Apple and the Bad Old Days

December 26th, 2013

As many members of the media try real hard to find failure with Apple even when success is at hand, it’s often forgotten that the company has actually released products that haven’t done so well over the years. Of course, most of these products are forgotten among thousands and thousands of other products that have failed to deliver acceptable sales, but it’s Apple after all.

But before you consider the bad stuff, today’s Apple can’t afford any failure. The world is watching carefully. Even the iPhone 5c, which basically allowed Apple to sell a new model rather than last year’s iPhone 5, is perceived as a huge fail. Is it? If sales are less the iPhone 5, perhaps. If sales are equal or better, the answer is no. By using plastic rather than metal, Apple has managed to build them cheaper. But since Apple isn’t breaking out sales of individual models, the best that can be done is to examine the top listings at a third-party dealer or a wireless carrier that reveal such figures.

The real failure is the product that goes nowhere, and certainly the Power Mac G4 Cube is first among many. Released in August 2000, its slick looks seemed destined to make it a museum piece. At $1,799 for the entry-level version, it was perceived as much too expensive for what it offered, and expansion capabilities were very basic. Better to buy a fully-outfitted Power Mac G4 tower instead and put up with something a lot uglier.

Clearly sales didn’t take off as Apple hoped, so the price was reduced in a failed attempt to boost sales, first to $1,499 in February 2001. An updated version was introduced at $1,299, but it still didn’t help. By July 2001, the Cube was gone. And, no, there is no reason to compare the Cube with the new Mac Pro, except for the unique designs.

But you can go way back through Apple’s history to find more examples of good intentions, and I assume they were mostly good, producing bad results. According to an article entitled, “Picturing Apple’s Biggest Failures,” the most expensive or blatant example was probably the Apple Lisa, the forerunner of the Macintosh, released in 1983. The starting price was $9,995, which would be well over $21,000 in today’s dollars. Apple cheapened the layout and internal configuration for the Lisa 2, introduced in January 1984, which sold between $3,495 and $5,495, but it didn’t really go anywhere either. It was too high end for its time.

In the same month that the Lisa 2 arrived, the original Macintosh 128k went on sale, for $2,495. I suppose that was pretty expensive too — that’s over $5,555 in today’s dollars — but it caused a sensation on the computing industry.

Now when you look at the $499 iPad Air, you can hardly believe it came from the very same company that brought you the 1989 Macintosh Portable, which cost $4,500 way back then. But it was portable in name only, tipping the scales at 16 pounds. Compare to the 11-pound Mac Pro or even the one-pound iPad Air. But Apple once again managed to redeem itself when the PowerBook arrived, a note-book computer that heavily influenced the entire PC industry. And, may I add, was used to save the world in the 1996 blockbuster film, “Independence Day.” Apple has long had an edge when it comes to product placement.

Yet another of those Apple failures pictured in that article is the infamous iMac hockey puck mouse. I wonder, in passing, what convinced Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive that we wanted a circular mouse. Fortunately, there were cheap extensions that turned the foolish mouse into a reasonably sensible egg-shaped one. Or you do as I did, which was to simply buy a normally configured mouse. But I hardly call this a huge failure by any means, nor would I regard the $349 iPod Hi-Fi stereo speaker system, from 2006, as anything of much significance.

Of course Apple has failed even when new market segments were pioneered. So consider the Newton Message Pad, which was introduced in 1993, although it wasn’t terribly good at one of its core tasks, which was handwriting recognition (at least at the beginning). But it was the forerunner of the personal digital assistant which, when married to a phone, evolved into today’s smartphone. And don’t forget a certain Newton variant, the eMate 300, a small note-book offered to the educational market, which surely influenced the development of tinier note-books years later.

It may also be forgotten, but those looking at the earliest digital cameras have only to check out the 1994 Apple QuickTake. While a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels doesn’t seem much when you consider that the smaller iPhone 5s offers eight megapixels, it was still a revolution for its time. But it took other companies to perfect digital cameras, and Steve Jobs discontinued the QuickTake in 1997 to streamline the company’s product portfolio. Other casualties included the Newton and the remaining LaserWriter printers.

But as Apple made itself smaller in order to survive, I wonder how many at the time realized that, in the following decade, Apple would introduce a digital music player, a smartphone and, in 2010, a tablet. Or that the Mac would play second fiddle to all of them.

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4 Responses to “Apple and the Bad Old Days”

  1. William Timberman says:

    I owned a Cube, which I loved, and am still using an iPod Hi-Fi hooked to an AirPort Express, which I’m also quite happy with, so maybe I’m not the one to talk, but it seemed to me that the hockey-puck mouse was an attempt to overcome the carpal-tunnel inducing impulse so many people had at the time to clench their mice in a death grip. It worked quite well for that purpose, if you weren’t “holding it wrong,” although you had to look first to make sure it was oriented correctly. That’s probably what killed it in the end — never knowing which way was up just by feel.

  2. Sue D Nimh says:

    One traditional market for the Mac when the first iMac was introduced was elementary schools. Children have small hands, hence a small round mouse on the iMac. The need for economies of scale meant other products got it too. Nowadays they leave out cables that people might already have, back then they included a mouse that most people would have replaced or already had. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.

    The Macintosh Portable weighed 16 lbs in 1989? I used a Compaq in 1988 that weighed 60 lbs and ran DOS (but it had card slots! And the familiar green on black screen!). There is no comparison in terms of usability. If I could have made the purchase decision, the Mac Portable would have won hands down, simply for usability.

    Almost all of these so-called “failures” were products different enough from “the way we have always done it” that the media or the IT pro couldn’t imagine what value they brought to end-users. Steve Jobs may not have had the warmest fuzzy personality to employees or competitors, but he imagined a world where the power of the computer served children, grandfathers, aunties and people less interested in configuring than using. Even though, as an engineer, I very much like to tinker with my technical world, when it comes to crunch time, and I need to get tasks done, I value the vision that made the phone in my pocket stand in for a desk phone, a notebook, a calendar, a Polaroid or SLR, an adding machine and a slide rule, an 8mm movie camera, a box full of index cards, a shelf full of reference books, a stack of scanned journal articles, a record player, a mainframe, a microfiche archive and a language translator. I am extremely glad enough people ignored the “experts” who dished failure on the iPhone, to make it survive long enough for me to be able to afford one. I can’t wait to see what else Apple will fail at!


  3. Your comparison of the G4 Cube and the Power Mac G4 was interesting. Yes, the Cube was beautiful. But, my PM G4 Quicksilver (purchased a few years ago for $25 at an educational surplus warehouse) will live forever. Upgraded with a faster processor, a bigger hard drive, more RAM, and a better graphics card (all from eBay), it now runs the latest version of Debian just fine. I use it every day.

  4. Cordova Bay says:

    The Lisa was a game changer. Do not make a mistake about that! the price was steep as you might notice today. But in context with the market at the time, it was about the same price as many standalone word processors.

    A graphic oriented workstation with word processing, spreadsheet, networking and a laser printer was now about the same price as a character oriented word processor. Boots were shaking all over.

    The Xerox Star was a graphical based word processor (using windowing and a mouse) was about 30% more expensive than the Lisa. It had an enormous screen for the day but is was expensive.

    Stating prices for computer products of yesteryear is very misleading without comparisons. Remember, the first IBM PC (the really slow thing) with a single 5 ¼” floppy drive with green and white screen and almost no memory cost about $7,000 back then. In today’s terms it cost much more than two fully decked out MacPro!!

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