Apple at 30, Part 1: From the Apple I to Jobs’ ouster

What a long, strange IT trip it's been

Editor's note: Parts 2 and 3 of this look back at Apple will run later in April.

Steve Wozniak recently said in an interview that he never expected to change the world when he and current Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs founded Apple in 1976. That comment contrasts with the well-known quote from Jobs a few years after founding the company, during development of the first Macintosh, when he boasted that the Mac team was “trying to put a dent in the universe.” While the disparate opinions of Apple’s two founders show how they viewed the company, as Apple turns 30 years old this weekend, few would argue with the statement that the company has had a major impact on the world of personal computing.

Every Apple press release now includes the tagline that Apple “ignited” the PC revolution. But Apple has done much more than that over the past three decades. The company has been reinvented time and again, molding itself to both what the technology industry and the world are and, more often, what the world and the industry could be. It has certainly blundered along the way, produced its fair share of computing clunkers and released products so far ahead of the curve that they became popular only after Apple discontinued them.

The result has been an amazing legacy of innovations. In this retrospective, we’ll take a virtual trip down memory lane to look at some Apple’s famous -- and infamous -- moments.

The Apple I

Apple’s first computer, originally called simply the Apple, wouldn’t even be recognized today as a computer. It was essentially a circuit board waiting to be put in a case with all the other components needed to make it run. Fifty Apple Is were produced and sold for $500 to the The Byte Shop computer store. The store owner assumed that the computers would come fully assembled, but kept his part of the deal when the circuit board kits were delivered, paying the nascent Apple in full and finishing the computers for sale himself.

Incorporation and the Birth of the Apple II

Thankfully, Wozniak conceived of the Apple II as a fully built computer. Although producing the Apple II required a much greater investment than a couple of guys in a garage in California could muster, the two Steves kept believing in the promise of Apple, turning down a deal to sell the technology to Commodore Business Machines Ltd., which went on to have some success with the Commodore 64 and 128 computers in the 1980s. Apple was lucky enough to find the aid and financing of Mike Markkula, who helped draft Apple’s first business plan, get the company incorporated, recruited its first president and secured the investment capital needed to produce the first Apple IIs. The Apple II was a hit with computer fans. Once Apple shipped a floppy drive and the first spreadsheet application, VisiCalc, was written for the Apple II, it became the first PC to see value beyond hobbyists.

Beyond the Apple II

Almost from the moment the Apple II found its success, executives and engineers felt that they had to develop a next-generation computer that would replace it, fearing that the computer would have a limited life span. That decision led to a number of projects, including the Apple III, the Apple Lisa and, ultimately, the Macintosh. Ironically, those fears about the Apple II turned out to be wrong; it remained the strongest-selling computer Apple produced for more than a decade.

The Apple III

The Apple III was the company’s first flop. It was designed as a business computer that offered compatibility with Apple II software and peripherals, but it also used software written for new hardware features available only in the Apple III. Unfortunately, the computer was plagued with design and technical problems, some because it was rushed into mass production and others due to the insistence that it ship without an internal fan. The heat buildup often caused Apple III’s to die after minimal use, as chips and cards expanded and popped out of their slots. Apple even suggested that customers raise and then drop the front edge of the computer six inches to try and reseat the internal components.

After losing $60 million on the product, much of it in support efforts for affected customers, Apple eventually pulled the Apple III from production.

PARC, Lisa and The Quest for GUI

The Apple Lisa was also planned as a basic business computer with a list price of $2,000. All that changed, however, after two trips to Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Xerox had designed PARC as a think tank where the brightest minds could develop the newest technologies, which Xerox then hoped to use to create marketable products. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s, most Xerox executives didn’t understand the value of the creations emerging from their prestigious think tank -- things like computers with graphical user interfaces that used a mouse for input, communicated via a network technology called Ethernet and relied on object-oriented programming. Those creations were not seen as something Xerox could make money selling. So when Jobs offered Xerox a chance to invest in Apple before its initial public offering -- in return for a visit by him and Apple engineers to PARC -- Xerox jumped at the deal.

After seeing early bare-bones versions of what modern computing would become, Apple pushed the Lisa project to include many of the creations found at PARC. Not only were Apple’s engineers able to recreate the technology without blueprints or diagrams from Xerox, they expanded on them.

The Lisa shipped in 1983 with a list price of $9,995 -- a far cry from its original target. But Lisa the product was a far cry from Lisa the spec sheet. Lisa offered an operating system that included icons, pull-down menus, drag-and-drop functionality and Apple’s QuickDraw screen-drawing technology. All were Apple innovations not derived from the work at PARC. The Lisa included a built-in keyboard and a one-button mouse, which would become the standard for all Apple mice for another 22 years; a full productivity suite with spreadsheet, drawing, word processing, graphing, project management and terminal emulation programs; and a file management utility. This was important because the Lisa wasn’t compatible with any other software on the market (including the still-being-developed Mac).

Lisa sales were slow because of the cost, because it was a sluggish computer with finicky floppy drives and because there were rumors that Apple was working on a “baby Lisa.” Eventually, the Lisa went on to compete with the Mac and never developed a significant user base -- even after an upgrade reduced the computer’s cost, replaced the unreliable floppy drives and improved performance. Apple eventually converted remaining Lisa models to run the Mac operating system and sold them as the Mac XL. (A kit was also sold for users who wanted to do the same thing.) Still, Lisa met an ignominious end: Apple eventually killed the product and literally buried the remaining models in a landfill.

The Mac -- From Humble Roots to Grand Results

Like the Lisa, the Macintosh was conceived as a low-cost computer, but one that would appeal to the average person with an at-the-time traditional interface and a $500 price tag. The Mac was originally a research project under the domain of an employee named Jef Raskin, who had been instrumental in getting Jobs to visit PARC. After the Apple III flopped, Apple’s board began to see Jobs as a maverick manager with a temper and strict edicts on design over function -- hence, the Apple III’s lack of a fan -- and tried to keep him from working on major projects critical to the company. When he decided to take over the still-obscure Mac project, the board allowed him to do so.

Jobs wanted the Mac to be a less expensive -- and more expansive -- version of the Lisa, something that would represent the next major advance in computing and prove he could be a major technological innovator. The relationship between the Mac division and the Lisa division eventually turned into a rivalry, with Jobs betting $5,000 that the Mac would beat the Lisa to market (a bet he paid in full when he lost) and poaching ideas and staffers to work on Mac development. The rivalry eventually led to a showdown between Jobs and Raskin in which Raskin chose to leave the company.

The sheer enormity of developing both the Mac’s interface and hardware on a hard deadline meant that the Mac team lived and breathed nothing but the project. At one point, Jobs created T-shirts for the team that read “90 hrs/wk and loving it.” The work paid off in 1984, when Apple unveiled the Mac. Although initial sales were sluggish, the platform has survived for over two decades and shows no signs of going away anytime soon.

The Commercial That Launched It All

By now, most Mac fans have seen the revolutionary commercial that launched the Macintosh, telling us all “Why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” This brilliant commercial was probably the first time that Apple stirred media and popular interest without actually telling anyone anything about the product it was about to unveil. It’s a trick that has been refined over the past 22 years to the point where the idea of an Apple announcement generates more media buzz than almost anything another computer company could do to launch an unknown product.

Mac vs. Apple II

Apple followed that commercial with a lot of hype about all the capabilities of the Mac, but sales weren’t anywhere near those of the Apple II. Part of this was because there were no points of compatibility between the two products; part of it was because the Apple II already had a large installed user base. Of course, there was at the time very little software for the Mac -- it was months before Microsoft produced the first version of Word for Mac. The Macintosh offered incredible ease of use as well as on-screen text and graphics that were so new that no printer could reproduce them. (That problem was eventually solved with the launch of Apple’s first LaserWriter printers.) And then there was the cost compared with other computers of the day. The first Mac sold for $2,495, and despite clever schemes to entice users -- including a “test-drive a Mac” program that allowed consumers to take one home and try it before buying -- it failed to find its own niche. Not only that, it was competing (and losing) against Apple’s other product line.

Apple responded by building greater interoperability into the Mac II and Apple IIgs computers that followed.

What Was NeXT for Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985. The decision came after multiple confrontations and tense board meetings, which ended when Apple’s board of directors were forced to choose between supporting Jobs or then-CEO John Sculley. The board ultimately backed Sculley, and Jobs was stripped of all operational responsibility. Before being removed as chairman of the board, he resigned.

Jobs, with five other Apple employees, went on to found NeXT. His new company developed the NeXT computer, a black cube that ran the NeXTStep operating system. NeXT initially tried to market itself to colleges and universities, but never found much foothold as a hardware company. It eventually began licensing its proprietary operating system, developed a version with Sun Microsystems Inc. called OpenStep and devised other development technologies, including the WebObjects development tool. Years later, NeXT’s operating system would bring Jobs back to Apple and form the foundation for Mac OS X -- but not before a series of stumbles that left Apple in serious trouble in the 1990s.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network design and troubleshooting. He is the co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration and the author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining, and Repairing Macs. He is a regular contributor to Inform IT and is the mobile technology correspondent for Suite 101. For more information, visit RyanFaas.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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