In recent times I have often seen mentioned a specific moment in Apple’s history — when Steve Jobs came back in 1997 and started streamlining the Macintosh product line as part of the plan to save the company from bankruptcy. This bit tends to surface every time Apple introduces new hardware; there’s always someone pointing out how today’s Apple is slowly reverting to the chaotic product line the company had around 1996, before being simplified by Steve Jobs.
But just how chaotic was the Macintosh offering in 1996? I was already a Mac user then, and keeping up-to-date with Apple and tech news in general. I remember product announcements and various reviews in computer magazines. It’s easy to see, in retrospect, the huge amount of Apple hardware that was available twenty years ago compared to the post-Jobs order in the early 2000s. At the time things felt a bit different, perhaps in part due to the fact that Apple kept discontinuing Mac models and introducing new ones at a sustained pace. Another thing to consider is that not all Mac models introduced at the time were available everywhere.
Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to offer an overview of the Macintosh models Apple was selling in 1996 and make a few related observations. In a nutshell: there was some level of organisation in what many have called the chaos of Macs available back then, and despite the long list of Mac models, the families and form factors were just a few; one of the main causes that generated confusion in the Macintosh product line was the frequent rebranding, and the progressive meaninglessness of the Performa line as the consumer choice versus the Power Macintosh as synonymous of ‘Pro’ machine.
The long list
The following is a list of Macintosh models that were available in 1996. Of course, very few of these were available throughout the whole year. As I said earlier, there was a lot of coming and going. Various models were discontinued in Spring 1996, others were introduced at the same time, and so on. Still, if you keep in mind that many of these models came at least in two processor speed and storage flavours, that made for a lot of machines to produce.
(All Macintosh information was collected via the ever-useful Mactracker)
- Macintosh LC 580 (discontinued April 1996)
- Macintosh Performa 560 (discontinued April 1996)
- Macintosh Performa 580/588CD (discontinued February and May 1996)
- Macintosh Performa 5200 series (discontinued April 1996)
- Macintosh Performa 5260/5270 (introduced April & October 1996, discontinued February 97)
- Macintosh Performa 5280 (introduced November 1996, discontinued June 1997)
- Macintosh Performa 5300 series (discontinued between May and August 1996)
- Macintosh Performa 5400 series (introduced April 1996, discontinued Feb/Sept/Dec 1997)
- Macintosh Performa 6200 series (discontinued August 1996)
- Macintosh Performa 6300 series (discontinued between September and October 1996)
- Macintosh Performa 6360 (introduced October 1996, discontinued October 1997)
- Macintosh Performa 6400 series (introduced August 1996, discontinued August 1997)
- Power Macintosh 4400 (introduced November 1996, discontinued February 1998)
- Power Macintosh 5200 (discontinued April 1996)
- Power Macintosh 5260 (introduced April 1996, discontinued March 1997)
- Power Macintosh 5400 (introduced April 1996, discontinued March 1998)
- Power Macintosh 6100 (discontinued May 1996)
- Power Macintosh 6200 (discontinued July 1996)
- Power Macintosh 6300 (Only sold in Asia, while the consumer equivalent, the Performa 6300, was sold in North America. Introduced July 1996, discontinued October 1997)
- Power Macintosh 6400 (introduced October 1996, discontinued August 1997)
- Power Macintosh 7200 (discontinued March 1996)
- Power Macintosh 7215 (introduced January 1996, discontinued February 1997)
- Power Macintosh 7500 (introduced August 1995, discontinued May 1996)
- Power Macintosh 7600 (introduced April 1996, discontinued November 1997)
- Power Macintosh 8200 (introduced April 1996, discontinued March 1997)
- Power Macintosh 8500 (introduced August 1995, discontinued February 1997)
- Power Macintosh 9500 (introduced May 1995, discontinued February 1997)
- PowerBook 190/190cs (discontinued June/October 1996)
- PowerBook 550c (Released only in Japan. Discontinued April 1996)
- PowerBook 5300 series (introduced August 1995, discontinued October 1996)
- PowerBook 1400c/cs (introduced October 1996, discontinued November 1997)
- PowerBook Duo 2300c (introduced August 1995, discontinued February 1997)
- PowerBook Duo 280c (discontinued January 1996)
- Workgroup Server 6150 (discontinued April 1996)
- Workgroup Server 7250 (discontinued March 1996)
- Workgroup Server 8550 (introduced February 1996, discontinued April 1997)
- Network Server 500 (introduced April 1996, discontinued April 1997)
- Network Server 700 (introduced September 1996, discontinued April 1997)
By form factor
Here are the same Macintosh models, but divided by form factor. As you can see, things look a bit less chaotic:
A few observations
- Looking at the image above, you’ll see that desktop Macs (I’ve included the towers to simplify things) came in nine different form factors, while today there are only three: the Mac mini, iMac and Mac Pro. But it’s fair to point out that the Apple Network Server was a niche, short-lived product, and that the form factors of the Macintosh LC 580, Performa 560/580/588, Power Macintosh 6100/Workgroup Server 6150 were on the way out, all discontinued between February and May 1996.
- Therefore we could group the remaining Mac models — and give a bit of a structure to the whole offering — like this:
- A desktop all-in-one solution (Performa 52xx/53xx/54xx series; Power Macintosh 52xx/54xx)
- A desktop, more expandable solution, with a ‘Consumer’ variant (Performa 62xx/63xx; Power Macintosh 62xx/63xx), and a ‘Prosumer’ variant (Power Macintosh 72xx/7500/7600; Workgroup Server 7250)
- An even more expandable solution, in tower form factor, again offered in a consumer/mid-range variant (Performa and Power Macintosh 6400), and in an even more expandable ‘Pro’ variant (Power Macintosh 8200/8500/9500; Workgroup Server 8550)
- A much less varied portable solution, with a single entry-level model (the PowerBook 190, one of the last Motorola 680×0 machines), and the PowerBook 2300c and PowerBook 5300 line positioned as the ‘Pro’ machines, with the 5300 replaced by the better, more powerful 1400 in late 1996.
- Yes, it is a crowded space. The strategy behind this offering seems to be “Let’s try to cover every possible point of the spectrum, with regard to form factor, expandability, target audience, etc.” This of course led to confusion, because there were some Macintosh models just as powerful as others, but coming in a different shape, or with one less card slot or expansion bay. And also because there were many Macintosh models delivering a similar performance. There was a lot of differentiation and little differentiation at the same time, so to speak.
- The Performa line wasn’t a bad idea on paper: “Let’s make a clear, recognisable, affordable consumer product line”. The disaster came in the execution, especially around this era, 1995-1997, with entire series of ‘Performa’ and ‘Power Macintosh’ machines that were essentially the same, but with different labels, e.g. the 5200/5400 series and the 6200/6300/6400 series. There were even Performas, like the 6200/100 (with the faster PowerPC 603e CPU at 100MHz), that were slightly more powerful than their Power Macintosh counterparts (6200/75). Or take the Power Macintosh 6400, that was a rebranded Macintosh Performa 6400 that was sold to education markets only — one would expect the Performa to be the education model, and the Power Macintosh to be the ‘pro’ model. Instead of helping people figure out what was the best Macintosh for their needs, names were becoming meaningless, and form factors not distinctive enough.
- By the way, today’s Mac product line — while definitely more simplified, with very distinct form factors — has a somewhat similar blurring of the lines with regard to performance. The Mac mini may be positioned as the entry-level desktop Mac, but the current top-of-the-line 2.8GHz model can definitely be used for professional applications, and if configured with the 3GHz i7 processor can be more powerful than a 21.5-inch iMac. Similarly, the Retina 5K 27-inch iMac in its best configuration reaches Mac Pro-comparable performance (though it offers less expandability). If we move to the portable sphere, we have a slightly more defined space, with the MacBook Air and MacBook being consumer machines in different ways (the Air has more CPU power, but not a retina display; the 12-inch MacBook is the exact opposite, a bit less powerful but with a retina display), and then we have the MacBook Pro line. In 1996, the Duo 2300c was the MacBook Air of the time, while the PowerBook 5300, and especially the 1400 that came after, were the MacBook Pros.
- Lastly, another thing that contributed to the chaos of Apple’s product offerings, in my opinion, was the slew of other hardware Apple was selling:
- The Newton family of products
- The QuickTake line of digital cameras
- Two different lines of monitors (Multiple Scan and AppleVision)
- Printers: the StyleWriter and Color StyleWriter line of inkjet printers, and the LaserWriter/Color LaserWriter line of laser printers
- The Color OneScanner line of flatbed scanners
That is a lot of hardware to manage.
- Today, Apple doesn’t sell printers, scanners or digital cameras, and as for the monitor, the choice is rather limited. Still, if you count how many iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch models and colour combinations Apple offers, well, it’s just another chaos, albeit much more organised and purposeful. More importantly, it’s a ‘chaos’ which today’s Apple can absolutely afford.
- 1. Yes, pedants out there, the Apple Network Server was not a Macintosh, I know that. I added it anyway because, despite not running Mac OS, it was still a computer Apple was selling at the time. ↩︎
- 2. Though I always wondered about that silly name: Performa suggests performance, something more ‘pro’ than an entry-level product. At least the Macintosh LC family was more honest as a consumer proposition: dependable, affordable machines, with LC meaning low cost. ↩︎