Apple’s about to announce four new iPhones, a couple of new Apple Watches, and who knows, maybe updated AirPods or an iPad mini. We’ve come to expect this September event and its “phones and watch” announcements. But it always reminds me of just how many Apple products there are now.
It’s too many, honestly. I’m always annoyed by those who decry “Steve Jobs would never…” about some new Apple product, but it certainly feels true about Apple’s exploding product offerings.
As a fan of Apple products, I feel strange saying it, but… we need less Apple, with more meaningful distinctions.
The famous four-square chart
At the MacWorld Expo in 1998, Steve Jobs unveiled his product overhaul strategy upon returning to Apple. Apple had too many products on offer, and it was confusing to know what to recommend.
Jobs summed up the problem neatly in that keynote: “How are we going to explain this to others when we don’t even know what products to recommend to our friends?” The solution was a basic four-square grid: Consumer and Professional on one axis, Desktop and Portable on the other.
That’s it. Four great products. iMac and iBook for consumers, Power Mac and PowerBook for professionals.
As Jobs explained it, “If we only had four we could put the A team on every single one of them. And if we only had four, we could turn them all every nine months, instead of every 18 months. And if we only had four, we could be working on the next generation or two of each one as we’re introducing the first generation.”
Obviously, Apple doesn’t just make Macs anymore. Four products aren’t going to cut it, and Apple had expanded well beyond four products even while Jobs was at the company.
But his points ring true today, in a way they haven’t since the days of Jobs’ exile. Even experts like us at Macworld have a hard time telling our friends and family members which iPhone, iPad, or Mac is right for them. Some products seem mostly unchanged year after year, with major generational improvements coming only after long periods of stagnation.
Apple’s new-ish habit of continuing to sell the last-gen product well into the current-gen timeframe only explodes the product offerings further. Apple will still sell you a brand-new MacBook Air with the M1 chip and a 2018 design. You can still buy a brand new iPhone 12 or iPhone 13. And its SE products, the Apple Watch SE and iPhone SE, are just repackaged products from years ago.
Bring back the four-square grid
Job’s four-square grid is not appropriate for an Apple that makes so much more than computers, but it feels like the principles still matter.
For each product category (iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac, AirPods, Apple Watch) there should be no more than four products on sale at any time: A “consumer” and “pro” model in one or two sizes.
Apple doesn’t need to make more than a small and a big iPhone in standard and Pro models. Same with MacBooks. Same with iPads. Apple sells six iPads (mini, 9th gen, 10th gen, Air, 11-inch Pro, 12.9-inch Pro).
In some categories, like Apple Watch, there are four products but the mix is all wrong. We only need Apple Watch and Apple Watch Ultra, in two sizes each.
AirPods? Regular and pro buds, regular and pro cans. That’s it.
Desktop Macs? Two sizes of iMac and two variants of Mac Studio. MacBook? Two sizes of MacBook and two sizes of MacBook Pro.
Within the Macs in particular, there are too many options. Give us only two or three storage size options and two RAM options, and that’s it. No splitting hairs about processor configurations!
Just that pruning would cut down on about 10 devices and that’s before we even think about eliminating entire product lines.
Less is more
I don’t expect the world’s most valuable technology company, worth almost three trillion dollars, to take my advice on its product offerings.
But as a consumer and fan of Apple products since the Apple IIe, I feel like the company has become what it always hated: a bloated megacorp concerned more with maximizing profit than democratizing technology.
The product map is so big and confusing that when my mom asked her son, the MacWorld Senior Editor, what she should get to replace her six-year-old iPad, she had to answer five minutes of questions first. And I still don’t know what to recommend, but I know the new one she buys isn’t meaningfully different than the one from last year.
And that’s not even starting in on services!
Apple is getting ready to launch four more products in its most important products category, just as it did last year and the year before and the year before that. Maybe this is a good time for self-reflection. Maybe this is the time to ask about what’s really important, what’s really needed, what’s really best, versus what just makes more money.