An Abridged History of Apple Product Names
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 90s, he found a product line that was too confusing for most consumers, so he simplified things. At the 1998 MacWorld Expo, he shared a simplified product grid that would serve as the foundation for Apple’s product lineup for several years. It looked something like this:
The intended audiences were clear, and everything from the components to the industrial design reflected this approach. Of course, there were multiple choices in each category, but it was clear to potential customers which machine was for whom.
Over the years, Apple’s customer base has grown considerably, and their business model has evolved. The four-quadrant grid was never going to last forever, especially with the growing prosumer market and Apple choosing to move beyond computers as their primary hardware products. If you were to try to grid out their products in 2004, it might look similar to this:
The laptop line was already beginning to grow a little confusing, with the smaller PowerBook targeting a humbler audience than those who would buy the larger models. This approach remained fairly consistent over the next few year and saw Apple through the Intel transition, with the Mac mini replacing the eMac in the consumer category. Then came the MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air and a New Product Category
It was one of the most memorable product reveals in recent history, even compared to the much-anticipated iPhone announcement from the year before. Steve Jobs held up a manilla envelope, the type you might see for old interdepartmental messages, and pulled a computer out of it. No one had seen a computer so thin or light before. It made compromises; it had almost no traditional ports; but it was cool.
Over the years, the MacBook Air had different places in Apple’s product lineup. For a time, it existed in its own category for early adopters. Then, it evolved into a replacement for the white plastic MacBook, serving as the only alternative to the MacBook Pro. Then Apple brought back the MacBook in a thinner, lighter form-factor, and the Air became its heavier, slower budget sibling. Now, the MacBook serves as the thin and light machine with compromises, the Air is the mainstream consumer/prosumer machine, and the MacBook Pro straddles prosumer and professional customers.
The Air and the iPad Lineup
The word Air has had a similar journey in the iPad lineup. The iPad Air came our in November 2013 and completely replaced the iPad line. There was no iPad Pro yet, but there was an iPad mini. The iPad Air was thinner and lighter than previous iPads, and that’s where things maintained for a couple of generations.
In 2016, the iPad Pro came out; the very next year, Apple dropped the Air branding from any iPads, so now their lineup was iPad mini, iPad, and iPad Pro. The updated iPad had some concessions compared to the iPad Air, but it was still a good update and smoothed out a rather odd naming convention.
But now the iPad Air is back, basically reviving the 10.5″ screen of the 2017 iPad Pro, while that line has moved to 11″ and 13″ screens. The no-modifier iPad is still around with its 9″ screen and slower processor, and the iPad mini lives on with the faster iPad Air architecture and a 7″ screen. When Apple announced the new iPad Air and iPad mini, I felt they needlessly complicated the product line, but a pattern may be emerging.
Currently, Apple seems to be filling out a MacBook product line that moves from entry-level to mainstream to premium. Forget any notion of consumer, prosumer, or professional usage and think in terms of desirability instead. Yes, premium machines have better capabilities than the lower tiers, but they also come with desirable features — things like Touch ID and the Touch Bar. The iPad line seems to be taking a similar approach.
|Premium||iPad Pro||MacBook Pro||iMac Pro|
Future Mac Pro
And now things start to make sense*. All of the entry level machines are for consumers who may not know what they want and will gravitate toward the most affordable option. (I expect the MacBook to see a price reduction in the near future to clarify its place in the lineup.) The mainstream machines are for most of us. They are good enough for most needs and don’t carry the sticker shock of the premium models, and those premium models are for those of us who want the latest and greatest innovations Apple provides.
When I started writing this piece, I began writing about an Apple that had lost its product strategy; now I see an Apple that may actually be in the final stages of solidifying of a new strategy, and I don’t dare guess what the last pieces of that puzzle will be. Whatever it is, Apple is always evolving, and they’re always thinking several steps ahead.
*The exception to things making sense, of course, is the Apple Pencil. That Apple sells two different devices with the same name that have different capabilities and compatibility is confounding.