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Andy Ihnatko

Ahead of the Curve

When Apple flops, it flops by thinking too far ahead.

In 1996, Apple attempted to get into the video-game/thin-computer market with the Pippin. The Pippin was a disaster -- a complete and utter failure from both a business and a creative standpoint. It looked a lot like a $60 VCR, but it would have cost about 13 times more. (And it would have run about as many games as a VCR.) The only truly smart move Apple made throughout the entire development of this product was to shut it down before actually shipping: if the Pippin had shipped, federal troops would have had to intervene -- to protect the nation from Apple, and to protect Apple from itself.

I also seem to recall that at one stage in Apple's history, you could buy a sailboard with the Apple logo on it. But apart from the Pippin and the sailboard, Apple hasn't produced a single failed product in 20 years.

"What about the Newton?" you ask. What about it? As of September 2003, more than 30 million Palm OS devices have been sold. The Newton wasn't the first computer to use a pen, but only Apple could have invented the PDA. The company quickly understood how to make it work: make it the size of a person's palm; create a whole OS around pen gestures; and focus on intimate, personal software.

Well, then -- how about the Mac Portable? Obviously, there are one or two downsides to a portable computer the size and weight of a concert accordion. But think about why it was so big and heavy: Apple looked at where the portable market was going and gambled that users were no longer interested in having a portable accessory to their desktop computer. They wanted a real Macintosh that could be used at home, in the office, in a hotel room, and along every vector in between. So the Portable had to have a real keyboard, a comfortable screen, a credible processor, ample storage, and enough battery life to make it worth the trouble. And that's exactly where notebooks are today.

You see where I'm going here? Apple has an idea ahead of its time, and someone else takes the hint and runs with it. And here we've just been talking about Apple's commercial failures. Apple redefined the standard for computing with the Apple II, and then did it again with the Mac. Apple created the iMac; then, all of a sudden, kitchens all over the country had food browning in brightly colored George Foreman grills.

Other technology companies can be likened to the Beatles or Elvis Presley. They might sell more records, but Apple's the modest Delta bluesman who created rock and roll in the first place. Nothin' happens until Apple strums the chords and shows everyone else where music is headed.

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