Nov 09

Lost in the laptop labyrinth


Every PC company tries to make it easier for customers to buy their stuff. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to it than streamlining the checkout process. The real problem is a nasty one, rooted deep in the corporate culture — and all seem powerless to fix it:

Their product lines are bloated to the extreme.

I’ve prepared this handy chart to illustrate the absurdity. This is a look at laptops only (it’s equally horrifying on the desktop side), as presented on each company’s website. Apple offers only three models. Dell weighs in with ten. And HP over-weighs in with 19. It hurt my fingers just to type them.

With Apple, you simply pick one of the three basic models, and then customize based on your needs. Why does this lesson in simplicity elude the monoliths of PC-dom? Because their companies are structured around separate groups that don’t communicate well with each other, each fighting for its own budget and its own survival.

I venture to say that PC customers would be a lot happier if their basic choices were simpler. (The model names are stupefying too, but let’s save that topic for a future post.) Once you have an obvious starting point, its vastly easier for a human being to commit.

Not only would customers be happier with fewer models, the computer companies would shave millions off their operating costs — when razor-thin margins are what’s gotten them into this mess in the first place. Streamlining their offerings would drastically cut spending on manufacturing and marketing.

By spewing models as they do, PC companies actually put more distance between themselves and their customers. They’d bond more deeply if they guided their customers down a well-lit path. The sad fact is, those battleships really are difficult to turn around.

Tags: , , , ,

  • Synthmeister

    Forget laptops, just take a look at the Nokia cellphone lineup. C’net currently lists over 200 models to choose from. Of course, apparently they can’t even decide on a mobile OS either. Various versions of Symbian floating around plus some new Linux based OS called Maemo or something.

  • Synthmeister

    What a logistical, support and manufacturing nightmare. And they wonder why they lost several hundred million in the last quarter.

  • Paul

    Ken, while I agree that Apple has excelled at simplicity your chart is not a valid comparison.

    I just clicked on HP’s website, clicked on Laptops and I got a whopping *5* choices. Mini, Everyday, Ultra-Portable, High Performance, Envy. It seems pretty clear where I would look for myself and the different members of my family.

    Your list includes different screen sizes of the same lineup for HP (see the Envy). If that’s the case, include the 13, 15, or 17-inch MacBook Pro. And those special models you broke out like the “Mini Studio Tord” is identical to Apple’s Product Red campaign for Ipod.

    HP (selling how many times more laptops than Apple) does have a lot to learn in simplicity. But your chart isn’t a good comparison. Perhaps HP should list their different models like Apple lists its Ipods?: http://www.apple.com/ipod/compare-ipod-models/

  • zoro

    yeah, this lack of simplicty has really impacted the sales of PC’s worldwide. What’s Apple global market share? 4%?

  • Todd

    You think customers would be happier with fewer models and the costs would be lower. You sound like a true soviet. You think we should all drink classic Coke and prohibit Coke Zero, Plus, Diet, ….? Why are Apples more costly? Can’t you enjoy diversity? Since the PC marketplace is more ‘open’ than Apples, sure there will be more bugs there. Some of us would rather deal with that than paying twice as much.

  • sarumbear

    OK. We know you like Apple. We know you helped them to create an image that with the help of their products pushed them up to the stratosphere. But…

    don’t you think you need to be un-biased at least occasionaly?

    The iPod comparison page Paul pointed to (http://www.apple.com/ipod/compare-ipod-models/) shows why HP, Dell, etc. are not doing as Apple does with computers: They sell far too few computers. Whereas Apple sell large amounts of iPods. And…

    Their iPod page is almost the same as HP’s or Dell’s computer pages. It is littered with models seperated with no reason or rhyme.

    They have a product called iPod Touch, but functionalities change depending on how much stoarge it has. Or the iPod Shuffle that comes in five colours but also available in stainless steel in the store. Why is a ‘colour’ of a product suddenly decided to be shown seperate from the others?

    It is called realities of marketing. Apple is learning that the more they sell the more they will become like HP or Dell. Maybe it is time you learn the realities of retail too.

  • Cory

    I agree with Ken on this one…. but when you add in the mix of Windows 7 flavours, it gets even worse.

    I don’t think PC makers and Microsoft get it…. we want choice… but we also want things to work seamlessly. They seem to think that by making more models they’ll sell more machines… but that’s not always the case. With Microsoft, I think one version of windows would cut down on issues and clear up much of the confusion out there.

    Take one feature availble in the Ultimate version of Windows 7 – “Prevent unauthorized software from running with AppLocker”… I mean, shouldn’t all version have this… I would think that this feature would actually be more helpful to the novice user who are more likely going to purchase either the “Home Premium” or “Professional” versions.

    By having so many versions of Windows… Microsoft is just adding more complexity to their business. They have to offer different updates to each one… and then when it comes time to upgrade to Windows 8…. it’s a nightmare with so many different roads that the upgrade script needs to account for…. just look at the problems upgrading to Windows 7 http://mossblog.allthingsd.com/files/2009/08/windows-upgrade-chart.png

    And not to mention…. when a user’s needs change and they require a function only found in a higher version of Windows 7, they have to upgrade again – Does this make sense? Windows copies Apple all the time… why not copy something that makes sense…. drop the different versions and while they’re at it… drop the stupid key and verification process…. it doesn’t stop hackers, it just annoys their paying customers to death.

    One more thing…. why so much to upgrade? Vista owners should get a huge break. (not sure if they do… but if they don’t… they should).

  • Adam

    No need to turn this into a flame war. I think it’s important for H-P and Dell to be “everything to everyone”. Their product lines are somewhat bloated because they have to cover every market segment in order to achieve maximum volume. Clearly, this is not the case at Apple.

  • and at the end of the day, ALL the PC’s run Windows (a few offer Linux), which seems to be a real line in the sand not spoken about too often… it’s the OS that’s often disregarded as the real differentiator… it becomes almost pointless to look at most of the makers because all they’re really offering are different skins to house Windows, no?

    at the base: Windows or OSX?

    if all my choices were that simple…

  • Nate

    Amen – looking forward to your product name comparison follow-up. i think Sony should take the cake on that one

  • ken segall

    My overall point is about the power of simplicity. Trust me, every company talks about simplifying, they just can’t pull it off. Click on any of those simple five categories for HP and your choices geometrically increase, just as my chart shows. We know enough about human nature to know that this will be overload to many. And I’m sorry, there are still multiple versions with the same screen sizes within each category. I didn’t mention in my post for lack of space, but I would also quibble with those five categories. Can’t I use an ultra-portable as my everyday computer? Or a high-performance model or ENVY? This is an attempt to minimize the complexity, but it’s pretty artificial.

    It’s fairly well accepted that making things easier for the buyer makes them more prone to buy. Forgetting Apple, at the very least simplicity is one reason a buyer might shop at one PC maker vs. another. And the manufacturing complexity of all these product lines certainly does impact profit — the lack of which is causing severe issues with PC makers. Meanwhile, Microsoft seems a lot more concerned with Apple’s tiny market share than you are. They’re spending an awful lot of dough to directly battle Apple in advertising. Ever wonder why? Maybe because Apple’s market share is growing so rapidly, and has kept growing even through times when PC sales were flat?

    I can easily handle Coke, Diet Coke and Coke Zero. Three is my limit :) I enjoy diversity as much as the next guy, but from a business model point of view, at some point you start working against your own purposes — by adding to your own costs of R&D, manufacturing, marketing and making it more difficult to get retail space. I’m not suggesting that companies with a wider array of customers adopt Apple’s exact methods. I do think they would be better off with fewer base models, with customization available for each. Why are Apples more costly? Well, why is Apple as a company suddenly valued 6X more than Dell? There are a hundred reasons for all of these things. Hopefully we can discuss them all, one by one, and have ourselves a little fun in the process.

    Thanks for commenting, all.

  • Synthmeister

    You all need to read a little Malcolm Gladwell. (Blink) He actually shows how most consumers simply get confused with more choices and buy less merchandise.

  • zoro

    @ken sure, apple’s a big competitor – so yeah, microsoft should work to compete. That said, your article seems to suggest that the simplicty of offerings by apple has led to mass adoption – i just wanted to call out that 95 out of every 100 people who buy a new computer pick up a PC – in spite of the crazy array of options.

  • ken segall

    I don’t think Apple’s talent for simplicity has led to mass adoptions. But I do think it’s led to a customer base that has connected with them on an emotional level — and that’s what keeps them coming back. This bond is what every PC maker is dying to create, and it isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes some serious long-term commitment, as well as unwavering support from the top of the organization. That’s what makes it so difficult.

  • i noticed the same thing when i was walking thru a pc store the other day. Samsung and Sony are guilty of this too – they make their model numbers the product name.

  • Mike

    Ken, I also think you missed it. You forgot to include all the different Windows editions that ship with every “series”.

    @All PC lovers:
    Look: Computers are not cars. Cars prove their power by adding horse power, by adding speed (physical speed), by adding torque, etc. But ultimately, they’re meant to transport people from point A to point B.

    Computers are different. They are machines meant to compute, store and process information. That’s all they can do. Everything you do all day long is process information (even if you think of it as music, e-mail, video, etc.). On a computer, what matters most is not only how fast they can process information, but how reliable they are when doing it.

    The Windows OS is unreliable. I won’t even discuss if they have stolen ideas from other systems, but I will argue how many headaches it can give to any average consumer. Any Windows computer, disregarding entirely its hardware, is prone to crashes, slowdowns, freezes, virus, and other nuisances because it wasn’t conceived as a heavy duty OS. For Gates’ sake, it wasn’t even conceived as an Internet system. What Microsft has done is to patch the underlying system again and again so it has the capabilities required for everyday tasks in 2009.

    Mac OS 9 (and its earlier versions) was also pretty lame because it was designed for the tasks people gave computers in late 1990’s. Apple took the advantage of their low market share to build a completely new OS having in mind the new tasks to which computers where forced, mainly, networking. The Internet was a fundamental premise of Mac OS X.

    PC vendors now try to differentiate from each other by having many models of computers. However, because they are computers, the problem is not only how fast can its hardware perform a given task, but how reliably the OS will handle the information.

    The diversity of PC’s is a marketing strategy developed by thinking computers can be sold as if they were cars. The more physical power you add, the better it is. Sony, HP, Dell and the other suspects offer the compact, the hybrid, the luxury, and the sports models. They offer different brakes, different chassis, different exhaust systems, and so on. And they think they can bond with their consumers by telling them how much faster is one than the other and how they can tune their computers to be even faster.

    Mac OS X is far more reliable than Windows. Apple only sell computers with specific hardware in order to avoid problems caused by hardware. If you know the hardware your software is running on, you can detect better the problems that affect your system and correct them. Because fewer hardware models and only one software version are more controllable, they are more reliable. Since only relatively powerful hardware can process information in a reliable manner, they only sell good hardware. Good software and good hardware make a good computer. Excellent software and excellent hardware make an excellent computer.

    From a marketing point of view, is easier to sell fewer models. When a costumer enters an Apple Store and asks for a laptop, they are asked “How intensely are you planning to use it?”. There are only three models, one very portable and sexy, a regular one, and the really powerful one. That’s it. That connects with the consumer immediately. The choice is easy.

    Lawyers don’t want to be thinking about their computer related problems, they have better things to do. Doctors can kill someone if they don’t have the right information at the right time. Accountants don’t have neither the time nor the money to be thinking on computers instead of numbers. When you need to click a thousand times to see an email, time is money. When you need to download an updated driver for your video card so you can see a very important tomography, the time and effort it takes to do it in invaluable. When you need to solve a registry conflict between Excel and Quicken so you can finish auditing a company, haste can make you commit a terrible mistake.

    Regarding information, simplicity is not better, is the only thing.

    Why does Mac OS X has so little market share? Because it is an excellent product, and excellent products come at a price. You can find a Dell netbook for $299, but it’ll be a lousy product. If you want a good product, you might have to spend $1,200, but you’ll get a gorgeous MacBook Pro that will be efficient, reliable and will last for a very long time. You don’t believe me? How much market share do you think that Aston Martin has? How much market share do you think Rolex has? How much market share do you think Bulgari has?

    More expensive does not equal ridiculous pricing. If you are now thinking that Mac is more expensive just because they are charging you for design, please take the new 27 inch iMac and see how valuable it is. Sure, it is $1,700, but it can also be a professional grade display. So, for the price of a display, they are giving you for free a computer. How better value than that do you want?

    Better is more expensive, but it is also better.

    Mac is simpler. Mac is better. Mac is expensive. Mac has more value.

  • Cory

    Mike…. I disagree with one point…

    Apple didn’t “build a completely new OS” … they purchased (took over a company – NeXT) to acquire a completely new OS.

    Microsoft tried to build an object oriented OS – they failed…. Apple tried…. they failed…. they got together and tried… they failed.

    NeXT (NeXTSTEP / Openstep / OSX) was the only commercial viable object oriented operating system… and really is the only one still today.

    NeXTSTEP is scalable and portable… it’s was years ahead of everything else… it still is as OSX.

  • From an advertising perspective, how effective is a voiceover that says “my HP pavilion dv5-1221tx Notebook PC powered by Intel Core 2Duo processor tells my story. What’s yours?”. That’s the tag-line.

    This is a recent Ad in India for well, you know the product now. Probably, the advertising company should be partly to blame, Simplicity sure sells more.

    For those who want to check the ad, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86OgPJj2Wss

  • ken segall

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you totally. (Even the part about me forgetting the Windows mess.) I have a post brewing about that market share thing. You’re right, some of the world’s greatest brands have a surprisingly low market share, yet they are firmly entrenched and profitable. Just a fact of life: cheaper will always sell in greater volume, but quality will always have an audience.

    This is fantastic!! I owe you one for pointing this out, and I hope to feature it in a post soon. In 30 seconds, it demonstrates the folly of (A) complicated product naming, and (B) the dependence on Intel marketing money. Thanks for the contribution.

  • Glad that I could help :)

  • Michael


    Cory, you disagreed with Mike, and now I have to disagree (slightly) with you:

    Yes, Apple did purchase NeXT, Inc. (for $400 million, after they had told Be, Inc., that the highest they were going to pay for a company was around the $225m – $250m mark – but I digress). Yes, NeXTSTEP (actually, at the time, OPENSTEP), and by extension, FreeBSD, was/were the base of what we now know as Mac OS X.

    However, whether intentionally or not, your comment suggest that they bought NeXTSTEP and just slapped it into a PowerMac, and bada-bing, bada-boom, you have Mac OS X; this is far from what actually happened.

    NeXTSTEP was *substantially* rewritten, in several different areas. The Darwin kernel remained more or less the same, I believe (true to its BSD roots), but a good deal of the rest was changed, or redone completely.

    For one thing, Aqua was created. Granted, this is ‘just’ the user interface, but (for obvious reasons) the UI is one of the most important parts of ANY computer system, as it is (of course) what the user interacts with any time they use the software. NeXTSTEP’s GUI was nothing like Aqua – not as easy to use, not as free-flowing, not *nearly* as advanced, PostScript based instead of PDF, and the list could go on.

    For another thing, the underlying userland is different from NeXTSTEP’s, particularly in the way it is developed: the Cocoa framework (which you obliquely referenced in your post) wasn’t around in its present form in NeXTSTEP, just sort of an ancestral form. Also, the Objective-C (the language in which Cocoa projects/applications are written, for those who may not know) runtime was updated extensively (and later on, the language was, as well). Two *entirely* new APIs/frameworks were created, the Classic API/runtime, and Carbon, both of which were made in order to ease the process of transition for then-current Mac (OS 9) applications. In fact, the Carbon framework (again, for those who may not know, and who actually care :) was not even planned to be made; it was created at the behest of whiny developers who didn’t want to port their stuff to Cocoa yet/didn’t want to learn Objective-C/didn’t want to make decent apps/were scared OS X might not take off/didn’t want to make any money/whatever.

    To make an already lengthy post less lengthy than it would be otherwise, the point I’m trying to make is that this is only a (very) small part of the work that went into turning NeXTSTEP/Openstep/OPENSTEP into Mac OS X. The implication (again, intentional or not, I have no idea, and I don’t mean to suggest that either is true) that it was simply a “swap the pieces out and let ‘er go” kind of operation is simply fallacious/misinformed at best. Of course, it could be that you know all this, and just didn’t want to take up the space that I did. ;)

    Also, thanks to Ken for a great post, and for several others, as I just found your blog by way of Tom Reestman @ The Small Wave. (http://thesmallwave.com, for those who care – good Apple articles/mythbusting) RSS reader will be updated to contain your URL. Thanks again.


  • ken segall

    I was going to say I couldn’t say it better myself, but the truth is I couldn’t say it at all :) You make me feel like I’m back working with NeXT (in a good way!). Seriously, thanks for the great comment. You obviously know your stuff and your observations are insightful. Looking forward to more in the future…

  • Nice post. In India, laptop purchase is largely guided by how many features are packed into an inexpensive price tag. I agree with Sekar about the irrelevance of ‘dv5-1221tx’ and other such. Interestingly, Dell has launched a new theme commercial for their Studio series in India. Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWa9puz0qng