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Proliferation Polemic

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…

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