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

Evan Hepler-Smith ehepler at princeton.edu
Wed Apr 26 13:34:29 PDT 2017

Hi Tom,

In case you haven't seen, Jack Brown had a good piece in T&C a few years
ago on counterfactuals in the history of technology. It's about 19th c.
bridge-building, but there are some analogies, and he does useful
methodological work on spinning evidence into productive and analytically
responsible counterfactuals.



On Wed, Apr 26, 2017 at 4:17 PM Thomas Haigh <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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