When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of his early edicts was to reduce the sheer number of Apple’s offerings down to four main categories. Instead of having a confusing mass of options, Apple would simply offer four different computers, one each for:

  • Consumer desktop
  • Consumer notebook
  • Pro desktop
  • Pro notebook

Eventually, these became the iMac, the iBook, the Power Mac, and the PowerBook. Times have changed since Jobs pared down Apple’s Macintosh lines, but some of the lessons remain.

The idea was to offer one computer at each need and price point, so that if someone wanted to spend $1500 on a computer, Apple had a product for them. If they wanted to spend $3000, well, Apple had a product for them as well. For years, Apple didn’t offer any computers in the $500 range because, Jobs said, Apple didn’t know how to make a $500 computer that was any good.

That all changed in 2010 with the launch of the iPad. All of a sudden, Apple had its $500 computer (more or less), and it was hitting lots of different price points. The iPad started at $500 and went up by a few hundred dollars as customers added additional storage and cellular connectivity. At at time, Apple’s notebooks and desktop machines (the consumer and professional lines had blurred quite a bit over the prior 10 years — and these days, they’re really blurry) started at a bit more than $1000.

Over the next four years, as Apple launched new iPads, it sometimes kept around the prior generation so that price-conscious buyers (educational institutions, especially) still had options if they didn’t want to spend $500 for the entry-level, current-generation iPad.

Nowadays, Apple and its iPad line have become a little more bloated. Ostensibly, the guideline is still to offer an iPad at every price point, but I’m beginning to wonder if Apple isn’t getting a little too granular. Following its media event last week, the company now offers five different lines of iPads, with numerous capacity and cellular options.

Honestly, the options are a bit overwhelming (SKUs include various color options and individual models for US cellular carriers):

  • iPad mini (launched Fall 2012) – (10 SKUs) – $250-$380
  • iPad mini 2 (Fall 2013) – (20 SKUs) – $300-$480
  • iPad mini 3 (Fall 2014) – (18 SKUs) – $400-$730
  • iPad Air (Fall 2013) – (20 SKUs) – $400-$580
  • iPad Air 2 (Fall 2014) – (18 SKUs) – $500-$830

That’s 86 different iPad models, including color options and the cellular carriers, just in the US. No wonder the company developed a new “Apple SIM” that can switch between AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint (in the US) and EE in the UK, with more to come. It drastically reduces the number of SKUs Apple needs to handle.

And yet, I wonder why it’s necessary? In the US, Apple now offers iPads at the following 22 different price points:

$250, $300, $350, $380, $400, $400, $430, $450, $480, $500, $500, $530, $530, $580, $600, $600, $630, $630, $700, $730, $730, and $830.

What chaos! We all know that Tim Cook is an operations master, and it’s hugely impressive that Apple has built a world-class just-in-time distribution system to manage demand across dozens of SKUs and price points — but at some point, it’s just too much.

When I worked at an Apple Retail Store in 2010, we had iPads in two colors, three capacities, and either Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi + Cellular versions. That’s 12 different models, and it was tricky to keep track of then! However, for the customer, it came down to three questions:

  • Do you want connectivity anywhere or just where you have Wi-Fi?
  • 16 GB, 32 GB or 64 GB capacity?
  • Black or white?

Those questions are pretty simple. Now, however, it’s much more complicated:

  • Do you want connectivity anywhere or just where you have Wi-Fi?
  • 9.7″ or 7.9″ screen?
  • Current-generation, last-generation (in the 9.7″ model it’s a little thicker, a little slower, has a slightly worse camera, and no fingerprint sensor — but if you want the 7.9″ model, the only difference is the fingerprint sensor and there’s no gold color option), or two-generations old (but only in 7.9″ and it’s a lot slower and doesn’t have as nice of a screen)
  • 16 GB, 64 GB or 128 GB capacity (depending on which generation you buy, because the older ones might be limited to just 16 GB or 32 GB)?
  • Black, white, or gold (if you picked current-generation, because older-gen iPads only come in black or white)?

What a disaster! I really feel for Apple Retail employees. Instead of finding the best product for the customer, I fear they’ll be reduced to asking “Well, how much do you want to spend?” and fitting buyers into a price point rather than what they really need.

Offering customers too many choices can, paradoxically, drive them away from making a purchase. Having lots of options might be appealing to a number-cruncher who wants to nail every possible price point, but other customers can find themselves overwhelmed and driven away from buying.

Apple’s lineup of new iPads, particularly the new, ultra-thin iPad Air 2, is impressive, as is its supply chain and sales channel abilities — but perhaps Apple’s executive team should go back to 1997 and focus on just a few great products instead of trying to offer so many choices.

Do you agree? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.