Why a simple product line is integral to Apple’s success

Tue, Feb 3, 2009

Analysis, Apple History, Featured, News

It was reported today that Microsoft will be releasing 6 versions of Windows 7, and while the majority of consumers will realistically only be choosing between two of them, it helps highlight the difference between Apple’s approach to business, and that of other tech companies.  Contrary to what they teach in business school, Apple has succeeded by limiting consumer choice, and Apple’s small product line-up has been a key factor in that success.

While other companies release an inordinate number of products in an attempt to satisfy every potential customer, Apple has kept its product line-up relatively streamlined in comparison.  Not only does this make things less confusing for consumers, but it also helps consumers understand what they’re actually paying for.  Everyone knew what the iPhone had to offer almost immediately upon its release.  Now, imagine if Apple had released an iPhone, an iPhone Nano, an iPhone Mini, and an iPhone Pro.  Consumers would have no idea where to even start, and they’d actually have to study up on all the different models before they made their purchase.  Most people don’t have the time to do that, and to be honest, most probably don’t care to either.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he himself found Apple’s product lineup to be convoluted and ultimately too confusing.  He even quipped that if he couldn’t figure out the difference between a multitude of hardware models, how could Apple expect consumers to do so?  Naturally, one of his first orders of business was putting the squeeze on Apple’s product lineup and focusing instead on only a few products that were to be marketed at either consumers or professionals.  A large number of products were axed in the process, including the Newton.  As a result, Apple’s product lineup shrunk down to just four offerings – laptops for either consumers or professionals, and desktops for either consumers or professionals.

Even today, Apple’s product lineup is relatively sparse compared to the product offerings of other companies.  For example, if you want an Apple laptop, you can choose between a MacBook, a MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro.  Three models to choose from, and that’s it.  Even the names Apple chooses lend themselves to making it easier for consumers to differentiate between the different models available.  By way of comparison, there are a multitude of Sony Vaio laptops out on market, and if you want to figure out how they differ, you have to study the specs.  How else can you figure out the difference between a Sony Vaio VGN-Z550N and a Sony Vaio VGN-CS215J/R.  In contrast, the use of the words “Air” and “Pro” helps provide users, right from the get-go, with an idea of what the machine is, and who it’s geared for.

Apple’s simplified approach to selling computers helped re-energize the company as it forced Apple to focus on doing a few things extremely well, while not letting its talent and resources drift off in a number of different directions and projects.  That narrow focus eventually led to the development of the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone – three products that together have helped Apple achieve record breaking financial and critical success.  Apple understands that consumer choice is great, but too much choice can easily lead to customer confusion and frustration.  It’s also worth pointing out that its easier for companies to provide quality technical support when there aren’t 15 models of a product that technicians need to be familiar with.

When it comes to product offerings, Apple’s approach to business is a lot like that of a Basketball coach.  Would you rather have a smaller team comprised of only 7 All-Stars, or a full 12 man roster with 1 All-Star, 2 above average players, 3 mediocre players, and 6 benchwarmers.  The Dream Team wins every time, baby.


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56 Comments For This Post

  1. JOHn Jones Says:

    LOL, they didt limit anything. I jailbreak my Iphone 3G and get whatever I want!


  2. wendell Says:

    well written and nice story. you’re completely right, i never thought of it before but purchasing a mac and purchasing a pc is a totally different experience. when i look at guys trying to buy pc products for their homes at the office, it always amazes me how much time they spend looking through the specs of the individual computers. who wants to do that?

  3. wendell Says:

    great post, you nailed every point on the head. purchasing a mac and a pc requires two different mindsets. one requires geek level knowledge the other requires the ability to visit a web page written by someone that speaks normal concise english that makes it easy to understand what you’re getting.

  4. Brian Says:

    Yeah, I guess a simplified lineup is easiest to understand – which goes with the Mac theme of assuming that the user is a complete idiot. That and the fact that the iPhone has some real limitations in what it can do, aside from looking awesome. For example, have you ever tried forwarding a text message from an iPhone? I haven’t found a way to do so on my friend’s. It’s just 2-3 buttons away on my vastly “inferior” cell phone. Copypasta? Not happening. Typing if you have big fingers? URG! Can’t even use the thumbnail trick that works with normal phones. Can’t type without looking either. Yeah, you can have a fake lighter app, or a beer app, but whoop dee doo. The only people I know who are fascinated with that are also fascinated with Master Chief and Zelda.

  5. Jason Burns Says:

    I hate to cry foul, but there is some fanboyism going on here. I think that Apple has had to keep it’s configurations of computers down for several other reasons. One, with such a small market share, keeping support options simple makes it more economical to support and makes the product much more stable. These are bonuses of course. The other thing I would say, is Apple has used this simple lineup to force people into buying up past what they really need a lot of times. It’s also the same thing that keeps them out of the business market. No IT supportable model under $2800 with no monitor and 2GB of ram? sheesh.

  6. RG Says:

    last time i checked MS is actually worth about 100 times more then Apple.

  7. nick c Says:

    interesting read. i think the article should be more specific, though…as Apple iPods are certainly available in quite a few flavors…as I think they should be, but it could have been mentioned in this article that their PC line is more lean even though their portable audio devices may not be.

    also, there may be only a MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air…but there is also last year’s MacBook Pro or MacBook to take into consideration (or however often they update their hardware, I honestly do not know)…whether you are displaying some absurd 8 place alphanumeric model number (the VAIO you mentioned) or calling something ‘revision A’…’third generation’…or ‘2008 model’, some distinction between any product which isn’t a one-time release must be made.

    i certainly agree with the author, though…and think their operating system licensing (/hardware integration) has been part of a magnificently successful business model, even though I hate it because I would love to familiarize myself with OS X by putting it on my inexpensive hardware. ;-p

  8. Will Says:

    While I’m sure that Apple’s limited product line has been part of its success, it’s precisely for this reason that I will never buy one. Unlike many of Apple’s consumers, I can read and understand the specs well enough to survive in the less-limited PC world…and also well enough to know that nearly all of Apple’s products cost more than equally able PCs. Really, then, what the limited product line has allowed Apple to do is take advantage of consumers who do not fully understand the market by offering them fewer choices- all of which are overpriced.

  9. emi Says:

    This is absolutely true they have succeeded with their limited product line and have made the whole world their fan, including me 🙂

  10. Josh Says:

    Yeah! Who the hell wants choice!?

    Tell me what I need, cause I’m an idiot! Jobs knows what I want!

    Mac simplify things, and thats great, but they only have one target audience. That’s all they NEED.

    PC has the entire spectrum to please. From the people with computers 5 years old, to the people purchasing multi-thousand dollar machines that have specs so ridiculous it makes an iMac look ridiculous. not to mention those running entire networks and servers.

  11. Sai Says:

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>It was reported today that Microsoft will be releasing 6 versions of Windows 7, and while the majority of consumers will realistically only be choosing between two of them, it helps highlight the difference between Apple’s approach to business, and that of other tech companies.

    Your Analysis is completely flawed. By the way i am neither user of Windows nor follower of Microsoft. How you can compare Apple success to Windows success ?. Windows has more than 90% market share and Apple has >>>>>>>>>>>>>>Now, imagine if Apple had released an iPhone, an iPhone Nano, an iPhone Mini, and an iPhone Pro.

    Do you know the difference between ipod touch, ipod nano, ipod classic ?. Eventually people will learn the difference and don’t tell that there are different from different versions of IPhone !. Apple do have different products.

    What ever you said about sony vaio is correct. They haven’t named their products correctly. But ultimately to reach wide variety of people, they have to release multiple products. That’s what apple has done. Initially they released only one version of ipod and then they released multiple versions. That’s what they are going to do in case of IPhone as well.

  12. shawn Says:

    maybe this is why a replacement charger for a macbook costs 80 fucking dollars

  13. almost Says:

    Microsoft market cap: $164
    Apple market cap: $83

    There’s a big gap between 2 and 100.

  14. michael Says:

    RS-“last time i checked MS is actually worth about 100 times more then Apple.”

    Maybe you should learn a little about valuation.While it is true that MSFT has a larger market Cap than AAPL @

    164.48 BB

    they have earnings per share of $1.89

    with approx $2 bb in debt.

    aapl on the other hand has a market cap of
    82.8 BB

    earnings per share of $5.38
    and almost $29BB in cash

    with 0 debt.

    It doesnt take a rocke scientist to figure out why MSFT stock price hasbeen sub $30
    for a long time.

    While aapl has traded relative to the market crash currently.
    Its in a much better position going forward.

    The product line up just being one part of the puzzle.

    The quality of the line up speaks volumes.
    Stick to core competency and do it well.

    Unlike the seemingly constant parade of MSFT product failures.(vista,zune,MSN)
    most importantly. the failure of Mgmt. to right the ship.

    Fanboy or not. AAPL makes and delivers a better user experience.All you have to do is drop by a local best buy/geeksquad to see the real story!

  15. michael Says:

    Market cap aside.

    look at eps.

    $5.38 AAPL
    $1.89 MSFT

    debt 0 AAPL

    29BB cash

    2 BB debt msft
    19.7 BB cash

  16. not really Says:

    You may want to recheck your figures

  17. me Says:


  18. Bob Says:

    what apple does isn’t unlike what happens in the car industry, Mercedes and Porsche have only a few models but they do them really well. The first gen Ford Focus had seven recalls, seven! on one model. Apple won’t stoop to slapping together cheap machines with cheap parts anymore than luxury car makers would, and yes they’re willing to deal with having limited market share as a result.


  19. iPod Nano Says:

    Good piece.

  20. Kai Nehm Says:

    Barry Schwartz gave an interesting talk on the paradox of choice.

    Just another look at the advantages of a simple product lineup.

  21. joe krivak Says:

    so basically they just played on how stupid and lazy most consumers are

  22. dave Says:

    well duh

  23. serotonin Says:

    This strategy isn’t new and is utilized across many different types of products.

    Consumers always prefer to have one clear flagship product within a brand. A product that they instantly think of when the brand comes to mind.

    With Toyota it’s the Camry. With Honda it’s the Civic (or Accord, depending). What car comes to mind when you think of GM? Ford? Chrysler?

    Another example is Colgate and Crest. Crest long had the majority market share, but oversaturated their product line with no distinguishable “go-to” product. Colgate introduced Colgate Total and for the first time in their history took over first-place in the toothpaste market.

    Consumers don’t want to feel confused, to not understand differences, and don’t want to feel like for any strength in one product they gain a bunch of weaknesses. They also don’t want to feel conned.

    With the iPod, sure, there are 4-5 different versions, but the Nano is the flagship, top-seller, and the primary model advertised. You never see the Classic anymore, and they even downgraded the top-end model.

    MS also only has more market share because they licensed their software while Apple didn’t. The same reason MS has the market share they do is the same reason you have all the PC clones. Afterall, Apple created the GUI as we know it.

  24. lorien Says:

    to each his own, but i prefer windows because I know what kind of programs are out there. Since both of my roommates always come to me to ask for “oh, can you download this program for me?” or “how do i do this?” or “can you help upgrade my ram?” i’m still in college, and the majority of the laptops i see are macs and dell, followed by hp. it’s interesting to see that about 90% of them use itunes because of ipods though. Just an interesting insight. btw, i’ve seen one kid see ubuntu on a hp, he was a computer science major.

  25. John Says:

    “It was reported today that Microsoft will be releasing 6 versions of Windows 7, and while the majority of consumers will realistically only be choosing between two of them, it helps highlight the difference between Apple’s approach to business, and that of other tech companies.”

    Total Revenue of Apple in ’08 $32.479bn
    Total Revenue of Microsoft in ’08 $60.420bn

    It looks like Microsoft’s model works a little better.

  26. shatup Says:

    mac licks sack, they just realease inferior products for twice the price and put a smooth design and a gay apple on it and call it trendy. and then all d-bags of the world get their little hands on them and flash them about like their gods or something. i could get a 1000x better pc for half the price of a shit ball mac. trash simplicity for simple minded hust sniffers.

  27. Forest Says:

    So Apple is basically cashing in on how stupid most people are. “I don’t know how to use these things and I don’t want to. I want a Mac”. and the whole time I thought people used them to be ‘outside’ the box. Now it’s making me realize that they are the sheep, I’ll stick to my xp/windows 7/ubuntu box because I like my choices 🙂

  28. mfwic Says:

    There was a time I would spend hours comparing different PC models before buying one, or parts for one. That was very appealing to have many choices. In fact it was a hobby to be an expert on all the choices. My friends and family called me for advice and discussion of all the choices. It was great fun.

    Now I am married and have a life and I can’t stand all the choices to be made when shopping for a cellphone. There are so many models with almost identical specs. But the great brands stick out, Blackberry, iPhone, …

    There is a large part of the population that doesn’t have time nor the inclination to make a hobby out of picking out their next computer, phone, gadget, etc…

    There is a price to be paid for this simplicity. Lack of choice, cost, performance, but then again..nothings free.

  29. Emdee Says:

    Actually, there’s a plastic MacBook, a metal MacBook and MacBook Pro’s with two different screen sizes. So you already have five choises and then if you factor in the several choices of hardware, SSDs, processors etc. you actually end up with almost as many choices as some of the minor laptop makers out there.

  30. e1e Says:

    @wendell “it always amazes me how much time they spend looking through the specs of the individual computers. who wants to do that?”

    who wants to do that? i want to do that and many others. its called http://www.newegg.com

    built a top of the line E8400 machine for $600

    but i also run Ubuntu 🙂

  31. Keith Says:

    Love the mac haters! Shatup, do you own a billion dollar corp? There are people at Mac, and I’m sure at other tech companies you also hate, that have more brains in their little fingers than you apparently have. Please give me the specs on a PC that is 1000 times better and half the price of an Apple. Cant be done, period. Learn the proper use of hyperbole for effect. And has been stated hundreds of times on sites like this, by people who obviously know how to research things, a PC and Apple with virtually identical specs are very close in price. Yes the Mac is still a bit more but how many people look at a Dell or HP or Sony with identical specs and choose the one that is more. Design? Customer service? I agree with mfwic completely. People who lead complete lives are neither stupid nor sheep. To think people who choose products solely on price are stupid is absurd. People who choose to be blinded by their own passions to the exclusion of any opposing views can, as was so eloquently put by one, lick my sack.

  32. AdamC Says:

    A wise man speaks because he has something to say; a fool because he has to say something. – Plato

  33. Mondo Jay Says:

    The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

    — Orson Welles


  34. Al Says:

    When you Windows users are talking about cheap PCs with lots of choice you should know that almost every PC vendor is losing money selling PCs. Dell is going bankrupt. HP only makes money on ink and paper for their printers. Sony is going bankrupt. The other Asian makers are just breaking even on very cheap labor and virtually no environmental laws or principles.

    Only Microsoft makes money on PCs. Sooner or later Microsoft will have to make the hardware too. Microsoft will be the only PC participant left standing.

    Do you really want Microsoft making your hardware? Zune? XBox 360? Microsoft Hardware plus Microsoft Software equals The Holy Grail! NOT!

  35. FPM Says:

    I used to be an Apple fanboi back when I was a homeless rodeo clown but not any more. Now I am a world class magician !

  36. Albert Says:

    I would say so too but you can’t blame Apple because it’s Apple.
    I have to agree with the author though, it’s much more easier to differentiate models based on names given rather than generic codes that are almost as hard to remember as random passwords.

    By the way, if you have 7 Dream Team members, what if they get tired by 2nd half… =P, they’ll end up losing.

  37. mdorap24 Says:

    Yes, Apple is all about the Draconian way of thinking…You do what WE WANT YOU TO DO. As some have said on here, they don’t want many choices. And that’s fine…But perhaps not everyone is satisfied with the one-size-fits-most strategy of Apple’s hardware products. Sure, you have a couple of different configs for their notebooks…But typically, if you want more powerful options, you pay substantially. Oh, and there’s the elitist stuff that goes with Apple products. You can keep ’em.

  38. John Blackburn Says:

    Nice article. To Apple, simplicity is essence, not gimmick. Product names are chosen with great care, too.

    Read more at http://watchingapple.com/2007/12/apples-product-names-are-easy-to-use/

  39. Mark Says:

    Good article. I am IT and when younger I enjoyed building, tinkering and playing with all types of computers and OS’s. Now that I am older, am married, have kids and other interests, I like to keep informed with IT, but when I get home I want my computer to work, get my mail, web, photos, files. I know Unix, Windows and Mac..but I use Mac at home for the ease of use. For young guys who like to fiddle, researching a computer for weeks, finding the best price, tweaking it at home, etc. may be fun, and I get that, but Mac’s appeal is to people who want to get a computer that gives a clear picture of what they have, what it can do, and does it. Yes it is more $$$ but worth every dollar to me so I can get on with other things besides fiddling with my computer. Gaming? The kids use an XBOX – it works great. I don’t know why in these forums everyone has to convince everyone else what the ‘right’ choice is. The right choice is what do you want to do, how much do you want to spend, and what do you feel comfortable with. That said, keep your Wintel machine, I love my Macs (flaws and all). Windows 7 sounds great and I hope it is.

  40. Mark Says:

    Pardon my poor grammar, I didn’t really proof read.

  41. kj Says:

    but will it play crysis?

  42. ray Says:

    Nice try, but your basic premise is completely wrong.

  43. Rakot Says:

    Pardon my poor grammar, I didn’t really proof read..

  44. popo Says:

    Lack of options is a good thing? Apple is as fascist as they come in terms of deciding how you will use your device and what apps you will use. The Apple experience is defined by limitation. Yes, it guarantees interoperability and ease of use — but it also limits customer choice.

    In short — if you have difficulty with technology, and don’t mind having your decisions made for you — use an Apple.

    Otherwise, use the industry standard.

  45. Euan Andrews Says:

    I agree with the author, but I would go further…

    I would say a part of Apples strategy is ‘KISS’, ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’.

    In thier products, Apple go for ‘design first, specs second’ as opposed to others who may have a whole lineup of choices, including ‘specs first, design second’.

    The iPhone is a perfect example of such strategy…

    The iPhone included no new hardware that had not already been included in other mobile phones, and features within were very limited and even restricted in some cases…but the design is where all thier effort went, harware and OS alike.

    Here is a quick list of features the iPhone is missing:
    -No MMS
    -No video recording
    -No video calling
    -No multi-tasking
    -No flash support
    -No IM
    -No turn-by-turn GPS navigation
    -No cut & paste
    -Limited bluetooth
    -Non replaceable batteries
    -No forwarding txt messages
    -Restrictions on what aps that can be installed

    Yet people still love this device.

    Because it is beautifully well designed, and the software works flawlessly.

    Hence the KISS strategy, they did not make a product that was the highest spec, or included new technology, far from it, they actually made do with LESS, so that they could get the form factor they desired, to create a device that fitted thier ‘work of art’ design strategy…
    And with less hardware and features to worry about, they could put more time and effort into making the OS and the App store work flawlessly.

    That said, I would describe Apple as a ‘Designer Tehnology’ company…they create products that look the best, but are not, technically, ‘the best’.

  46. Iron Horse Tamer Says:

    The time to study the specs and choose between various MS operating systems and the limitless offerings in that space prepare the user for spending the time necessary to remove viruses, defrag the hard disk, repair damaged drivers, install clunky software, and struggle through application issues, as one can expect on a PC.

  47. tekno_boy Says:

    My wife wants an iMac. Why? not because of it’s specs, not because of Mac OS X, a little because it looks great, but mainly because she can walk into a store and she only has to choos between a mini, an imac or a pro.

    Becuse she wants the least hasstle (she doesnt want to have to plug everything together) she want an imac, now it’s just a matter of how big the monitor should be.

    If she walks past the PC isle, she just shrugs her shoulders at the thousands of varied tower cases sitting on the desk.


  48. reactiv Says:

    Nice article. To Apple, simplicity is essence, not gimmick. Product names are chosen with great care, too..

  49. Ferrari Guy Says:

    i definitely like the dedication apple puts into their products. I really hope the next imac is just amazing and will have me drooling over it

  50. J S Says:

    I do manufacturing process improvement. Portfolio simplification is a key ingredient in propelling a manufacturer to success. Remove system complexity and hone focus on just a few products.

    Here’s a quick comparison of Apple and Dell:

    Warren Buffett: “I prefer to keep all my eggs in one basket and watch that basket closely”

  51. News Today Says:

    Apple’s products are effective but Microsoft earn much more money

  52. James, Says:

    It’s easy to have less OS choices when you leave out an entire category, servers. Don’t see any web or mail servers running mac.

  53. His Shadow Says:

    Nice. The Windows Wankers speak. From the dolt that doesn’t work on mail servers or web servers and so never have seen any assumes Apple doesn’t have either, to the simpletons who think focused product lines means the customer is an “idiot”. And then to top it off are the putzes who wouldn’t be able to do market capitalization math to save their lives.

    Face it. Years of servitude to the Windows Hedgemony has atrophied your brains. Presented with true competition in the OS marketplace, all you have is half remembered lies and panicked backpedaling.

    You don’t like Apple or it’s products? Nobody cares….

  54. some dumb mac-using bioinformaticist Says:

    I gotta love all these “mac users are dumb” posts. I work at a research university; plenty of our faculty (including my lab) use Macs. Wanna know why?

    First, they do your most frequent tasks REALLY WELL. This saves a lot of time and frustration, every day… that adds up. If your time is worth money, that few hundred $ you save on a PC disappears pretty fast.

    (And let’s not even get into money spent on tech support.)

    Second, it’s based on Linux; you can open up a terminal window to do your serious data analysis. Can’t do that in Windows. (And don’t go arguing that most people don’t need to do that, if your point is that PCs are better for power users.)

    James said:
    > It’s easy to have less OS choices when you leave out an entire
    > category, servers. Don’t see any web or mail servers running mac.

    On the contrary… the X-server is a great machine; we have a few of them in a rack doing web, mail, and scientific data processing (overflow from our Linux cluster).

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  56. JulianT Says:

    “News Today Says:
    February 5th, 2009 at 4:58 pm
    Apple’s products are effective but Microsoft earn much more money”

    “John Says:
    February 4th, 2009 at 8:57 am

    Total Revenue of Apple in ‘08 $32.479bn
    Total Revenue of Microsoft in ‘08 $60.420bn

    It looks like Microsoft’s model works a little better.”

    Well, although Apple has only 10% of the size of Microsoft’s business they make more than 50% of Microsoft’s profit, kinda disproportionate don’t you think? Apple must be doing something right……..

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