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The Failure of the Great Apple Guessing Game

You have to know that few companies incite such polarized reactions as Apple. Although most people seem to have a positive attitude about the company, some aren’t so impressed. At the same time, most everyone is trying to fathom Apple’s next move, usually without much success, and the same can be said for the impact of some of the things they do.

Of course second-guessing can be fun, and if you do it often enough, you might even come up with the right answer from time to time.

It’s also enlightening to examine how some reacted after Apple came out with an unexpected new product. I remember the original iMac back in the summer of 1998, that pear-shaped blue thing that heralded a huge change for a company that made had written off as yesterday’s news. Some wondered how Apple could ditch the keyboard and printer ports for something called USB, and where was the SCSI connection and the floppy drive?

Floppy? Yes, the very image is fading from the memories of most of you, unless you have a vintage Mac or PC on hand, and a couple of boxes of old disks that you need to use from time to time. Rest assured, my memories of that era aren’t very fond. Far too many of those things got corrupted after far too little time.

I’ll ignore the Cube for the moment, except to remind you that when I said that it looked like it belonged in a museum in a review I wrote on the product, I didn’t mean it would vanish from the production lines and store shelves so quickly. I suppose you could, however, call the Mac mini a resurrected Cube that was reincarnated at one-third the size.

By far the biggest laugh was generated when the first iPod appeared nearly five years ago. It was cute, of course, but who would pay $400 for such a silly gadget? And the scroll wheel? What a quaint solution? Surely that was another huge mistake; that is, until third party vendors came out with lots and lots of accessories, and the iTunes Music Store debuted of course.

Little did anyone know at the beginning, however, that some day even a conservative Republican president of the U.S. would go bicycling around with an iPod, that the little music player with its diminutive white earphones would become a cultural icon. It’s fair to say that, for many, it’s more famous than the Mac.

Turning the conventional wisdom topsy-turvy is the norm at Apple. In retrospect, however, I’m sure most of the executives at Apple would admit they never expected the iPod to gain this much traction, and to dominate a market in a way that, to some, resembles Microsoft.

In any case, you had to imagine the disbelief some felt when rumors arose in the spring of 2005 that Apple would abandon PowerPC processors and switch to Intel. The fact that the original stories appeared in the mainstream media should have indicated something drastic was afoot.

Again, it was difficult to guess how it would all play out. Doubts arose that Apple could possibly meet its deadline to complete the transition by the end of 2007. Little did anyone imagine it would all happen by the summer of 2006, and that the predicted stall in sales as folks awaited Macs with the new processors inside would be relatively modest and relatively brief.

And developers? Sure Apple claimed that making applications Universal wouldn’t be too hard for most, but most were highly skeptical. As it stands today, the situation is somewhat of a mixed bag. Most software companies fell in line quickly, but those with aging code bases, not built in Apple’s own programming environment, had their work cut out for them. We’re still over a year away from being able to buy a copy of the Universal version of Microsoft Office for the Mac. Adobe’s Creative Suite 3 may not ship until after the next version of Mac OS X is out.

Some developments were obvious, however. You had to believe a convenient way would be found to run Windows on an Intel-based Mac with great performance, but maybe you didn’t expect that one of the solutions would come from Apple, and that another would come from a small company that few had heard about until the spring of this year. Or that Microsoft would discontinue its Mac version of Virtual PC after the market disappeared from under it.

I suppose that, in an industry where most companies preannounce products months or years in advance, and rarely meet their deadlines, Apple is an anomaly of the first order. But would you have it otherwise?