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

Morten Bay mortenbay at g.ucla.edu
Wed Apr 26 15:13:08 PDT 2017

Tom, this is a great and underexplored subject.

I would only add a couple of points to consider if you haven't already:

- International markets. The Apple computers were far less succesful or subject to the same veneration in continental Europe as they were in the U.S. I think there are some interesting cultural differences to be considered there, including language and pride in locally developed products (Olivetti?)

- Also consider the trajectory of micros. There was a generation who grew up with the micros in the 80s and the free flow of pirated games and software in that market. I'm part of that generation, and for many of us, the closed Apple ecosystem was not a natural successor when we left the C64s and the ZX Spectrums. The Commodore Amigas and Ataris that came out as a continuation of the microcomputer wave served as bridges to the PC platform, rather than to where Apple was at the time. 

Looking forward to reading what comes out of your research.


From: Thomas Haigh

Sent: Wednesday, April 26, 1:18 PM

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

To: members at sigcis.org



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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