The Mac at 30: Hardware and software wars – again and again and ...

Part 2: The many moments of Steve Jobs’ 30-year-old offspring

Interim CEO

Steve Jobs, who became Apple’s “interim CEO” in September 1997, didn’t agree. “Apple has to let go of this ghost and invent the future,” he told The New York Times that month, explain that in his opinion, not only were the clonemakers chipping away at Apple’s Mac-system market share, but that they were also being subsidised by Cupertino’s investments in engineering, software development and marketing.

Jobs proceeded to kill the clones in three phases. First, he took advantage of the release of Mac OS 8 in the summer of 1997 to significantly raise the licensing fees for that operating system or to disallow such licensing entirely – the original licensing agreements had covered System 7 only.

Second, in August he ended Apple’s inclusion of clones in its Mac OS Up-To-Date program, which allowed recent buyers of Mac systems to pay reduced rates for OS updates – although after a couple of weeks he cut purchasers of Power Computing and Umax clones some slack, but only for a limited time.

Power Computing' 'Let's kick Intel's ass!' advertisement

It cost Apple $100m in stock to kick Power Computing’s ass

The death blow came on Tuesday morning, 2 September 1997, when Apple announced that it had purchased “core assets” of Power Computing for $100m in Apple stock – which on that date was going for about $5.60 per share; Power Computing would have received just under 1.8 million shares, which would today be worth around $10bn.

The clone market soon collapsed. DayStar had already dropped out the month before, Motorola quit soon after the Power Computing announcement, Pioneer gave up the next month, and the rest soon followed – except Umax, which managed to wrangle an OS 8 license for low-cost clones. That final clonemaker held on until 27 May 1998. After it threw in the towel, the clone era was over.

Well, there was the Psystar silliness that ended in May of last year, but that doesn’t really count, does it?

12:01am, Saturday, 15 August 15 1998 – the iMac arrives, Apple survives

Reg Hardware retro numbers

When Steve Jobs introduced the iMac on 6 May 1998 at Cupertino’s Flint Center for the Performing Arts – the same venue where he popped the original Macintosh out of its bag – he said: “We think iMac is going to be a really big deal.”

Behind that confident assessment, he must have been thinking, “OMG, OMG, OMG, this gamble better pay off, or we be screwed.”

In hindsight, it's clear that Apple’s salto mortale landed solidly on its feet, and went on to not only revitalise a company – and a line of personal computers – that was in dire need of a jump-start, but also to spawn a design language that, love it or loathe it, wormed its way into everything from countertop grills to steam irons.

But that success was far from assured, seeing as how the iMac was quite unlike anything that the personal computer market had seen before. Cosmetically, it was an odd duck: translucent, somewhat gumdrop-shaped, and so... well... design-y. As Jobs cooed when introducing it, “the back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys’.”

Consumer-friendly design was clearly on Jobs' mind at that introduction. “It looks like it’s from another planet,” he said. “And a good planet – a planet with better designers.”

The original 'Bondi Blue' iMac G3

The original ‘Bondi Blue’ iMac, so named after the waters at a well-known Australian beach
Click for a larger image

The design of the iMac was not, however, something that Jobs dreamed up. It wasn’t even something that his design team cooked up after his Apple coup, if what a former colleague of the iMac’s lead designer, Jony Ive, told The Observer is true. “There is a rumour Apple had designed the iMac years earlier but the existing boss was not interested, so they put it away,” he said. “When Jobs returned and asked what ideas they had, Jonathan brought it out and the rest is history.”

The iMac’s very name – simple, not lumbered with model numbers – was not only a break with tradition, but also the beginning of a new one, as the parade of iDevices from iPod to iPad has shown. Interestingly, though, that name was not a Jobsian invention either. It was invented by an Apple ad consultant from TBWA\Chiat\Day, who told Cult of Mac in 2001 that he had come up with it after Jobs had suggested a name – which he refused to reveal – that was so bad it would “curdle your blood”.

Steve Jobs introduces the iMac on May 6, 1998

Design elements aside, the original iMac was a risk in other ways, as well, ways that meant more to those buyers who were more concerned with a computer's capabilities than its appearance.

In its introductory article about the new blue bubble box, Macworld summed up that view rather succinctly. “The most shocking part of the iMac isn’t what it offers,” it wrote, “but what it lacks. The iMac has no floppy drive, which might be forgivable if there were a Zip drive or other removable-media option, but there isn’t.”

Macworld didn’t stop there. “And most dramatically,” it continued, dramatically, “this new consumer offering has no SCSI port, no standard serial ports and no ADB ports. Apple has opted to replace these familiar connections with USB, a high-speed [Yes, 12Mbps was once “high speed” — Ed.] serial architecture that has suffered from slow adoption on the Wintel platform despite its technical advantages.”

Since the ‘i’ in iMac stood for ‘internet’, it was arguably no biggie that the machine had no floppy drive, since you could transfer files to it using email or read them off CDs – or even CD-Rs, if you were fortunate enough to have access to a burner. You could also plug an external floppy drive into one of the iMac’s two USB ports.

That is, if you could find a USB floppy drive. When the original $1,299, 233MHz G3 iMac was released, there simply weren’t any Mac-compatible peripherals based on USB. Needless to say, Apple was making a leap of faith by forgoing the standard complement of ports, hoping that the third-party ecosystem would fill in the gaps and offer not only USB floppy drives, but also – and more importantly – such necessities as printers, niceties as scanners, and then-popular external storage devices such as Zip drives.

Ports on the original 'Bondi Blue' iMac

Hidden behins a translucent ‘ice’ door were stereo audio-in and -out ports, two USB 1.1 ports, a 100Mbps Ethernet port, a power-reset switch and NMI "programmer's switch", and a modem port
Click for a larger image

Those third-party opportunists did – eventually – and thankfully for those Mac users who had invested in SCSI-connected hardware, vendors such as such as Microtech and Belkin came out with USB-to-SCSI adapters to bridge the gap.

But no one would have created Mac-compatible USB devices if the iMac hadn’t sold well – and it did, it most definitely did. Two weeks after it hit store shelves at one minute after midnight on Saturday, 15 August 1998, Jobs told Cnet that demand was outstripping supply, and that Apple was shipping “tens of thousands” of iMacs per week.

In the fourth quarter of 1998 – Apple’s first fiscal quarter of 1999 – Cupertino shipped just under 520,000 of its new translucent company-saver, bringing the total sold since its August introduction to around 800,000. In that same fiscal quarter, Apple’s profits of $152m were more than triple that of the $47m earned in the same quarter of the previous year.

Apple’s iMac gamble had indeed paid off, as had Jobs’ insistence on radically simplifying the Macintosh product line and reforming the company culture, transforming both from the confusing, internecine-warfare days of “let a hundred Performas bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”.

Say what you will about Steven Paul Jobs – and if our experience with the Comments sections of Reg articles is any guide, you most certainly will – but the discipline he brought to Apple’s engineering teams saved the company. And the Macintosh.

And with the return of profitability and the return of sales came the return of those all-important “Developers! Developers! Developers! Developers!” Which brings us to one more return, our choice as the most important moment in the 30 years of Macintosh history.

Not hard to guess, eh?

Around 10am, Tuesday, 7 January 1997 – The Second Coming, fanboi style

Reg Hardware retro numbers

We’ve spent plenty of time in this series detailing just how crappy things were at Apple around the mid-1990s. Michael ‘Diesel’ Spindler had taken the CEO helm from Jobs-replacement John Sculley in June 1993, and ruled for a lamentable 20 months. OK, the PowerPC transition went smoothly enough, but his effort to develop a replacement for the Mac’s aging operating system was mishandled, big time.

That critical task fell to Gil Amelio when he took over from Spindler in February 1995, but he couldn’t pull it off in a timely fashion, either. Nor could he quickly get the current – and buggy – OS, System 7, whipped into shape. Not that he didn’t try, but he was unable to break the psychic hold that Apple’s ongoing OS-replacement project, Copland, had on the software-engineering team.

“The situation when I came in,” he later told MacAddict, “was, ‘Well, we’re not going to worry about System 7 anymore. We’re working on Copland.’ Heck, you know, everybody in the software department was working on Copland, and no one was paying any attention to what we were shipping at that time. It took me probably 3 to 6 months to sort that all out.”

In this effort, he actually had some success. “We cleaned up the operating system,” he said, “came up with a new roadmap, which led to Harmony [Mac OS 7.6], which wasn’t in anybody’s plans and which led to the existing Mac OS 8, which isn’t Copland, but it’s a damn sight better than anything else that’s out there.”

But Mac OS 8 was essentially lipstick on a pig – high-quality, Serge Lutens fard à lèvres, perhaps, but lipstick nonetheless. The Mac’s operating system was lumbered with legacy requirements, legacy code, and legacy problems. Amelio knew it, the Macintosh faithful knew it, and developers knew it.

And Copland wasn’t going to be ready anytime soon. Announced in March 1995 and soon renamed System 8 or Mac OS 8 - not to be confused with the Mac OS 8 that eventually did ship, which was simply the next iteration of the Mac’s long-standing OS – Copland was originally scheduled to ship the following year.

Yes, Virginia, there once was an operating system codenamed Copland. Kinda. Sorta.

Didn't happen.

In fact, when Copland System 8 Mac OS 8 was demoed at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in May 1996, it was a train wreck. As one attendee told MacTech: “There were tantalising glimpses of the goodies to come, but the overall experience was awful. It does not yet support text editing, so you couldn’t actually do anything except open and view documents (any dialog field that needed something typed into it was blank and dead). Also, it was incredibly fragile and crashed repeatedly, often corrupting system files on the disk in the process. The demo staff reformatted and rebuilt the hard disks at regular intervals. It was incredible that they even let us see the beast.”

You can chalk up Copland’s problems to any number of sources: poor engineering management, feature creep, engineers who cared more about turf than shipping, internal conflicts among departments, lack of clear priorities, or all of the above. In any case, it’s to Amelio’s credit that he reached outside of Apple and back to his previous stomping grounds, National Semiconductor, and recruited Ellen Hancock to be Apple’s CTO, and charged her with whipping the Copland project into shape.

Hancock took a look at Copland, took a look at the engineering culture at Apple, took a look at the calendar, and cancelled the Copland project in August 1996. From her point of view, it would be more efficient and timely for Apple to simply seek out a modern third-party operating system than to create its own.

That solved one problem – the Copland debacle – but it created another: which operating system to choose. Apple discussed with its former hardware honcho, Jean-Louis Gassée, about buying his company and its OS-under-development BeOS, but balked at Gassée’s asking price, which was said to be $200m.

When word got out that Apple was sniffing about for a new OS, Steve Jobs threw his hat into the ring. As The New York Times tells it, Amelio was out of the country, so Jobs left a message for Hancock. According to Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson, Hancock preferred Sun’s Solaris, but in any case she returned Jobs’ call “immediately”.

On 20 December 1997, Apple announced that it would acquire Jobs’ NeXT Software for $427 million in cash and stock, and that Steve Jobs would join Apple in an advisory role. “We always talked about him being on the inside,” Hancock said at the time. “We’re hoping he can show us where to go from here in emerging markets and technologies.”

Jobs showed her where to go, all right. Even before he wrested command from Amelio of the company that he had co-founded, he convinced the doomed CEO to remove Hancock from oversight of R&D.

Gil Amelio and Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo San Francisco in 1997

But on 7 January 1997, near the end of a Macworld Expo San Francisco keynote presentation that could most kindly described as discombobulated, Amelio betrayed no fear of his new adviser, and invited him to share the stage and give a demo of Apple’s latest acquisition.

Jobs came onstage to whoops, whistles, shouts and applause – and true to form, spent the first few minutes of his stage time wooing, soothing, complimenting and seducing developers. “We’ve got to get the spark back with the developers,” he said. “We’ve got to get the developers back.”

In the following months and years, Jobs went on to get the Macintosh back – on track, that is – and when that was accomplished, the developers came with it.

Now, 30 years on, those Mac developers are outnumbered by iOS developers, and it’s far from a safe bet that the Macintosh will be around in another 30 years’ time, what with the increasing importance of iDevices to Apple’s bottom line, and with the personal computing market – both desktop and laptop – melting into relative irrelevancy.

But for those of us who’ve been there for every step of the way – and for those of you who joined up 20, ten, or just a few years ago – it’s been one hell of a collection of memorable moments, eh?

I, for one, will never forget the moment I first heard the car-crash error sound on my Power Mac 8100.

Let’s keep surprising one another, shall we? ®

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