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

Justin Zobel jzobel at unimelb.edu.au
Wed Apr 26 16:49:53 PDT 2017

We installed labs of 128kb Macs in 1985, replacing terminals. For the staff they were a nuisance – endless rebooting and so on, and compromises like the faux folder hierarchy were appalling to UNIX purists. And of course they were hopelessly hobbled for any practical purpose, as others have also noted in this thread. But students loved them and at the time we credited them with encouraging some students to change their major from (say) Physics to CS. They were vastly more successful than the labs of PCs elsewhere in the building, on which the programming environments were no match for MacPascal – from a student’s point of view at least.

However I agree that the price meant that they weren’t going to make inroads in the domestic market, and they were near-useless for commercial purposes. Many of our students had PCs at home, and, e.g., used them to draft the programs that they then entered into the Macs in our labs. There may have been a couple of students with those early Macs at home, but no more than that. On this anecdotal evidence I agree with your hypothesis, Tom.


From: Members <members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org> on behalf of Matthew Kirschenbaum <mkirschenbaum at gmail.com>
Date: Thursday, 27 April 2017 at 8:26 am
To: "McMillan, William W" <william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu>
Cc: "members at sigcis.org" <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Counterfactual history: Did the Mac cost Apple a shot at market leadership?

One interesting tidbit: due the paucity of RAM, MacWrite as originally shipped couldn't accommodate documents of more than 7-8 pages.
Steven Levy recounts a writers' workshop whose participants were being introduced to the wonders of word processing software c. 1985, and hearing the recommendation to the assembled authors that they create only very short chapters!
Mac Plus fixed this.

On Wed, Apr 26, 2017 at 5:20 PM, McMillan, William W <william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu<mailto:william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu>> wrote:
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<mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org>] on behalf of Thomas Haigh [thomas.haigh at gmail.com<mailto:thomas.haigh at gmail.com>]
Sent: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 4:17 PM
To: members at sigcis.org<mailto: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?

This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org<http://sigcis.org>, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. Opinions expressed here are those of the member posting and are not reviewed, edited, or endorsed by SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/<http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/> and you can change your subscription options at http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org<http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org>

Matthew Kirschenbaum
Professor of English
Director, Graduate Certificate in Digital Studies
University of Maryland
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