Is it time to streamline the Apple product lineup? [Friday Night Fights]

Should Apple streamline its product lineup? [Friday Night Fights]


streamlining Apple product lineup
Do you find it difficult to choose Apple products?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple’s product portfolio has expanded quickly since Tim Cook replaced Steve Jobs as CEO, what with the launch of larger iPhones, Apple Watch and the 12-inch Retina MacBook. But are things getting out of hand?

Friday Night Fights bug Some fans might argue Apple has too much on its plate, and that other products — particularly its software — are suffering as a result. Others might argue that Apple needs everything in its current lineup — and more! — to keep up with the competition.

So, who’s right? Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we exchange insults and virtual blows over whether Apple desperately needs to streamline its product lineup.

Luke Dormehl FNF Luke Dormehl: I’ve been writing “Today in Apple history” posts for Cult of Mac for a while now. One of the things I like so much about researching and writing those posts is that it reminds me of products or marketing strategies I haven’t thought about in ages.

This week, I wrote about the colorful iBook laptop, which Steve Jobs introduced early on in his run as Apple CEO. It really reminded me just how simple Apple’s product line was when Jobs took over — and what a horrible, convoluted mess it had been before then.

Under Jobs, Apple had Macs aimed at pro-level customers and regular customers, MacBooks aimed at pros and regular folks, one iPhone, one iPad and a handful of other devices. None of them stepped on the metaphorical toes of another Apple product.

Sure, there was a bit of product cannibalization — but Apple was great at clearly defined product lines, and its machines were so beautifully thought-through that people didn’t care too much about the “one size fits all” mentality.

Today it’s different. We have the iPad mini, iPad Air and iPad Pro. There’s the 4-inch iPhone SE, the 4.7-inch model, the 5.5-inch “Plus” and, if you believe the rumors, an iPhone 7 Pro model for photographers.

The MacBook Air, while still a laptop I very much like, seems to be an extraneous part of the product lineup. It no longer makes sense even in terms of its name, compared to the MacBook.

That’s without talking about the fact that Apple is now making wearables and, reportedly, an Apple Car is on the horizon.

I’m not saying Apple should go back to making computers and nothing more, but I don’t think I’m alone in worrying that a quality-control issue arises when the company is making so many different products. Apple also risks losing the simplicity that made its products so accessible. Am I crazy to be thinking like this?

Killian Bell FNF Killian Bell: I’m not sure you’re crazy (probably), but I do think you’re worrying about this too much. I definitely don’t think Apple’s product portfolio has become too saturated or too confusing. With the exception of the MacBook Air — which needs to die now, and surely will soon — and maybe the iPad Air, everything deserves its place in the lineup.

If you look at rival companies that do have too many products, such as Samsung, you find a lot of overlaps. The South Korean company offers a whole host of smartphones in so many variations that it’s hard to choose which one to buy — even if you’re dead-set on a particular screen size. You don’t really have this problem with Apple.

If you want your smartphone to be small and affordable, you choose the iPhone SE. If you want it to be average-size and packing the latest specifications, you choose the iPhone 6s. If you want it to be so big you have to buy pants with massive pockets just to accommodate it, you choose the iPhone 6s Plus.

Without these three models, iPhone demand would be even weaker, and Apple would find it immensely more difficult to compete with rival Android devices.

When you look at the Mac lineup, each machine has its own strengths and weaknesses, and you choose the one that fits your requirements. There’s no confusion, because they’re all so different. You can’t be stuck between a Mac mini and a Mac Pro, or a MacBook and a MacBook Pro, because they are all clearly focused on meeting different needs.

I will admit that the iPad family is a little confusing. I don’t understand why we have an iPad Air and an iPad Pro, both with 9.7-inch displays. But I still don’t think Apple’s existing portfolio is as cluttered as you suggest. And I certainly don’t believe there is a quality-control issue.

Luke Dormehl FNF Luke: Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want Apple not to introduce new products because it’s got enough already. I’m really excited about the possibility of a 5K Thunderbolt display with a built-in GPU, for example. I just think the company has lost some of its focus on creating great devices that “just work.” Instead, Apple is following the Samsung mantra of throwing a bunch of new products out there to hit every target demographic, as if it’s responding to marketing research notes.

I think some of this comes down to Tim Cook. He has been a great CEO at Apple in many, many ways. He’s more of a “peacetime leader” to Steve Jobs’ “wartime leader,” in the sense that Jobs always seemed most in his element when his back was against the wall and he was fighting against giants.

Cook, on the other hand, is doing a good job of making Apple into a benevolent “force for good” while it’s on top of the world. But he also has an (understandable, given his background) operations approach to things: He’s not got the Henry Ford “you can have any color car you want so long as it’s black” mentality that Jobs did.

With Steve Jobs, you felt that there only needed to be a few options available because Apple had worked out exactly what users needed. Arrogant? Perhaps. Accurate? Judging from past success, I’d say so.

But this focus on simplicity at Apple seems to be vanishing. It’s not just the hardware, either: It’s the naming of the new products, the marketing campaigns, the software design. A lot of things feel cluttered and increasingly tiered. Let’s say Apple does come out with a new iPhone Pro aimed at photographers, for example: Do you not think a portion of the audience is going to be upset that they’re forced to choose between a smaller handset size (a lot of people, particularly women, don’t want a “phablet”) and a top-quality camera?

Killian Bell FNF Killian: Yes, I do think iPhone fans will be upset if there’s a third “Pro” model this fall. But I don’t think we can really argue over that until it happens. I still believe it won’t; a recent leak from the ever-reliable Evan Blass revealed Apple’s internal code names for its next-generation devices, and there were only two — for iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

I will admit Apple’s naming conventions are becoming confusing. They do need to be simplified. But I don’t think its software could get any simpler, with the exception of watchOS, which is still very much in its infancy and will obviously get better over time.

Let’s turn this around, then. What do you think Apple could do today to make its product portfolio simpler? What do you think should be cut, and why?

Luke Dormehl FNF Luke: I’m not going to run through every product that Apple makes and argue the various merits and demerits of each one, but I think the focus on pushing out new updates for iOS and macOS each year, plus refreshes of all its major product lines with new versions available to bolster them, is taking its toll.

Let’s not forget that this is the same company that, during Jobs’ reign, had to choose to delay one of the big OS X launches because iOS was consuming too many resources internally. As for hardware, I like the Steve Jobs approach of having two products in each category, either aimed at pros and regular consumers or, in the case of iPhones, people who want either small or large smartphones.

Get rid of the MacBook Air. Get rid of the iPad Air. I could make a good case for eliminating the iPhone Plus, too. But this is about a lot more than just the current line of products; it’s a philosophy toward products. As Steve Jobs once noted, the thing he was most proud of was saying “no” to things while at Apple. Simplicity isn’t always easy to quantify, but for a long time it was a real differentiator.

Your turn: Is it time to streamline the Apple product lineup?

But let’s turn this over to readers. Do you think Apple could stand to streamline its products? If so, which should Apple make the difficult decision to abandon? Or is Killian right when he says that identifying new niches to target is the best way for Apple to succeed in a world saturated with smartphones and tablets? Leave your comments below. And have a good weekend.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?


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