[SIGCIS-Members] Counterfactual history: Did the Mac cost Apple a shot at market leadership?

Thomas Haigh thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Wed Apr 26 13:17:24 PDT 2017


Hello SIGCIS,

 

I'm looking for your opinions. I'm currently working on a project that
involves coming up with a coherent overall narrative of the development of
the modern PC. One question I'm facing is how to treat the Mac, in
particular whether its development was a huge blunder by Apple. This gets
into some classic questions about the role of the individual in driving
history.

 

Steve Jobs left life prematurely, but having led the one of the greatest
corporate comebacks in history. He snagged the Isaacson biography, and is
going to be a fixture of high school textbooks, lists of great innovators
and managers, etc. Apple is the world's most profitable corporation. 

 

Back in the early 1990s he had a very different reputation having been fired
by Apple, failed at NeXT, and seen Apple slide towards bankruptcy without
him. The narrative in books such as Cringley's Accidental Empires is that
Jobs killed the Lisa division out of spite and jealously. Lisa, which
shipped in 1983, was a big expensive ($10,000 incl. hard drive)
business-oriented computer with GUI, mouse, etc., a hard disk, multitasking,
built in networking, etc. Jobs was feverishly devoted to the idea of a
small, cheap computer - but tech wasn't ready to produce a cheap computer
with a functional GUI. So the team finished up with a small, fairly
expensive ($3,000 with a second floppy drive) computer from which expansion
slots, a hard drive interface, networking capabilities, etc. were
deliberately omitted. According to Cringely, even the ability to solder new
chips to upgrade the RAM from 128K (useless) to 512K (skimpy) only made its
way into the product by hiding it from Jobs. The Mac sold badly, only
starting to take off after Jobs was fired and engineers could start to add
the missing features. In 1986 Apple launched the Mac Plus two years later,
which finally had 1MB of RAM and a hard drive interface. In 1987 the Apple
II added expansion slots and networking, but cost around $7K for a full
system. 

 

The counterfactual version of history would involve Apple sticking with
Lisa, working to boost performance and gradually broaden its base from
higher end niches to general business use, only pitching it for home use
when costs came down enough to offer a 1MB machine for a few thousand
dollars. That could presumably have yielded something like an Apple II long
before 1987, during the crucial period in IBM compatible machines were
locking up the market. This would have given Apple an installed user base
earlier, and credibility in the mainstream business market that the Mac
never had. (According to Wikipedia, early work on the Apple II was done in
secret, because Jobs would have killed it if he knew).

 

Mac fans may at this point towards the famous engineering work done by the
original Mac team, under the influence of Jobs' "reality distortion field"
to make hand code the OS, BIOS, etc. in an incredibly efficient way, to make
it run faster than Lisa and work at all on a computer with only 128KB of
RAM. Which is true, but arguably a bad long term move since IIRC it was hard
to port this code to larger processors, bigger screens, etc. Without the
mandate to launch a 128KB GUI computer in the first place all that could
have been avoided. The Mac didn't get real multitasking and other "grown up"
OS features until 2001, whereas Lisa already had them and its sluggishness
would have dwindled with faster processors and code optimization. 

 

The other objection might be that Lisa was just so slow and flaky, that it
earned Jobs' hatred, and that Apple was right to abandon it (which didn't
officially happen until 1985). According to Wikipedia its OS struggled to
run the bundled apps and it didn't sell particularly well. But it also
mentions Jobs telling potential customers not to buy Lisa because the Mac
was the future and wouldn't be compatible, and it's clear that the
disruptions inside Apple cause by his setting up of a rival group would have
distracted people from efforts to improve Lisa.

 

So should we conclude that Jobs and the Macintosh cost Apple it's chance of
being a dominant force in the late-1980s PC market? Early-1990s observers
looking back on this era were more sympathetic to the "grown up" managers
trying to run Apple like a real company, focused on business customers, etc.
rather than the immature Jobs. Since Jobs' success on his return to Apple
put him in the pantheon of visionaries and great managers, more recent
observers have been more sympathetic to his imposition of a strong, consumer
focused vision in defiance of conventional opinion. It worked with the
iPhone, but I'm still inclined to say that he nearly sank Apple with the
Macintosh.

 

Thoughts? Pointers to sources?

 

Tom 

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