By Jason Snell
February 7, 2020 12:55 PM PT
Last updated July 21, 2020
Fun With Charts: A plague of Performas
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
When I mentioned that I was trying to do a weekly chart on Six Colors, Stephen Hackett suggested a few charts that he’d like to see—some silly, some serious. I’m not sure where this one falls. Stephen was curious about how many Macs were released, historically, per year.
It’s a complicated concept. My first thought was to chart all Macs that have ever been alive at any given time, but that would require a level of research that I am not able to do today. Instead, I decided to focus on release years, and scoured the Macs by year page at EveryMac.com to generate a list. After removing Mac clones, Newtons, and Duo Docks, I got a chart that looked like this:
This is interesting, and definitely shows off just how many different labels Apple was slapping on computers in the mid-90s. For those who weren’t around back then, in the mid-90s Apple sold many computers under different model names in different markets. The LC line was sold to education; the Performa line was sold in department stores and other consumer retail environments. Often times there’s be several “models” of Performa that weren’t any different except for the bundled monitor or software. Apple would also create special server configurations of desktop Macs and sell them under a different name.
It was how mid-90s Apple operated. How did it go? They almost went out of business. So… not great.
I wanted to generate a chart that removed those duplicate computers. I also decided that I wasn’t going to consider a computer that was largely the same but for the speed of its processor as fundamentally different. (By those measures, the 2019 Mac Pro is five computers. It counts as a single computer for me. If you disagree, make your own list.)
I did decide, however, that laptops or iMacs with different screen sizes (or, for earlier PowerBooks, color) counted as different models. The 11-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Air are different. The 8-core iMac Pro and 10-core iMac Pro are not.
With those (admittedly debatable and arbitrary) rules in place, I went back through the EveryMac.com archive and tried to differentiate between the Performa 6310CD and the Performa 6300CD.
Here’s what I got:
That chart, I think, does a better job of showing just how many models Apple was shipping during its mid-’90s death spiral. And then came 1997.
In 1997, Apple only released five Mac models. While you might assume this was because Steve Jobs came back and changed how Apple marketed the Mac—including his famous “four quadrant grid”—that’s a bit premature. The big thing that changed in 1997 was the introduction of the G3 processor. Apple introduced a PowerBook G3 and some Power Mac G3 models in 1997, and yes, the Performa line was ended the same year.
(Meanwhile, 1997 was perhaps the high water mark for Mac clones, which aren’t included here. Jobs managed to kill them off in 1997 by withholding the license for Mac OS 8 from clone makers, which was required to run the G3 processor. The clones were stuck in the past, and they all closed up shop.)
Over the next few years, you can see Jobs’s simplification of the Mac line, as the iMac and iBook debut, along with new Power Macs and PowerBooks—but never too many variations. In later years Apple has kept the total number of models fairly small. The spikes you see are generally when Apple refreshed a product line twice in the same year—for example, in 2009 Apple revised the Mac mini and iMac twice.
These days Apple’s pace seems more deliberate. In 2019, by my count, there were seven new Mac models: Mac Pro, 15″ MacBook Pro, 13″ MacBook Pro, 16″ MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, 27-inch iMac, and 21.5-inch iMac.
We can argue about the pace of Apple’s Mac updates, but I think we can all agree that the mid-1990s were very bad and they should stay buried deep, deep in the past, along with all those Centrises and Performas and LCs.
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