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Apple’s Product Line Is a Mess

The company used to stand for something. Now it’s just chasing profits.

Paris Marx
Sep 13, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo: Qi Heng/VCG via Getty Images

Remember the days when Tim Cook would brag about how Apple’s product line could fit on a single table? It would be much harder to make that claim today.

There’s no arguing that Cook has delivered for Apple’s shareholders. The company’s share price has soared, profits are generally on an upward trend, and Apple recently became the first public company to hit a $1 trillion valuation. Cook has also funneled plenty of Apple’s cash into stock buybacks to boost its share price and increase the dividend. And his several-year campaign to get the U.S. government to slash corporate taxes finally paid off late last year, freeing up even more money to enrich wealthy shareholders.

Consumers, on the other hand, haven’t been quite so fortunate. The company’s prices keep going up as wages stagnate for most Americans, creating a need for differentiation between cheaper and more expensive products. No longer do the barista and the corporate executive use the same iPhone — today, there are high-end models, consumer models, and a long line of old products the company keeps around to fill every niche and price point.

Whatever your opinion of Jobs, particularly in light of new details on how he treated his first daughter, this approach is a far cry from his values. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he slashed the company’s product line to a few core products and preached the importance of saying “no” — not just to ideas you don’t like, but also to those you love if they don’t work within the larger vision. He revitalized the company with a focused product line, which helped grow its cult following. As Apple’s values change, this kind of focus is under threat.

That’s not to say there weren’t issues under Jobs’ leadership, but the problems have grown more severe as the company has shifted its focus from products to share prices. The Magic Mouse and Apple Pencil were released with odd charging configurations, for example, and there have been complaints about the new MacBook keyboards. The number of recalls and repair programs seems to be growing, and software is increasingly released before Apple works out all the bugs.

A Confusing Batch of iPhones

At its keynote on September 12, Apple announced three new models: the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR. While the company also discontinued the iPhone X, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus, and iPhone SE, all the new color and size configurations ultimately increase the number of models on the market.

The two-year-old iPhone 7 is still for sale, starting at $449 without a contract. The iPhone 8 is available too, at $599. For some reason, their Plus counterparts haven’t been discontinued although the iPhone XR is an obvious replacement.

For a company that claims to be so focused on “customer sat,” it may seem odd to keep selling iPhone models that are several years old — especially when it’s clear they’re designed to stop working after two to three years. Presumably, Apple is keeping these phones on the market to ensure there are less expensive models available. Its goal is not only to boost Apple’s sales in developing economies, but also in the U.S. where inequality has left many with little disposable income to splurge on thousand-dollar iPhones.

The lineup’s lack of focus is reflected in a jumble of numbers and letters, Pluses and Maxes, Ss and Rs.

In 2010, the iPhone 4 started at $599 without a contract. Compare that to 2018, when the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max start at $999 and $1099 (rumors of a price cut were unfounded). The more “price-conscious” model, the iPhone XR, costs $749.

Higher prices produce a significant profit margin for Apple, but the lineup’s lack of focus is reflected in a jumble of numbers and letters, Pluses and Maxes, Ss and Rs. Screen sizes don’t correspond with the price points: The XR’s 6.1-inch screen is larger than the 5.8-inch screen of the XS, but smaller than the 6.5-inch screen on the XS Max. Even the features don’t make sense now that 3D Touch has been removed from the XR, while remaining on every other iPhone model. And let’s not forget how Apple can’t decide on a way to designate the cheap models: First it was 5c, then SE, now XR. Why is this so hard?

This lack of focus also extends to the iPad and Mac lineups, which are rumored to be up for a refresh next month.

A Lack of Direction for iPad and Mac

The iPad started off as a simple product. It was one size until the iPad mini was added. More recently, the iPad Pros have arrived with nicer screens, better processors, the Smart Connector, and Pencil support. But this line, too, lacks focus.

For a while, iPads were numbered like the iPhones. Then there was a “new iPad” sold alongside the older iPad 3. Then there was a 9.7-inch iPad Pro alongside the regular 9.7-inch iPad, which was replaced by a 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which is now rumored to be getting replaced by an 11-inch iPad Pro with very narrow bezels like the iPhone XS. And that’s without mentioning the monstrous 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the languishing iPad mini 4 — why does it still have a number? — that should have been cut from the line a year ago.

The Mac lineup is an even bigger clusterfuck. At one point, Apple seemed to be refining the MacBook lineup with the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros. (It kept the 2015 MacBook Pro around for a while, however, because professionals hated aspects of the newer models, like their keyboards, spec limitations, and the useless money grab that is the Touch Bar.)

Apple under Jobs wasn’t perfect. Jobs certainly wasn’t either. But it’s undeniable that Apple stood for something that redefined our expectations of personal computing and mobile devices.

Now it’s rumored that the MacBook Air, which hasn’t seen anything but a minor spec bump in several years, will be redesigned with slimmer bezels and a Retina display. It’s intended to be a more attractive cheap option — but we’re still not sure what will differentiate it from the 12-inch MacBook. It also burdens the MacBook lineup with the same confusion plaguing the new iPhone lineup: The new 13-inch MacBook Air will be cheaper and likely won’t be thinner (despite the “Air” branding) than the 12-inch MacBook, making the 13-inch MacBook Pro even less attractive to customers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just cut the price of the 12-inch MacBook?

Similarly, Apple’s desktop line is all over the place. The iMacs get spec bumps every year or so, but the Mac Pro and Mac mini haven’t been updated since 2013 and 2014, respectively. And because the professional community was so angry over the new MacBook Pros, Apple released an outrageously expensive iMac Pro ahead of a promised Mac Pro refresh in 2019. The company is rumored to be updating the Mac mini next month with professionals in mind.

Everything Else

Apple announced a refreshed Apple Watch Series 4 during its keynote, along with new Nike+ and Hermès models, and decided to keep around the Series 3. It also released the HomePod last year. It’s rumored to be releasing a smaller one after disappointing sales numbers that it refuses to report.

The AirPod headphones are a rare bright spot. Though they look kind of dumb, they’re incredibly convenient — I love mine. Apple is rumored to be releasing its own branded over-ear headphones. Apple TV is also competing with other digital boxes offering more features at lower prices, and that dynamic will likely persist until Apple launches the streaming service it’s rumored to be collecting content for.

Apple Lost Its Soul

Apple under Jobs wasn’t perfect. Jobs certainly wasn’t either. But it’s undeniable that Apple stood for something that redefined our expectations of personal computing and mobile devices. The company’s products looked great, and the options were streamlined, not confusing. Their prices were aspirational but, usually, attainable.

Cook’s Apple has shifted from focusing on the products to focusing on the share price. The company is sitting on an insane pile of cash and has been buying back its stock to boost the share price for years, but that wasn’t good enough for Cook and his investors. Cook used Apple’s money and power to fight for lower corporate taxes, even though large companies already have strategies for evading their tax obligations.

Apple is no longer David, it’s Goliath.

Its focus on pleasing investors has forced Apple to introduce higher-end product categories, most notably with the Watch, in an effort to further increase profit margins. And without its singular focus on product, the company has expanded its existing categories and moved into new ones, negatively impacting its execution and driving loyal customers to switch to Windows or Android. Or at least to vocally criticize Apple’s decisions.

Today’s Apple thrives on growing inequality. The incentive for yearly iterations doesn’t promote innovation, it encourages modest updates just flashy enough to get people to empty their wallets. When rich consumers spend money on these modest updates, Apple is encouraged to serve them over the masses. Apple’s size allows it to buy up potential competitors and lobby governments to secure corporate welfare it doesn’t need.

Apple is no longer David, it’s Goliath. Its wealth has changed its incentives, and it’s hard to see how anything but the threat of antitrust action will make the company refocus to serve its customers. It’s getting harder to justify the cost of remaining in the Apple ecosystem, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically on tech, cities, and media, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter: http://bit.ly/radurb

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically on tech, cities, and media, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter: http://bit.ly/radurb

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