Feature There has been no shortage of rose-tinted retrospective adulation marking the 30th birthday of the Macintosh over past weeks. Here at El Reg, we’d be the last to deny Apple’s significance and continuing influence on the history of personal computing. But to put everything in perspective, we thought it was worth looking back at some of the occasions when Apple got it wrong.
To be fair, some of its failures have been truly glorious. The oft-criticised Power Mac G4 Cube may have been overpriced and underpowered, but it was a marvel of engineering that remains unmatched by most desktop PC designs to this day.
But there have also been disasters, many of them entirely self-inflicted. The "Antennagate" episode from 2010 was the most recent example of this, but there have been many others, such as the rash of failures among early Time Capsule devices that led Apple to simply wash its hands of them as soon as they were out of warranty.
Then there’s Apple’s fondness for form over function, which led to the ergonomic disaster of its completely unusable circular "hockey puck" mouse.
So here, in chronological order, are the products and services that Apple almost certainly won’t be celebrating in years to come.
Apple III and IIc (1980 and 1984)
Keen to capitalise on the unprecedented success of the Apple II micro, Apple spent what Steve Jobs described as “incalculable amounts” developing the Apple III in 1980 together with its new "Sophisticated Operating System", SOS. But pressure to bring the machine to market too quickly led to woeful design flaws: little things like overheating circuit boards and chips popping out of their sockets.
“We designed the Apple II with six guys and it’s about the most-installed computer of all time. We designed the Apple III with a corporation of 1,600 and it still doesn’t work,” Jobs is said to have quipped.
A revised model, the Apple III Plus, corrected these faults, but not in time to prevent the machine from becoming Apple’s first high-profile failure.
Falling back on the ever-reliable Apple II once more, Apple developed a carry-around model called the IIc in 1984. The "c" stood for compact, and the slimlime design of the IIc, complete with an integrated keyboard and a carry handle at the back, was an obvious predecessor of the more successful iMac.
Unfortunately, a weight of almost 3.5kg meant that this "portable" computer stumbled at the first hurdle, never to rise. CJ
Released in 1983, the Lisa was in so many ways technically superior to the Mac that eventually succeeded it. The Lisa was the first mass-market personal computer to be based around a graphical-user interface – inspired by research work that Steve Jobs and other Apple execs had seen at Xerox – with mouse and menu interaction. It also included advanced features, such as multi-tasking and memory protection, long before the Mac got them.
Reviews at the time acknowledged the Lisa’s technological advances, but a $10,000 price tag mean that sales were dead in the water. The Lisa 2, released in 1984, slashed the price in half, but Apple eventually decided to cut its losses and in 1986 it allowed Lisa owners to trade up to one of those new-fangled Mac thingies for just $1,500. CJ
Newton OS and the MessagePad (1993)
Ahead of its time in conception, if not execution, the Newton MessagePad was the grand project of John Sculley – the man who had ousted Steve Jobs from Apple in 1985.
First launched in 1993, the Newton was intended to be a "PDA" – Personal Digital Assistant – and in that sense it anticipated the modern smartphone and, of course, the iPhone itself. It was supposed to analyse and intelligently interpret your personal information in order to organise your life on your behalf.
Sadly, the Newton’s reach exceeded its grasp by a few light years, and its unreliable handwriting-recognition turned it into a laughing stock. A piss-taking appearance on The Simpsons was the final nail in the coffin, and Steve Jobs had his revenge on Sculley’s toy when he returned to Apple in 1997 and swiftly killed off “that scribble thing”. CJ
Copland was all about making the Mac OS modern. In 1987, three years after the launch of the Mac, a band of software engineers decided to update the Mac’s system software. And give it proper memory protection and pre-emptive multi-tasking into the bargain.
They started writing Pink, an object-oriented OS with the Mac’s familiar UI on top and solid computing foundations beneath. Pink was soon sidetracked by Apple’s 1989 deal with IBM, one result of which was an independent OS called Taligent. This was Pink by another name but, separated from Apple, it went nowhere.
In 1993, Apple, under new management, had another go: a project was established to build a ground-up OS with the established Mac UI as a friendly front-end. It would, they hoped, drive Apple way ahead of the competition, then the upcoming Windows 95. They called it Raptor. One smart move was to base it on a microkernel, allowing the engineers to focus on the essential plumbing, wiring and steel framework, and then build the fancy glass exterior around it.
Copland’s Finder: just like what’s gone before
Management procrastination killed Raptor by riling the team leaders so much that they quit. But the same bosses soon decided that they really did need a microkernel-based OS after all, and told a second team of engineers to go and build it. Work began on Copland early in 1994. Three months later it was announced to the public and, in May 1995, it was scheduled to be released the following year as Mac OS 8.
The fact Mac folks are all using the NeXT-derived Mac OS X tells you exactly how good the Copland team were at meeting that deadline.
Within nine months of starting work, the Copland team had bloated out of all recognition. The idea behind Raptor had been to build the kernel and then steadily add features. Apple could ship and then evolve the product. Copland started out the same way, but quickly became mired in an attempt to do everything all at once. It started out with four people and less than a year later had hundreds working on it, 50 on the kernel alone.
Who needs Wizards when you have Experts?
There were demos, but apart from new Mac UI support for customisable themes and a multi-threaded Finde, Copland seemed largely indistinguishable from System 7. When the Copland team failed to deliver public beta software in May 1996 as promised, CEO Gil Amelio realised the company needed an alternative.
Whether he should have bought Be’s BeOS or NeXT’s OpenStep is a question that will continue to be debated among Mac fans, but few of them would say he should have stuck with Copland. Whatever the OS’ technical merits, if any, the next Mac OS needed a new face, not the old one. It needed something to make explicit Apple’s claim that this was new, modern technology. Amelio got that, but he wouldn’t have if he’d kept Copland. Arguably, there’d be no Apple now, either. TS
Apple had the right idea with eWorld: set up its own, consumer-oriented online community to rival pioneers such as AOL and CompuServe back in the early, pre-Internet 1990s. It was a brighter, more friendly and more cartoon-like alternative to AppleLink, Apple’s existing online service for folk in the trade. And if you wanted to chat online with fellow Mac users it was actually a pretty good place to be.
However, high subscription fees and the Mac-only entrance policy meant that subscriber numbers never really took off, and eWorld closed its doors just two years later.
It did, however, set up a pattern. Apple has struggled with its online offerings ever since. Mac OS 9’s iTools - “a revolutionary new category of internet services”, said Apple in 2000 - started out free and then, when times got tough, had a subscription fee grafted on. The service mutated into .Mac and, later, Mobile Me, but these brands too eventually fell by the wayside.
Even Apple’s latest attempt, iCloud, faltered at first, although last year’s release of iOS 7 finally saw it maturing into something that’s actually quite useful, though still not as resilient as it ought to be given Apple has had at least 20 years of experience with consumer online services. CJ
Apple has never really, truly embraced gaming, but there was a brief period when (equally brief) Apple CEO Gil Amelio flirted with the gaming world in an attempt to extend Apple’s reach beyond the Mac and into the living room. The Mac got a vaguely DirectX-style API out of it, called Game Sprockets, but better known is the hardware developed in partnership with the Japanese company Bandai, the Pippin games console.
This actually had a lot going for it and included a modem and internet connectivity as early as 1995. One of your reporters remembers playing Bungie’s first-person shooter, Marathon, on the console.
But, like so many of Apple’s belly flops, the Pippin was wildly overpriced. It cost $600 and was simply ignored by gamers who flocked to the less expensive PlayStation. It didn’t help that the Mac - Pippin’s source; the console was essentially a 66MHz PowerPC 603-based Macintosh - was not known for a extensive catalogue of A-list games.
When Amelio was shafted replaced by Steve Jobs in 1997, Apple went back to ignoring gaming again – until, purely by chance, it turned out that the iPhone was quite good for playing games. CJ
PowerBook 5300 (1995)
Apple’s PowerBook laptops were a big success in the early 1990s, and the PowerBook 5300 had the potential to take that success to an even higher level. Released in 1995, the 5300 was the Ultrabook of its day, kind of. Well, it didn’t have an optical drive, but it did include a 1.4MB 3.5-inch floppy drive, which you could remove when the machine was powered down, handily replacing it with a Zip drive. It was also the first Apple laptop to use the new PowerPC processor developed by Motorola.
But things went wrong right from the start. Hinge problems caused cracks in the laptop’s cover, and worn video cables affected the display. And when battery problems caused some models to overheat and catch fire, the 5300 was dubbed the "HindenBook" and quickly consigned to history. CJ
20th Anniversary Mac (1997)
Released to mark the arrival of the third decade of Apple itself, rather than the Mac, the 20th Anniversary Mac (TAM) was one of Apple’s more glorious failures. Like the G4 Cube, the TAM was ahead of its time, boasting a slimline, all-in-one design with an integrated flat-panel LCD (12.1-inch, 800 x 600) screen at a time when bulky CRT displays were still the norm. The more affordable iMac didn’t get the flat-panel treatment until 2002.
Bizarrely codenamed "Spartacus", the TAM had a front-loading CD drive, built-in stereo speakers and came bundled with a Bose-engineered sub-woofer, not to mention a separate keyboard with integrated trackpad.
The TAM had Apple fans drooling – I saw it; I was at the launch – but the $7,500 price tag meant that it failed to sell even its limited-edition production run of 12,000 units. Apple had to cut the price drastically to sell off the final stocks in 1998, but the TAM remains a popular collector’s item with many Mac fans. CJ
Antennagate was a prime example of a PR disaster exacerbated by the sheer arrogance of Apple’s management. Soon after the launch of the iPhone 4 in June 2010, it emerged that reception to the handsets’ antennas, which had been wrapped around the top, bottom and sides of the phone, could sometimes be blocked by those fleshy protuberances known as "fingers".
But rather than admitting that the mighty Apple might have got it wrong, Steve Jobs simply blamed iPhone owners. “You’re holding it wrong,” was the headline that ricocheted around the internet, prompting gale-force laughter from all corners of the globe.
In the end Apple solved the problem by giving away a few million dollars worth of iPhone cases – a paltry cost to Apple, but an expensive lesson in humility. Especially since, if it had bundled its “Bumper”, it could probably have avoided the controversy in the first place.
Speaking of the Bumper, isn’t it interesting that Apple’s first ever iPhone cover, available at the phone’s launch, was designed very specifically to cover the troublesome external antenna? Apple didn’t rush these things out because it knew the iPhone 4 was problematic, did it? Of course not. CJ
Final Cut Pro X (2011)
As Apple products go, you would have thought the release Final Cut Pro X in June 2011 would be a cause for celebration. The original Final Cut Pro non-linear video editing software had started life back in 1998 as a Macromedia product, and relied on Apple’s QuickTime. However, Macromedia’s own licensing tie-in with Microsoft prevented its release.
So Apple bought it and ran with it for the next 12 years, enhancing and expanding its capabilities to the point where it became the editing tool of choice for a wide range of video professionals. Yet given its early beginnings and its capacity to handle legacy projects created on the platform, the product was rooted in the past.
Final Cut Pro X was a transition that many video editors declined to make
Announced at NAB in April 2011, the professionals looked forward to 64-bit processing on Final Cut Pro X that would enable more efficient use of the hardware it would run on. Workflow would be faster, smoother and, what the faithful hadn’t bargained on at all, completely different.
Apple, in its infinite wisdom, culled just about all the professional features you could think of in its first release of Final Cut Pro X. It caused outrage and to say it soured Apple’s relationship with the user base is an understatement. This was no niche product, with an SCRI report from 2007 stating that in the US 49 per cent of video editors relied on FCP. Add to this the 2008 study from the American Cinema Editors Guild notching up 21 per cent of users.
It’s difficult to know whether it was laziness or just a brutal decision to focus on a different kind of workflow, but Apple’s thinking appeared to be to target the single camera videographer who would be using the HD video capture features found on the latest wave of DSLRs. With that kind of creative in mind, who needs multicam editing that the pros had come to rely upon? As for features such as XML and Open Media Framework (OMF) or legacy elements such as an Edit Decision List (EDL), they were gone.
The user interface had changed radically too and Final Cut Pro files from previous versions could not be imported. To add insult to injury the only video projects you could import were from iMovie. Needless to say, the creatives who’d built their careers on knowing FCP inside out had plenty to say about the new version with many airing their views on video.
Editor and knowledgeable video blogger Jeffery Harrell put his thoughts on FCP X into action with “a little thing” he made to test Adobe Premiere that went viral among the video editing community, only to be pulled for copyright reasons, so we’re told. Sadly, Harrell’s entertaining and informative blog went silent soon after that. For now at least, you can still view his video I don’t have a title for this (NSFW if sweary singing is not your boss's thing), albeit not uploaded by him personally. Better be quick if you want to see it.
Others ran with the well-worn Hitler bunker scene from Downfall to good comic effect and the issue even went prime-time with US TV presenter Conan O’Brien’s show featuring a spoof put together by the programme’s own editors.
In subsequent updates, Apple has introduced some of the absent features such as XML and broadcast monitoring support and the reviews appear more favourable these days. Even so, other missing functions now rely on third party software to solve compatibility issues.
Consequently, many still treasure their old-style Final Cut Pro installations, and others have migrated to Adobe Premiere or stepped up to Avid Media Composer. Final Cut Pro X did have one thing in its favour though: the price.
The last Studio suite version of Final Cut Pro featured a host of specialist companion apps and was priced at £800. At £200, Final Cut Pro X is certainly well within reach of many who would never have had the chance to try the original and best. Apple also offers a trial version of Final Cut Pro X, enabling old-school users to face their fears. BD ®