In listening to my first guest on this weekend’s edition of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I had to wonder whether he was on to something. You’ll see what I mean once I summarize the topics we discussed.
So we featured prolific author and commentator Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, who talked about his first self-published book, “Working Smart for Mac Users.” He discussed how he overcame his Adult ADD disorder to organize his time and become more productive as a freelance writer. He also explained how he began as a hunt and peck typist and soon become reasonably fast on the keyboard. Does he type as fast as Gene, and does it even matter? And does he intend to review the Late 2016 MacBook Pro or does he have other products he’d prefer to cover?
Now I’ve reviewed quite a number of new Macs since the 1990s. While I had owned Macs for a number of years, it wasn’t until I was actually writing for Macworld that I took on the task of reviewing one. The first Mac I was assigned to cover was the PowerBook 165c, the very first Apple notebook with a color display. Unfortunately, Apple used aa passive-matrix display, which used fewer transistors and was less expensive to build. But it also had dimmer colors and a really narrow viewing angle. It had poor screen refresh too, so it made the entire user experience feel really sluggish.
Well I wasn’t too impressed, and I said so. As much as I might have wanted a color PowerBook, this was a notebook that should probably have never left the development labs.
That was then.
Now reviewing Mac notebooks in recent years may have actually become a boring process, and that’s just as true for Windows portables. Between 2012, when the first MacBook Pro with Retina display was released, and 2015, when the last model of the previous generation shipped, the year-to-year changes were very minor. So what was there to say beyond repeating a set of specs and pointing out that, if you had last year’s model, there was really no compelling reason to buy the new model? That may be less so in 2016, when a new slimmer and lighter form factor debuted, along with the Touch Bar. There was enough meat and potatoes to discuss. No doubt the expected 2017 refresh will have very few changes that will result in somewhat speedier scores in benchmarks.
Now back to that episode of my tech show: You also heard from commentator Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer. His bill of fare this time included a brief pop culture discussion, and he then moved on to the Mac Pro and whether it makes sense for Apple to upgrade a product that has been sold unchanged since 2013. Gene brought up his dream or mythical iMac Pro configuration with a more powerful processor and two internal drives. And what about AMD’s new Ryzen processor family, which they claim is faster than comparable Intel silicon? Jeff brought up a recent case of ransomware on a Mac, where those infected will find their data encrypted unless they pay the fee — and maybe not even then. And is Apple going to hold a media event to launch a new lineup of iPads? What about all those predictions about the next iPhone, rumored to have an edge-to-edge OLED display and wireless charging?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Seven years after his first appearance on The Paracast, Gene and Chris present well-known conspiracy theorist Jim Marrs. We’ll cover the standbys, including the Kennedy assassination, the murder of Robert Kennedy, secret space programs, ancient astronauts and even 9/11. He is author of such books as “Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy,” and “Our Occulted History: Do the Global Elite Conceal Ancient Aliens?” Jim has worked for several Texas newspapers and, since 1980, he has been a freelance writer, author and public relations consultant. He also published a rural weekly newspaper along with a monthly tourism tabloid, a cable television show and several videos.
When Apple announced the first drop in iPhone sales since the gadget first premiered in 2007, you would have thought the company was in deep trouble. Predictably, the stock price dropped, even though Apple remained highly profitable, and had total revenues to die for. It didn’t help that sales for the iPad continued to fall and Mac sales were relatively flat.
I won’t dwell on the fact that Amazon, a Wall Street darling, seldom delivers large profits and has had many years of red ink. Tesla? Don’t get me started! Apple lives in a universe all its own, it seems, and it must deliver endless growth for the rest of time or risk being declared irrelevant. It must answer to a higher standard.
Now if it were 20 years ago, the critics might have had a point. In the previous year, the then-beleaguered company acquired NeXT, Inc., a firm founded by Steve Jobs, which had delivered a working industrial strength operating system. Apple couldn’t build one of their own, despite trying for several years, and thus went shopping in a fairly public way for someone else’s.
There were two major contenders. Both offered such industrial strength features as preemptive multitasking and other capabilities the aging Mac OS lacked. NeXTSTEP was built on a tried-and-tried Unix core, while BeOS had more recent origins. Both BeOS and NeXT were founded by former Apple employees, the former was run by Jean-Louis Gassée, who actually took over the Macintosh division after Jobs left the company.
Be even attempted to sell its own computers that were similar to Macs because they had PowerPC processors. But hardware sales never amounted to much and the company soon decided to focus strictly on BeOS. Of course NeXT didn’t fare too well selling computers either despite trying for a number of years.
Well, Gassée was reportedly too greedy in his negotiations with Apple. He apparently wanted $300 million, while Apple refused to sign a check for more than $125 million. If it was only about price, you might wonder why Apple’s board of directors chose NeXTSTEP instead, agreeing to acquire the company for $429 million. True, NeXTSTEP had a longer history of successful development, and a proven record of dependability. I recall in those days that BeOS didn’t seem quite finished during the few times that I tried it.
In any case, the acquisition of NeXT returned Steve Jobs to the company, and it only took a few months for him to take over as “interim” CEO. Apple never looked back.
Now it so happens that Jobs had his share of failures after he assumed control of Apple. Let’s not forget a notable example, the Power Macintosh G4 Cube. To some, this would-be museum piece of a computer was in a way reminiscent of the original NeXTcube. Maybe they didn’t look identical, but they appeared to have family resemblances.
To me, these square-off designs are actually reminiscent of yet another “cube,” the original Carver magnetic field coil power amplifier, which first appeared in the late 1970s. I wonder how many remember. Indeed, working units are still available for sale on eBay, and they are quite capable of driving a stereo sound system containing otherwise modern components. You cannot say the same for those old NeXT or BeBoxes, since they required operating systems that were out of date years ago.
Now about the Mac Cube: It had some design deficiencies, such as a tendency for the sophisticated plastics in the corners to crack. But the real problem was that it was overpriced and underpowered compared to other Power Macs, and didn’t offer a lot of opportunity for expansion.
Introduced in the summer of 2000 for a starting price of $1,799 in its entry-level configuration, it was discontinued less than a year later.
I thought of it at the time as Jobs’ pet computer, and I remember a question and answer session during the original rollout of Mac OS X in March of 2001. Amid rumors that the Cube was going to be discontinued, Jobs shot back at the reporter who dared to ask about its fate: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Well, maybe I got a few words wrong.
In any case, Jobs clearly understood the difference between success and failure, as evidenced by all the products he nuked after he returned to Apple in 1997. The Cube was unceremoniously retired. But it’s not that the failure of a single product had the potential to kill Apple, at least a product only meant to supplement an existing product line.
With so few products in its lineup, at least according to other tech companies, I suppose the failure of any other product that was a key to Apple’s ongoing success would have had serious impact going forward.
If the iPod didn’t soar, would there have been an iPhone and an iPad? It’s something one might ask, but, of course, nobody can go back and change the past. Well, maybe they can on the TV time travel show, “Legends of Tomorrow,” where they recently featured an episode speculating about what might have happened if George Lucas gave up filmmaking before creating “Star Wars.”
Today’s Apple critics argue that Apple earns too much of its revenue from the iPhone. If sales flagged big time, what would happen to the company? But couldn’t the same have been said of the Mac over the years? Before the iPod arrived, personal computers were Apple’s main products. Where would Apple have been without the Apple II and the Mac?
But that’s a silly argument. Many companies owe their success to a single product or two, and Apple is not the only company that became successful with only a few product lines. What would have happened to BlackBerry if it embraced touchscreens rather than physical keyboards and quickly responded to the competitive threat of the iPhone? You could, I suppose, say that about other products that went by the wayside in the wake of the success of an Apple device.
Can you even name a digital music player other than the iPod?
The long and short of it is that Apple is run by smart people who clearly understand the consequences of the failure of any single product, or the lack of steady success. After a run of a few years, for example, some question the future of the iPad in light of continued falling sales. But it should also be clear from the new ad campaign, and reports of forthcoming model refreshes, that Apple isn’t giving up on its tablets. Besides, any gadget that can deliver $20 billion of revenue per year can hardly be called a failure. Well, maybe except for Apple.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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