Is Apple’s product lineup too confusing? [Friday Night Fights]

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

Apple currently offers more products than ever before. Whether you’re buying an iPhone, an iPad, a Mac, or even an Apple Watch, there are a bunch of options to consider before you hand over your cash in an Apple store.

Friday Night Fights bugHaving options is always a good thing, but has Apple’s product portfolio become too confusing for consumers? Does the company even have the resources to keep everything fresh and fully-supported, or is its larger lineup hurting its products?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we battle it out over whether it’s time for Apple to streamline its product lineup.

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: I will admit that Apple’s product lineup can be somewhat confusing, especially when you have several different versions of a device that look almost exactly the same — like the new entry-level iPad and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. But I think that having a greater number of options is a good thing for Apple and its consumers.

With a larger product lineup, Apple can serve a larger segment of the market. Without that entry-level iPad, it alienates fans who cannot afford a pricier model. It continues to offer the iPhone SE and iPhone 6s alongside the iPhone 7 for the same reason. I also believe it’s important for the company to offer a wide range of Macs that suit every budget — especially if it wants to continue growing the macOS user base.

I would like to see Apple updating certain products more frequently to keep them fresh, such as the MacBook Air and the Mac mini. I get the feeling that these are neglected as a result of a larger product portfolio, because Apple focuses its resources on what it sees as more important devices — usually with greater profit margins.

But I don’t think streamlining the lineup would be a great idea. Apple doesn’t want to do anything that would push certain consumers away, and if these products are still selling — despite not receiving updates for a long time in certain cases — why get rid of them?

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: I would certainly agree when it comes to, for instance, releasing iPhone with different storage options. Even though you can quibble about having kept 16GB iPhones for too long, it makes sense to offer more storage to people who want it. What concerns me is the confusion that has entered into the Apple product line. For instance, this year we’ve heard rumors that there could be an iPhone 7s and 7s Plus, in addition to an iPhone 8. Now that might not happen, but the fact that it’s so believable is troubling.

Right now you have a 4-inch iPhone, a 4.7-inch model, and a 5.5-inch “Plus.” Furthermore, you get features that are unique to different sizes, such as the dual-lens on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Remember when Steve Jobs said Apple had figured out the perfect size for an iPhone and didn’t offer a bunch of screen sizes? Sure, you can argue that the market is maturing — but there’s something to be said for Apple making these choices and sticking by its convictions.

Another thing Jobs did was to offer up a simple grid of products, so that there was a MacBook for regular users and a MacBook Pro for professionals. Today, we have a MacBook that’s around the thickness of a MacBook Air, a MacBook Pro that’s certainly not aimed at professionals, and nigh-on infinite combinations of Apple Watch.

It feels cluttered, and — in my view — it’s no coincidence that a lot of this has coincided with some poor design decisions from Apple, like the terrible charging port for its mouse and Apple Pencil, or the godawful “humpback” battery pack for iPhone.

Apple right now feels rudderless in a way that it never did under Jobs. Even if we discount the rumored products like the car, the Amazon Echo rival and the augmented reality glasses, Apple has lost a lot of the simplicity it had in the past. And I think its products are suffering for it.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I don’t agree that offering the iPhone in different sizes is confusing. That’s a prime example of selling two different versions of one device to serve a greater number of consumers. Some people want “phablets” with massive displays, but others want a smartphone of a manageable size that’s comfortable to carry and use in one hand. Apple can’t offer one or the other because that just alienates too many consumers.

Apple has to compete with its rivals, too. Samsung, Google, Sony, and plenty of others all offer the same device in different sizes to suit consumers. Apple can’t afford to not follow suit. If the 4.7-inch iPhone was the only option, some consumers would be switching to Android in pursuit of a larger display — just as they were before the iPhone 6 series finally met those demands.

Apple had figured out the perfect size for an iPhone in 2007, but smartphones were still a novelty to the vast majority of consumers back then, and things have changed. As we became more accustomed to smartphones, many of us demanded larger displays that were better suited to things like gaming, web browsing, and content consumption. If Jobs’s view were still true today, phablets just wouldn’t be selling.

Sometimes it works when Apple decides what’s best for consumers, but often it doesn’t. It decided the trashcan Mac Pro was a great idea with a compact design that crippled expandability and user upgrades, but it has since learned it was wrong. And because it only offers one version of that machine — none of which are modular — fans are missing out, and have been forced to switch to PC.

Apple also decided that the MacBook Pro required a Touch Bar, only USB-C connectors, and a maximum of 16GB of RAM, but long-time users and those who need more power and connectivity options on the go disagree.

I do agree that some of Apple’s products are too similar. You point out that the MacBook defeats the purpose of the MacBook Air, and I do believe the latter should cease to exist. But it is the most affordable laptop in Apple’s lineup, and therefore still meets a big demand. As I said before, if it’s still selling, why get rid of it?

I certainly don’t think the Apple Watch lineup is confusing. Sure, there are a lot of options to choose from, but they’re mostly all dependent on budget. Apple Watch Edition isn’t considered by most of us because it’s too expensive, and the same goes for the Hermes models.

I just don’t see what Apple would gain from simplifying its product portfolio. It will just push away some customers because it can no longer meet their needs, and what does it have to show for it? Maybe it would free up resources to create something more innovative, but I think if Apple really had something more innovative up its sleeve, it wouldn’t let a large product lineup get in the way of that.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: Look, when it comes to things like the introduction of the Touch Bar, you’re not going to hear me defending them! Ultimately, my argument hinges on two things. The first is product confusion, which is certainly a real thing. I’m a massive defender of Apple in the 1990s, but anyone who was buying products back then remembers how complex the Mac lineup was. There were multiple product lines, all of which did more or less the same thing. That’s why it was such a revelation when Steve Jobs came back and poured all of Apple’s resources into, say, the iMac G3.

The second point is more of a philosophical one about vision. Tim Cook’s a great leader for Apple in a lot of ways, but he’s certainly not a products guy. He doesn’t have the vision for where computing is going in the same way that Steve Jobs did, and I think that comes across in the confused, muddled, slightly directionless products Apple puts out. Rather than focusing on building one or two insanely great products, we get incremental upgrades with features and gimmicks that — almost Samsung-like — get brought up and then abandoned.

You might dismiss the idea that freeing up resources would help Apple, but it’s hard to argue that quality control is what it once was.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: Apple was a completely different company back then with nowhere near as many customers as it has now. Focusing on a single computer didn’t dent the Mac business in the same way it would today. Apple would be hounded by investors now if it started eliminating products that are still selling without replacing them with something similar.

Maybe Tim Cook isn’t a “products guy,” but he’s doing a great job of leading Apple right now. And those “directionless products” he’s put out are all selling incredibly well. You’ve criticized Apple Watch a lot in the past, but I can’t think of another consumer technology company that wouldn’t want a smartwatch in its lineup that’s as successful.

And if quality control was that bad, Apple wouldn’t be making the kind of money it makes today.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: I’m interested to see what readers will make of this. Do you think Apple has confused its product lineup and could do with making things simpler again? Or is Killian right and any complaining is just the ramblings of spoiled tech users who should be a bit more grateful? Make sure to leave your comments below. And have a great 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?