I wrote this piece a few years ago, when it was part of the reality. Today is part of the memory lane… Steve Jobs is gone, yet Apple Computer is still around, and it is still the computer front runner. Some of the facts I am talking about are legend by now, about twenty some years later, but believe me, they were real at one time, and I witnessed them…
In Southern California, by mid seventies all eighteen years old, sometimes older, sometimes younger, usually spent their time either browsing the sunny beaches or surfing the waves. All of them? Maybe all except two, Steve and Steve, who traded the pleasures of the beach with creating a small electronic gismo, that bypassed the telephone switches and allowed the two a free call to the Buckingham palace. The only person standing between the two and the Queen of England, was a secretary who after a few minutes suspected something fishy with the call and hung up. No one knew how the two punks from a college dorm from Southern California managed to get through a secure line…
The sensationalism apart, very few people realized the importance of the little device “the blue box” that Steve Wozniak created first, and Steve Jobs later on sold for a very good profit. Some other people would have taken the money and used it to finish school, to take a trip to the Islands or to buy a speedy red Ferrari. Not the two. They decided to stick to the PWBs, diodes, transistors and the rest of the electronic paraphernalia and to create another electronic “whtcha-macall-it” that will let people play games, and why not, use it for something more sophisticated like writing letters and such. Wozniak came up with the concept of “one board computer”, and both of them came up with the very original idea that it was time “for every one to have one in their garage….” or maybe that was Henry Ford with this one… I don’t remember who said what, but Jobs went around to sell it. The device had to be easy to put together, and very inexpensive, because no one would pay a lot to play some games on a TV screen. And after a few months of toying with electronic parts, the first Apple computer was born. It was a small box with a built in keyboard and with a connector for a TV set. The Byte shop sold the first six hundred units as fast as they could get them. Very soon Steve’s garage where the Apple saw the light of the day, became too small to fill the increasing orders of the “box with a keyboard”. The two had to rent space in town, and to hire more people to satisfy the demand.
Faster then anything seen before, the computer invaded the living rooms in America. In a short time it suffered a metamorphosis and it became Apple IIE, one of the most sophisticated home computers of its time. When a bunch of geeks from MIT created a program called Visicalc, the business world started to look at the game machines with different eyes, and it realized that time has come to treat the “toy” seriously. IBM the real creator of the personal computer, did not have too much faith in them because the management did not see the potential of a machine that could not be used in the business world. And after all, a few decades earlier it was IBM’s chairman who was emphatically declaring that he did not see any use for more than five computers in the world…. Visicalc changed every one’s mentality versus the “home computer”, which now turned into “desktop computer”.
As surprising as it may seem, IBM for a long time, in spite of the fact that they put a lot of money in developing the desktop computer, did not see the real business potential of their invention. As a matter of fact, they overlooked it totally. The management was still riding on the main frame mentality. In a way they did mankind a favor, because everyone started to clone the concept. It was a time back in the eighties when if one wanted advanced computers, one would buy a clone not a real IBM…
Meanwhile Steve Jobs and his Apple, Wozniak was out of the picture, were getting higher and higher on the wings of success. Very hard working person and with a real vision for the future, Steve made some mistakes that would cost him his company, his product and even his vision.
Steve has the gift of talking, and when Steve talks people are listening. The IIE in a few years turned into IIC, killed before it was born to make way to Lisa. Lisa was a commercial failure. The world was not really ready for the bit mapped display and for the use of the mouse. But mostly the world was not ready to spend $10,000 for a desktop computer yet. When Macintosh came out, Apple’s fate was decided: the company was not quite going the Osborne way, but will not get the Intel way either, for the next ten years will hover in a 15% market niche, and it will have an audience that will really love the product. Was Apple a bad product? Hardly, it was brilliant. It was something the mankind had never seen until then. If Henry Ford is unjustly credited with creating the assembly line, Steve Jobs can be unjustly credited with creating the Graphical User Interface. None of them created the respective concepts, but they made them popular and they managed to turn them into generic public domain benefits for everyone to use. Apple could have ruled the desktops today if Steve tried to sell it to the rest of the world instead of selling it to a bunch of nerds who really understood advanced computers.
At the time Apple became a real presence in desktop computing world, IBM was the king in the mainframe arena, and was slowly discovering the desktop. Steve went head to head against the giant, but being a maverick is not always enough for winning a war. Apple could have won a few battles those days but in the end lost the war.
I still remember the marketing related to the introduction of the Mac. The commercials were very suggestive and very powerful. They became classic study cases for the message conveyed to the public. No one mentioned the name IBM but in those commercials every one felt IBM’s presence in the Orwellian scenery in which hordes of mesmerized drones were liberated from the Central Control Unit by the new Mac. The dominant color of the commercial was gray, although one may say that it was blue. Humanoids stripped of emotions on their faces were watching the big Central Screen that ruled their lives. The new Mac people, very alive and colorful, armed with a sledge hammer broke to pieces the main screen and let the light in. The hordes of mesmerized drones turned human. It was a strong metaphor, and those that were targeted realized that if they were to keep their place, Apple had to go… At that time IBM was still the big blue, cut off from reality and very strong anchored into the drone leadership mentality They were not understanding the desktop, but they had enough common sense to realize that it was a matter that couldn’t be overlooked….
It is always hard to explains God’s doing, and one should not even try. So I am not questioning why Steve brought John Scully in the picture, and why he got himself fired and replaced by John. It is said that in management it does not really matter what company the manager is leading, as long as the person is understanding the principles of management. John could have been a promise for PepsiCo, but he did not turn a real asset for Apple. He might have been perceived as a person who understood the computer world, but he proved to be very far off the target. Apple who already was a “strange bird on the block”, became even more so, concentrating on the PDAs. The concept was interesting, it might have even been useful for a certain segment of the market, but Apple had as much of a niche market as it could handle, it did not need one more. So John had to go too, ending a promising career that finally did not materialize, and letting Apple into a deeper whole than when he had come aboard.
When he left Apple, the community at large thought that “l’enfant terrible” of the computer age was done. With a pocket full of money, Steve Jobs could have retired, finish the school that he quit a few years back and enjoy an upper middle class life. He wasn’t even forty. Not so, he put up a new team of nerds and started Next Computer, a venture that will finally fail. But it did not fail in vain. If the hardware side was a real work of art, the software created for it, was a real road opener in object programming, another legacy that Steve Jobs would live us.
Today, a few years after everything happened, laying back relaxed and thinking about the past, one cannot help but noticing that mediocrity as usual has won again….
Apple carved himself a 15% niche that was only recently shrunk down to about 6%, IBM clones having the majority of the rest of desktop pie. Things seem pretty cut and dry, but reality is a little bit more complicated. Apple has 6% of its hardware and operating system share, while the IBM clones have the rest of the hardware side, the operating system being diversified to the point of real chaos: DOS, Unix, Linux, OS/2, Windows 95 and NT, Next etc. While Apple software market is pretty united and there is not too much duplication, the Intel side seems like a never ending battle in which a lot of effort is wasted in trying to reinvent the wheel about ten times a week. No one could tell how many word processors, spreadsheets or graphic programs are out there for the Intel platform alone. No one can tell how many could easily exchange information. I am sure that everyone could say without hesitation that none of them is perfect without shortcomings. While the Apple programs as a whole are very good at integrating with one another, the Intel platform is very segmented and full of rivalry. And what is worse, every time one of the players try to unite the rest of them in using some forms of standards, Microsoft without fail, is always finding a way to come up with its version of the standard throwing everybody into confusion, and into the primordial chaos that was supposed to be ended…
It is said that things are always getting worse before they get better. At Apple it seems they got the worst they could get. Just before Amelio came on from the National Semiconductor, Apple Computers seemed like a comatose patient whose end was very near. The problem with comatose patients though, is that they may keep going on for ever, as long as the life support is hooked up. Apple did not have too much life support though, and had been bleeding quarter after quarter for quite a few quarters.
While the Intel platform is going through an operation system revolution and OS/2, Windows NT, Java are new terms that represent the way of the future, Apple seemed to be at an end of the road with system 7. There were some discussion about BE but the discussion was kind of erratic and for some reason could not inspire too much confidence to the world. And one day Amelio drops the bomb: Apple in a supreme effort of stopping the hemorrhage is buying Next, and Steve Jobs is back. It is not clear for now what role Steve Jobs will play at Apple, because he is just a management consulting, but the hope is that once the prodigal son is back things are going to improve.
What really hurt Apple since the old days was the fact that it was very proprietary. Steve Jobs made a crucial mistake when he put Franklin Computers, a start up manufacturer who tried to clone the Apple IIE out of business. Franklin was a very successful clone. It was so successful that Franklin crated panic at Apple. In spite of his vision, Steve did not see the fact that cloning was the survival of the company. If IBM had been sticky about the rest of the world cloning their PC, the world would have been much better today, because Microsoft would not have been today’s monster…. Not only that Apple went with vengeance after Franklin and put them out of business, but Lisa and later on the Mac were closed architecture machines, and even the addition of Ram was required to be done by an approved repair center in order to keep the warranty. Let alone that finding the proper spare parts was next to impossible because no third party vendor was willing to follow in Franklin’s footsteps. It was true that Mac did everything a user needed to do, it is true that Mac’s hardware was rock solid and the software was crash proof, but being so alone in the world, with a restricted follow up the market saturated in a short time. Before he was forced out in 1985, Steve had to set an horrible precedent, he also entered in the history as the one who first started layoffs in the “layoffs proof industry of the future”…. Apple had to let go about 1,500 of its work force in order to survive.
It seemed that Apple got as much as they would ever get of the market and that there was no room for expansion. They had the advantage of the GUI, but once Steve was gone, John Scully managed to loose that advantage too. In a copyright litigation with Microsoft over the usage of the GUI, John managed to stop them from using the Apple interface for that time, but the agreement was so badly written, that did not prevent Microsoft from rewriting Windows with as much “inspiration” as their heart desired. And that is exactly what they did. Windows 95 and the followers are using a lot of the Apple ideas, and the uniqueness of the Apple GUI is not a strikingly different feature. So there is no incentive to go Apple when Microsoft who is by far more used is offering the same thing. It is right that Microsoft did not take over Apple’s niche market, and probably would never take it as long as Apple will be alive, but it managed to seal the future of the company into those markets only.
NextStep is a new object oriented operating system that Jobs after dropping the hardware side kept developing as a programming and Internet environment. It was ported to the Intel platform and in spite of the fact that it does not have a considerable penetration yet, it has all the ingredients necessary to be a serious contender in the future network computing in which the operating systems, Java enabled, will not play such an important role. Running the PowerMac, which right now can run DOS, Windows, Unix and the Apple system 7 and its flavors, Next will close the gap and will make Apple a universal box that will not be a “strange bird on the block” any longer. The company promised delivery of the Next for PowerMac, code named Rhapsody within the year. The operating system will run PowerMac and Intel processor out of the box, and will support Windows NT application and API. No one knows how compatible the new operating system will be with existing Mac application. As a matter of fact, no one wants to know, because they are not…. But if we draw a parallel with the Wintel world, how many present DOS and Windows applications are run by Windows NT?
Of course the skeptics will say, “just another pretty box that will run Windows, that’s exactly what we need…”. Which is true, but there is a little detail, the company will be able to deliver a total solution, operating system and hardware as a package. These days Apple is not so sticky about clonig. As a matter of fact they managed to avoid it by licensing the hardware to third parties. The clones are as good as the originals and are put up by reputable companies. Before coming back to finish this article, while browsing the Web in search for new developments, I just found out that Apple announced new models that will use off the shelf disk drives, and CD-ROM breaking up the “Apple only” old tradition.
An interesting development is recorded by Microsoft who seems to be totally out of the picture as far as NextStep is concerned. The latest statements from Microsoft show no interest in associating themselves with the new operating system. I am not sure that they will miss the boat as far as Next is concerned, especially if Apple Next will prove a strong contender on the market. It will be very interesting to see how the development community will receive the new trends at Apple Computer.
As a matter of fact, in the new Java enabled environment, in which the operating system is not the ruling factor in owning a computer for running applications, Apple will have a very good chance to survive. People are not afraid of mouse any more, are used to the GUI and can appreciate one that is very good looking and easy to use. The Microsoft variation in spite of the fact that is prettier compared to its predecessors, is still cumbersome and lacks intuition. The public today can appreciate a processor that is better designed and gets the job done better and faster. In my morning browsing, I also found out that the new models that will come out will have speeds of 233 MHZ, and the notebooks will have 12″ displays.
How many of the readers tried to do non linear editing on a Intel Platform? It seems that every vendor is trying to do it on NT, on computers that are so beefed that require a mortgage to be purchased, and the results are still questionable. With an Avid System running on a PowerMac, any TV show can be produced very reliably and very fast. Maybe that is why so many are produced today, and maybe that is why so many are so bad, no one has to struggle to get one out….
Nicholas Petreley in his column in Infoworld made some very interesting comments about the man who will be able to pull Apple at the top again. In his view the person should be a composite; He should be a Lou Getsner whose speeches have always been on the target and who managed to start changing IBM’s image; He should also be a Microsoft’s Bill Gates whose speeches are smoke screens and mirrors, whose visions are mostly nothing more than “everything is allowed as long as Microsoft will survive”, but who knew how to win developers over by bribing them with promises for the future and free software; he should be a Netscape’s Mark Anderssen who has the young power Steve Jobs had a few years back, and finally he should be a Steve Jobs who has always been a visionary who whenever he spoke, the people listen…
While the world is watching Apple’s, Amelio’s and Steve’s every step, making all kind of suggestions and issuing all kind of theories about the company’s future, I am confident that Apple will not go the way Osborne Computer went, and it will be a presence for the years to come. Will Steve Jobs be able to rescue it? He should. It’s his baby and after a few years out there in the world he might have learned a thing or two about the public at large… And if he did not, he deserves whatever is coming to him, but it will be a real pity, because Apple is a very good product and it will always remain in history as a road opener in the computer world.
In 1981 I was in school and I was taking computer classes. We were supposed to do our lab work every time before going to class. Milwaukee School of Engineering had a nice computer lab powered by a PDP-11 and there were quite a few terminals around. It seemed though that no matter how many they were, there were not enough for us users who had to do class assignments. Because I did not want to spend time till midnight at school while I had a day job to pay for it, my wife and I we decided to get a home computer and a modem. We went around to a store called Micro Age. It was a new store that took Milwaukee by surprise. They had a show room with a lot of desk tops on display. A lot??? They had an Apple II, an Osborne and a big clunker IBM-XT. The Apple was around $2,000, the IBM was $4,500 and the Osborne around $6,000. The oddest of them all was the Osborne, because was a 50 lb. box, with a removable lid that let out on the side of the box a 5″ screen with two floppy drives. In a way it was a treat, but the screen seemed two small. And the idea to pack it up and to move it around, all 50 lb. did not appeal to us, although it was challenging. Who would move a computer around, are you crazy??? We wanted to look at the Apple because it was the cheapest, and money was a serious considerations. The salesman told us to wait a few months, because the Apple IIE will come out and it seems that it was a serious improvement of the Apple II. It had 64K of memory, and the possibility to upgrade it to 128K, it had a standard floppy disk drive, and the second one could be added, and it had a new display that came in two flavors, green and amber….. And they started to advertise it on the radio at the introductory price of $1,695 plus tax!!! What a deal. And next February we got one from… Computer Bay, a small store at the time. We had to wait in line for the salesman to demonstrate the little marvel. We bought a modem. It was something new. Those that really knew computers at the time, advised me that $450.00 was a real bargain for a Hayes 300 baud rate modem… I have to confess that I got every single penny out of the investment. I could stay till the wee hours of the morning behind the terminal and do my class assignments from my living room. I saved a lot of time in travel and waiting in line.
I was ready to move to the IIC, which was a real cute little computer. In spite of the fact that it not have a built in display like the notebooks today, it was not much bigger in size than a present day portable. I am not sure that it was meant to be portable, but the looks were very attractive. Of course it did not have a hard drive, but not too many computers had. And short of saving data, it did not need one. The Apple software as opposed to its IBM counterpart did not need a lot of memory to run, and it did not need a lot of storage space on the floppy. And just about a few days before I was ready to bite the bullet, the price was a good consideration, Steve Jobs drops the bomb: whoever bought Apple IIC should junk them, who didn’t was not suppose to buy them any longer because Lisa was just out and the company was dropping the former product lines… Well, I was a little upset, and with a sad heart I packed my Apple IIE in the same boxes that it is in now, and I bought an XT, a computer that I never liked, but that was going to change the way people looked at the marvelous contraptions. XT turned into “286″, “386″, “486″ and Pentium now, and I still don’t like them. I have been using Intel platform ever since, and I have always been unhappy with the Microsoft Intel marriage. The sun came back to shatter the darkness in my computer soul the day I bought OS/2. It has been sunny ever since I loaded WARP on my machine. And who knows, maybe it will always be sunny in my computer soul in the near future, when I will buy a PowerMac….