Apple's simplicity can make things complicated

As is often the case when I have to deal with the world of non-Mac PCs, I had reason to think fondly of Apple's deliberate simplicity of marketing the other day. I feared that our five-year-old Windows laptop, still perfectly adequate for its role as a second computer used exclusively for Web surfing, was ailing and needed to be replaced. It was a false alarm -- a new power cable did the trick -- but I did spend some time hunting online in the sub-$600 full-sized notebook market. What I found was a bewildering array of models and model numbers. "Toshiba Satellite L305-S5921"? Is there an L series, an L300 series, a ... wha? It reminds me of the bad old days of kaleidoscoping Performa model numbers. Apple hides this sort of complexity by, say, not giving the two different aluminum Macbooks different model numbers, or not giving the iMac a new name every time it gets a speed bump. Who cares if the current iMac is a completely different beast from the one released in 1998? This is the one you can buy now, so for 99 percent of people, it's the one you should be thinking of when you hear the name "iMac."

The iPhone is marketed in much the same way. While other companies sell a slew of similar but not identical phones over a number of carriers (Wikipedia's article on the Motorola Razr details no less than 19 different incarnations), the iPhone has had exactly two iterations so far in its 18 months of life. Rather than tweaking its gadget for different markets and carriers, Apple has simply dictated terms on how it will be sold and managed. Here is the phone. This is how it works. This is how it works everywhere, in exactly the same way.

It looks as if the biggest challenge to this model is coming from the biggest potential market, China. Apple has been in discussions with China Mobile on bringing the iPhone to that country pretty much since the phone launched, with no results as of yet. According to this article from Interfax China, these negotiations -- which personally involved Steve Jobs and Tim Cook -- have repeatedly foundered on Apple's insistence on doing things the way they've done them everywhere else. From the end-user perspective, the most interesting kink is China Mobile's insistence that its users buy apps from the carrier's own app store, rather than Apple's.

Now, it's hard to fault Apple for balking at this; it's no secret that Apple hopes for the App Store to be a nice cash cow for the iPhone indefinitely, a way to extract money from all those users out there. But it also seems to me to fly in the face of Apple's whole model of simplicity; it would be as if the iMac has a different model name in Russia, or if OS X acted differently in France. The App Store should be the App Store, everywhere -- or at least, that how Apple sees it. The question now is, are China Mobile's 400 million subscribers -- that's 100 million more people than the entire population of the US -- worth a little complication?

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