frustrated that they would leave an obviously superior user interface, and migrate to the junk operating environment that we bundle on our machines?"
"I HAVE IT!" one particularly inebriated shareholder yapped. "It's the distribution channel, stupid! We could fake an Apple product announcement: Dozens of Macs with nearly, but not quite, identical features... nothing but meaningless model numbers to differentiate them... no obvious reasons or market strategy for the flurry of models. And... get this... we'll say that Apple will only market certain models through certain dealers!"
"Brilliant," said the Chairman (also well lubricated). "If people believe it, they'll conclude that Apple has abandoned any pretext at customer service. Obviously, no one would ever be able to keep track of operating system versions in that crowded a product line. Users would become hopelessly lost, just trying to upgrade!" By this time, the group was laughing so hard, they were reduced to tears.
"Also," the Vice-Chair said, gasping for breath, "for a company to single-source a model through one dealer is to explicitly encourage that dealer to gouge the public on that model, and someone is bound to make that connection. Go with it!"
And so, before the group could sober up, the plan was launched. The announcement was smuggled into the normal distribution channels, and you subsequently received it. I am certain that, within a very short time, angry Apple executives will issue a vehement denial of this sick joke, and we will all sleep easier.
Well, that's about it. I enjoy TidBITS a lot, but I think you might want to check your information sources more carefully in the future. Otherwise, these obviously ridiculous items might damage your credibility.
Charles Gervais <firstname.lastname@example.org> forwarded this excerpt from an article Jack Nissel wrote in an Apple II magazine called II Alive:
Want to be the first on your block to get the new Macintosh models when they come out? Then join Apple's Mac of The Month Club!
Imagine... the latest and greatest Apple Macintosh computer delivered to your door, each and every month. (If more than one Macintosh is introduced in any given month, you'll have your choice of receiving any or all of them!) Here's how it works. Each month, the Mac of the Month Club will select a Macintosh for you. You'll receive a card in the mail telling you what your monthly selection is. If you want to receive that Macintosh model, do nothing! Your Macintosh will be sent to you automatically. If you don't want the Macintosh model the Club has selected, just return the card and indicate your alternate selection. Yes, it's that easy!
Join the Mac of the Month Club today! Choose any six current Macintosh models for only one penny (plus shipping and handling). Then simply agree to buy an additional 14 Macintosh models (at regular Club prices) in the next two years.
Article 3 of 3 in series
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 outletsShow full article
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.
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?"
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."