The Mac at 25: Successes, regrets, Apple’s had a few

And then there were the stumbles

The Apple III

Introduced less than four years before the arrival of the Macintosh, the Apple III was supposed to be the “business” computer to succeed the Apple. It made sense to offer a more powerful, more “serious” computer for the more power-hungry, more serious crowd. And Steve Wozniak, a.k.a. the Woz, a.k.a. the other founder of Apple, was in on the design. However, it didn’t come together—literally, in a lot of cases. The circuit board was tightly packed, causing short circuits. One technical bulletin told users to pick up their Apple III and drop it a few inches to reseat chips. And Jobs demanded there be no fan, which caused heat-related problems in the hardware. (Jobs continues to push that anti-fan agenda to this day; maybe he hates the sound.) Other software problems, a high price and problematic backward compatibility with Apple II software all made this a big failure, and Apple’s rep in the business world was pretty well damaged.

The Perfomas—oh God, the Performas

After Apple disgorged Steve Jobs and brought in ex-soda CEO John Sculley, the latter got the idea to spew out many SKUs of Macs. This was the Perfoma line, designed to be less intimidating than the Mac itself (intimidating?), but the sheer landslide of barely distinguishable models was intimidating enough. With the same basic hardware, there were educational models, direct sales models, models for sale at a mass-market retailer … each software bundle might be a little different from the others, but who could keep track?

Also, it didn’t help that most Perfomas were, well, crap. The quality ranged from not so great to awful. For example, the 4400—a “fat pizza box” desktop — was supposed to be targeted at casual business users, but it was so poorly built that peripherals would suddenly not work, hardware glitches would cause hard crashes, and so on.

Needless to say, this adversely affected Apple’s image of providing high-quality products. Soon after his second coming, Jobs made quality Job 1, or something like that. He also quickly stripped down the product matrix: one consumer laptop, one pro laptop, one consumer desktop, one pro desktop. There is no Step 5.

The cloning vats

From 1995 to 1998, Apple tried something new: licensing. It’s been an article of faith among the “Apple will die … any day now” crowd that the company made a fatal mistake in restricting Mac operating system use to actual Macs. The idea was that if Apple became just an operating system vendor, like Microsoft, it would grow like topsy, like Microsoft.

Shaky logic there, but Apple tried it. Starting in the non-Jobs era, I should add.

The strategy did have some salutary effects, not the least of which was enabling Power Computing’s awesome ad campaigns. Daystar Digital experimented with then-unusual multiprocessor configurations; some lower-priced Mac clones hit the market; some companies pushed the build-to-order and direct sales models; and Power Computing armed itself with ex-Apple engineers to push a few technical boundaries.

But the hardware licensing agreements were awkward, shortsighted and restrictive — Apple never quite seemed to commit. And the third-party developers, without strong Apple support and with high licensing costs, couldn’t find a way to offer products significantly different from Apple’s own. After Jobs’ return, he decided to end the licensing experiment. His rationale: It had begun too late to really make a difference, and the clones were cutting into Apple’s own sales instead of expanding the market. In late 1997, the whole shebang wound down, with Apple buying some of Power Computing’s assets for $100 million.

Some of us still have a few posters, though.

Not the best .edu sales structures

The Apple II had the closest thing to a lock on the educational market, in its day. Expensive, but solid and easy to manage, along with a great library of apps kids could use. Since then, Apple has still been strong in the educational market, but not as strong as it could be.

Certainly, some of the reasons for this were out of Apple’s control. After Windows 95 was introduced—“Start me up … you make a grown man cry”—Microsoft used its hefty connections and cash to donate tons of Windows PCs to secondary schools and higher education depots. This not only trained future Windows users, but it allowed Microsoft to write off the retail costs.

Apple tended to coast in terms of pushing education sales. The company has reorganized its educational sales force many times, but it has never made the kind of push vendors like Dell or IBM did. For example, when a friend of mine, who ran computer systems at a major university, tried to price out a new computer lab, Dell, HP and others not only gave him bulk pricing, they also threw in same-day support, as well as teams of techs to come and install and configure the whole lab. Apple’s response? “The closest Apple store to you is … you can buy what you need from there.” At retail.

Clunky and weird online strategies

In the days of online walled gardens such as AOL, CompuServe and the like, Apple tried its own, calling it eWorld. Remember that? Nah, not many people do.

Since then, Apple has thrown up iTools, only to abandon it. There was .Mac, which promised sort of a “cloud” experience but cost $99 a year and never seemed to go very far. That was recently rebranded MobileMe, with more of a Web 2.0 feel, but it instantly suffered from outages. And it still cost, and still didn’t work quite right.

Granted, Microsoft’s Live initiative hasn’t rocked the world either, but it’s clear that online efforts aren’t Apple’s core strength, and poor services are more damaging to the brand than no services.

So there you have it. Highlights and low points from the last 25 years. Of course, there are lots more in each category. You don’t live past 30 without acquiring piles of little victories and regrets. Have your own top picks? Weigh in on the comments section.

[Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications including Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.]

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