The Vision Thing: What's in a Name?

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The Coen Brothers' 1996 film Fargo was a big movie about small-minded people doing terrible things to each other. Besides its being a remarkable piece of cinema, one of the most amazing things about Fargo is that almost none of the film's action takes place anywhere near Fargo.

But at least Fargo is the only film made in the past 45 years with that name. Unfortunately, the names of Apple's latest product offerings don't have that kind of unique flavor.

It seems that with its return to profitability Apple has lost the ability to come up with more than one name for a product line. This can become very confusing when, for example, you're trying to explain to a novice user how the iMac he or she bought a year ago is different from the iMac Apple was selling by Thanksgiving, and how that differs from the iMac the company shipped at the beginning of the year, when they're all named, simply, iMac. And when the next generation of the iMac appears, who wants to bet it won't just be called iMac as well?

Apple's stuck-in-a-rut naming practices aren't just limited to its consumer-oriented computers, though. There have been at least three very different PowerBook G3 models, all named PowerBook G3. The first was nothing more than a PowerBook 3400 with a G3 chip inside. The next was the PowerBook G3 series?the black ones with the white logo. And most recently, there's the "bronze" PowerBook G3, which looks a little thinner than the previous G3 series and has a translucent bronze keyboard but otherwise resembles its immediate predecessor.

Let's move to the desktop, where there have been two different Power Mac G3s, one beige and the other blue and white, which even Apple executives refer to as the "Blue and White G3" to differentiate it from the old "Beige G3."

As happy as I am with the Power Mac G4 (see the feature " Fantastic Four," elsewhere in this issue), I'm almost ecstatic simply because it's not named Power Mac G3. Unfortunately, beneath the Power Mac G4 logo are two different kinds of technologies that, in past days, would've been treated as different computer models.

Imagine a software company or a manufacturer of add-on hardware trying to divine over the phone or in an e-mail message exactly what kind of Mac someone is using: "Are you using the PowerBook G3, or the PowerBook G3 series, or the Power--Book G3 series with the bronze keyboard?"

So what exactly is Apple thinking? It can't be out to confuse customers, hoping that the resulting cloud of befuddlement might confuse people into buying several identical computers.

My guess is that Apple's trying to create a simple message for its prospective customers. You need to revise names only if you're concerned about selling upgrades. If you're primarily concerned with selling to new users, you stick with the names you've got.

If Apple had its way, it would be the Gap of computers. When you go into a store to buy a pair of jeans, do you concern yourself with the technology underlying that product? No?you like the look and, especially if you're buying Gap jeans, you like the image the company's brand projects. Wearing a Gap product says something about you as much as it keeps the cold out and the rain off or keeps you from getting arrested for public indecency.

That's what Apple wants the world to think about Mac products?that they're personal statements. And by keeping its naming focused on who the product is for rather than on the product itself, Apple keeps the decision of which Mac to buy as simple as possible.

But while the Gap-ification of Apple makes sense from a marketing standpoint, I still have to wonder if it isn't a bit too early to sell computers by using generic brand names, as clothes are sold. The last time I checked, jeans didn't take advantage of add-on cards designed specifically for particular models. And they didn't need technical support, unless perhaps you're buying a pair of shrink-to-fit Levi's.

As this year's vast influx of new Mac users start looking to upgrade that old iMac to run G4-savvy applications (Think they won't? I've got two words for you: voice recognition .), do you think this homogenous naming is going to get them confused?

As the people of Fargo would say: Oh, yah. Yah, you betcha!

Aw, geez. You can mail your questions and comments to Andy at

November 1999 page: 25

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