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

Deborah Douglas ddouglas at mit.edu
Wed Apr 26 17:48:31 PDT 2017


It may be useful to remember that one of Steve Jobs’ heroes was Edwin Land and that Jobs was fascinated by Polaroid.  (Harvard’s Collection of Scientific Instruments has the Mac that Jobs gave to Edwin Land.)  So as you embark into “counterfactual land” another question to ask is: “Suppose Jobs had not been so obsessed with Land and Polaroid, and had looked to another corporate figure such as Herb Boyer and Genentech; Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines; or Masaru Ibuka and Sony?”  In other words, was Polaroid, a bad example….

Debbie Douglas



On Apr 26, 2017, at 8:27 PM, Kimon Keramidas <kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu<mailto:kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu>> wrote:

Tom,

Glad you’re interested in this as it is stuff I am interested in working on.

I think so much of this is a question of perspective and how you see the mythology and history of this playing out. It is kind of telling that you use the term Mac fans a bit pejoratively when in a sense that sense of passion and connection to the device is what Jobs was looking for. I think that along with reviving the company one reason Jobs has been looked at more glowingly in the recent past is that his desire to create a culture of computing around easy-to-use computers was more important to him as creating machines that sold well and turned a profit. That’s probably why he was blind to how expensive that $2500 price tag was and couldn’t see how the difficulty of using the early machines damned it to be a niche product. It is true that this almost sank the company financially, but without this approach Apple floundered until 1998 looking for traction in the business market, when that kind of went against the origins of the ][ and the Mac. For that stretch you could argue that Apple wasn’t Apple, and a “Mac Fan” could go as far as saying that without that initial vision it was just a bad clone company that was doomed to sell market shares because it didn’t have access to the OEM-based platform that made Microsoft profitable but not particularly innovative.

So a counter argument (for discussion’s sake) could be that what Jobs was pushing for just wasn’t achievable at that time with the available tech. Is that a dooming strategy or the kind of leadership that you want from a supposedly visionary CEO. That depends on who you are of course. Would Microsoft have come up with equivalent hardware? Probably not, hardware was already not their game at that point. Who does that leave? Commodore? The Amiga was coming and that might have been the next viable option. Radio Shack? Unlikely. Xerox? They did have the Alto a decade earlier and tried with the Star but were even less successful. IBM? Maybe, but they were coming down from the big business model and I wonder what their true innovation into a consumer market might have been if not pushed by Apple. It is an interesting alternate history question, but it’s also important to note that even when Jobs did come back and the new iMac helped revive the company, he was never obsessed with pandering to the market share metrics that often position the clones and then Microsoft as having won the world. Oddly enough by that point he was thinking about selling BMWs rather than Fords (his words, don’t remember the time of the quote).

I do doubt that Lisa would have been the answer. It was a business computer without the feel of a personal experience, and the “feel” of the Macintosh was very important and was part of its branding. The fact that so few Macintoshes sold but there were so many dedicated fans who used them for years is an interesting representation of how Jobs saw the industry being about consumer identity, communities, and passion about interface experience in a way that few others have. He was a far better marketer than an innovator after all and that is really what his legacy should be.

Also, please don’t read me as a Jobs super sympathizer. He is a problematic historical individual and there are so many conflicting histories, myths, and distortions about his role in this that it is hard to get at what really happened. He did however have some powerful visions and opinions that have inevitably shaped this story for better or for worse.

I’ll stop here, I could go on longer as this is at the core of my research, and part of my next research project on the pedagogy of personal computer advertisements and teaching us how to use and want “new” technology. Would love to talk more off of the listerv!

Cheers
Kimon

Kimon Keramidas, Ph.D.
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On Apr 26, 2017, at 4:17 PM, Thomas Haigh <thomas.haigh at gmail.com<mailto:thomas.haigh at gmail.com>> wrote:

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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Deborah G. Douglas, PhD • Director of Collections and Curator of Science and Technology, MIT Museum; Research Associate, Program in Science, Technology, and Society • Room N51-209 • 265 Massachusetts Avenue • Cambridge, MA 02139-4307 • ddouglas at mit.edu<mailto:ddouglas at mit.edu> • 617-253-1766 telephone • 617-253-8994 facsimile • http://mitmuseum.mit.eduhttp://museum.mit.edu/150







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