What's in a Name?

Imagine for a moment that you know nothing about Apple's notebook lineup.

Perhaps you suffered a concussion when your previous notebook fell on your head, or--more likely--you're a fed-up-with-Windows would-be switcher. Whatever the reason, you know so little about Apple's notebook lineup that you don't even know they're all called MacBooks.

What's remarkable is that you could still walk into an Apple store--or dial up Apple's online store in your browser--and with no outside research whatsoever buy the right Mac laptop to meet your needs. Your commonsense hunch after reading nothing more than the names of products would be spot-on correct.

The same self-evident naming scheme applies to Apple's desktops (Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro) and iPods (shuffle, nano, classic, and touch). The names alone tell you what the products are and how they relate to each other; they make it easy to buy.

Simplicity everywhere

As the sort of person who does know something about the Mac lineup, you might think everything I've said so far is incredibly obvious. But here's the thing: such easily understood product branding is almost nonexistent among Apple's competitors.

Dell offers at least five different notebook lines: Inspiron, XPS, Precision, Latitude, and Vostro. Sony offers six different lines of Vaio notebooks: TZ, SZ, CR, FZ, NR, and AR. The names tell you nothing about the laptops; they sound more like abbreviations for obscure states from the former Soviet Union.

The experience of buying a laptop from Apple, on the other hand, is every bit as well designed as the laptops themselves. The same adjectives that apply to Apple's products--simple, obvious, elegant, thoughtful--apply to Apple's branding.

It wasn't always like this at Apple. Just ask any longtime Mac user about the Performa era. But ever since the iBook and PowerBook lineups, followed by the MacBook and MacBook Pro models, Apple has been making it easier for its customers to understand its Mac offerings.

Apple doesn't force you to figure out the difference between, say, a Vaio SZ660N and a Vaio SZ440N66. Products within a given Mac product line are simply differentiated by their specs--CPU speed, color, screen size, and storage capacity.

Fewer names, fewer products

The trade-off, though--and there's always a trade-off--is that Apple's product lineups are deliberately sparse. The company's goal is to satisfy as many customers as possible with the fewest number of products. It's a lot less likely that Apple makes a Mac that's perfect for you. Take, for example, the gap that exists between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro: many Mac buyers would like to see something with the specs of the iMac but without the built-in display.

Until recently, the other big gap was at the small end of the MacBook line. Rumors of a new ultraportable MacBook began back in 2006, when Apple dropped the 12-inch PowerBook G4. But ultraportable meant different things to different people. Some wanted lighter, some wanted thinner, some wanted a smaller footprint (and thus a smaller screen). Some wanted cheaper (like the 12-inch iBook) and some wanted as much performance as could fit inside (like the 12-inch PowerBook). What we got with the MacBook Air is something else: lighter, thinner, and more elegantly designed, with compromises in performance and expandability.

It won't hurt Apple that some Mac users are disappointed in the MacBook Air. If you're going to buy a Mac no matter what, Apple doesn't need to make one that's exactly what you want. You'll just buy the one the company does offer that comes closest. Apple doesn't have to mimic PC makers, who are driven to offer complex product arrays out of fear that gaps in their lineups will drive customers to competitors.

What Apple has needed is a notebook that appeals to customers who might not have otherwise bought a Mac portable at all. The MacBook Air is that machine. It's far better than the MacBook or MacBook Pro as secondary machine for users who already have a nice Mac desktop. It may sacrifice expandability, but it offers simplicity and elegance--two factors at the core of Apple's appeal to Windows users. For fence-sitting switchers who are thinking, "Man, things do look easier and simpler on the Mac," the MacBook Air is just what they were waiting for.

[John Gruber writes and publishes the Mac blog Daring Fireball.]

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