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Change is in the Air: What would Steve Jobs think of Apple today?

A thought struck me as I watched Apple’s Special Event back in October: how would Steve Jobs react to the direction Apple is taking in 2018?

He would likely be astounded at how much processing power is packed into the new MacBook Air, a far cry from the laptop he famously unveiled in an envelope. The same would be true of the new iPad Pro, which can outperform many laptops.

However, in many respects, I believe Jobs would say Apple has regressed. Here’s why.

Streamlining the range

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 the company had a big problem: there were too many computer product lines, making it difficult for consumers to pick between them.

Jobs had a masterful idea for streamlining the range. He drew a square and divided it into four quadrants. He believed that Apple only needed to make four computers: consumer and professional versions of a desktop and a notebook.

Picture of Apple's computer line

Steve Jobs’ ‘four product’ strategy allowed Apple to focus on products that were streamlined and unique. (Image Credit: TGaap)

Not only would this make choosing a computer simple for consumers, but it would also alleviate supply chain issues and allow Apple designers to perfect each model. This approach was mirrored across multiple product lines and allowed Apple to focus on products that would sell. The results speak for themselves.

What followed was a golden era for Apple that led to the iPod, iPhone and Mac lines that dominate the market today.

Repeating past mistakes

20 years on from Jobs’ product cull, Apple’s line-up is more confusing (and overpriced) than ever before.

For example, the announcement of the new MacBook Air is baffling even tech enthusiasts.

The Air had long been an entry-level device for consumers looking to get started in the Apple ecosystem. It wasn’t the most affordable device when compared to Windows machines, yet many could justify the slightly higher price tag for Apple’s trademark design and operating system.

The latest Air starts at A$1849. For just A$50 more, you can get the MacBook Pro, which has a faster processor and better graphics performance. The Air is lighter and the battery last two hours longer, but that’s not enough to make up for the lower performance.

And don’t get me started on the 12-inch MacBook that is priced the same as the Pro, yet the Air is more powerful and almost as compact. Does your head hurt yet?

The line-up is not only confusing, it ignores consumers looking for entry-level laptops that are happy with a low-resolution Air device that costs them less than A$1500. The latest iPhones and Apple TVs follow a similar methodology – pay up or get left behind.

A return to form

Some may rejoice that they have more choice than ever before when it comes to choosing an Apple device. But at what cost? There is little to differentiate the multiple product lines and the pricing of these devices only confuses the case further.

Apple needs to return to Job’s methodology by streamlining the range to four well-defined products for each segment. Here’s how I would do it:

  • Portable (Consumer): MacBook Air, starting at $1299
  • Portable (Professional): MacBook Pro, starting at $1799 with options for dedicated graphics cards for video/photo editing.
  • Desktop (Consumer): iMac 27-inch, starting at $1499. The base level should start with a 1080P screen, moving towards a 5K display for more expensive configurations.
  • Desktop (Professional): Mac Pro – starting at $1999 with upgradeable RAM, SSD and support for external graphics cards.

Notice the difference? Each computer line is unique and appropriate for the intended user. The same principle can be applied to the entire Apple range.

Apple is the world’s first trillion-dollar company and while they are selling less devices than before, profit margins continue to increase.

Maybe Apple’s new strategy works for now, but I think there will come a time when the product line is spread too thin and innovation will suffer as a result.

About the author

Sam loves the biggest screens, the loudest speakers and pretty much anything else tech related.

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Comment (2)

    Max S

    Monday 10 December 2018

    Hi Sam. You should note that the Air was still originally a pro level computer, aimed at the high end consumer (business, premium) market and supplemented the existing range. Secondly, it was launched by Jobs himself. He was already fragmenting the range when he was in charge. Third, since the Air was never an entry level device, but aimed at those who want style and (lack of) weight, it might be better to think of the MacBook as the entry level device you refer to in your quadrant. This article was pointless since you have little understanding of the ecosystem

    Reply

      Sam

      Sunday 23 December 2018

      Hi Max, you are right that the Air was *originally* a high end product, however over the years it has become an ‘entry level’ device priced at about $1200 to $1600 while the the Pro cost $1800 plus. Secondly, yes Jobs did introduce the Air and he streamlined the range. He followed the same ethos with the iPhone, having only one model, whereas now there are three annual releases. Thirdly, do you think the MacBook at $1800 is an entry level device? What about students who want a Mac but don’t want to shell out $1800? Wouldn’t a sub $1500 Air make sense for this market? Or is Apple only for ‘Pros’ these days?

      Reply