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

McMillan, William W william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu
Wed Apr 26 14:20:27 PDT 2017

Tom et al.,

There was no way the Mac in the 1980s could provide the computational power and productivity enhancement of the inexpensive "PC clone" hardware world and the Wordstar - Turbo Pascal - Lotus 1-2-3 software world.  The Mac was for one kind of fanatic or another.

Where I believe Apple and the Mac failed was in the rejection of the company's true nature, especially as expressed in HyperCard, a software tool that presaged the World-Wide Web, but lacked, after commoditization of the company under Sculley, the commitment to carry its essential ideas to fruition.  All Apple had to do, as far back as the 1980s, was enable a click on a HyperCard link to connect one person's computer with a "card" (screen) on another computer.  Voilà, the web.

They had the WWW in their hands and they dropped it in order to chase after numbers.

In recent years, corporations have had to accede to their employees' desire to use iPads and iPhones, integrating them into corporate IT infrastructure.  That power of user demand could quite possibly have brought Apple and the Mac into an influential position in the big-biz sphere, if Apple had allowed its (Bill Atkinson's?) creative juices to flow.

- Bill

From: Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] on behalf of Thomas Haigh [thomas.haigh at gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 4:17 PM
To: members at sigcis.org
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Counterfactual history: Did the Mac cost Apple a shot at market leadership?


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?


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