Twists and Turns in Apple's History

As I started dozing off last night watching a show on my iMac, it hit me what an amazing machine this is. On one box, I have music, movies, a place to do work, a way to compose music, a way to connect with friends on the other side of the planet. This gave me a flashback to about ten years ago.

Back in 1997, the CEO of a certain technology company was asked what he'd do to save Apple. His answer was "I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." The point here isn't to rub his nose it it. It was a little extreme, but this was the general feeling of many executives at the time.

That is, Microsoft won, Apple lost. This was "the truth," and anything else was a delusion. Can you imagine what would have happened (or rather, not happened) if Apple had bought into this?

The List

Let's go down the list of things we would have not seen had Apple just given up back then.

iPod. That's the obvious one, right? Apple has sold nearly seventy million of these things in the last five years. It's more than a huge success for Apple, it's part of the culture. What would the music industry look like today without the iPod?

iMac. Strangely, the iMac all-in-one design hasn't ever really worked out well for other computer makers, but it's been the one of the defining products in Apple's history. In fact, without the iMac, it's conceivable serial/parallel ports and floppy disks might still be commonplace. The lack of standard ports forced USB into the mainstream.

Mac OS X. It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time where an easy-to-use Unix-based operating system was considered ridiculous. "How can you do something like that? Users don't want to edit files in /etc." Of course, the power users thought if something was easy, it couldn't also be useful as a developer's tool. Whoops.

iLife. When the industry heavyweights predicted that the computer was going away in favor of a mob of specialized devices, Apple swam upstream and released a suite of apps which played to the strengths of a desktop computer: large screen, loads of processing power, virtually unlimited storage, network connectivity.

iDVD made end-user DVD creation practical for the first time. iLife sparked an army of clones on the Windows side. Does anyone remember what it was like to use a digital camera before iPhoto came along? Not pretty.

Ubiquitous WiFi. Wireless networking got its first real kick start when Apple introduced the first iBook in 1999. As strange as it sounds, not everyone saw the inherent value of this at the time. Don't believe me? Even Steve Ballmer gave credit to Apple for this:

In particular, Ballmer cited the work that Apple and Lucent Technologies did in 1999 to make wireless networking broadly available with Apple's Airport. "It's easy to forget how truly groundbreaking this technology was."


Aero. That's right, the UI for Windows Vista. Does anyone think Aero would look like this if Apple hadn't come up with Aqua? Maybe some people do, I don't.

Ruby on Rails. It's hard to see how Rails would have come about without Mac OS X. Not just because David Heinemeier Hansson more or less said so, but because the entire feel of the framework reflects Apple's development philosophy.

Nintendo DS Lite. You can't look at one of these without seeing Apple design influence everywhere.

There must be more of these. Anyone else care to share?

Tune Out, Tune In

I know this all looks very gushy, but that's not really the point. Yes, the people that work at Apple have done some astounding work, but the message here is if Apple just bought into what everyone else was saying, we all would have lost something. Not just Mac users, all of us. Even if Apple shut down tomorrow, they have a lot to show for today.

One day, my seventh grade Spanish teacher gave an instruction to the class in Spanish, and one student in the classroom stood up. The student looked around at everyone else — still in their chairs — and started to sit down. The teacher raced over to him, looked him in the eye and yelled "if you know you're right, stick to your guns."

The kid actually shook, but the teacher was right. He was the one kid who understood what was said, but he was so uncomfortable being the one out of many that he started to sit down anyway. Maybe it's a silly story, but for some reason, it really stays with me even today. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing or saying.

It's interesting to look back at how crucial it was for Steve Jobs to be ousted from Apple in 1985 for all of this to happen. A lot of things we take for granted: the iPod user interface, Java and .Net/C#, the web were all based on work done at NeXT.

More importantly, what if Apple had turned around financially, without Steve Jobs? Apple would have survived, yes, but it's unlikely we would have seen anything in the list above. It would have been a very different company. Not that it's the fault of the other executives, really. Apple is a complex beast to tame.

Then there's that whole Pixar thing. How strange is it to consider that Disney's fate today rests on something that happened at Apple more than twenty years ago?
Design Element
Twists and Turns in Apple's History
Posted Oct 28, 2006 — 18 comments below




 

Gavin — Oct 28, 06 2205

Awesome article.

Apple, in 2000, was one of the first computer companies to have an on-line store. In 2001 they were, if my memory served, the only PC maker (at least in Australia) to introduce configure-to-order options in that same store. Then we haveTrueType, ColorSync, QuickTime... Image Capture! Xcode!

Thanks for taking the time to articulate what many of us have often thought about. The little things that finesse[\i] the world. Ah, Apple.

Galen D. W. — Oct 28, 06 2206

Other recent accomplishments by Apple:

Final Cut Studio.
Logic Pro.
The ability to download movies and TV shows to your computer.
Podcasting.
Pushed FireWire.
A computer company with an entirely duel-core line.
Bonjour.
Pushed Bluetooth.
File Maker.

Scott Stevenson — Oct 28, 06 2207 Scotty the Leopard

In 2001 they were, if my memory served, the only PC maker (at least in Australia) to introduce configure-to-order options in that same store

Dell was the other, but NeXT actually built that for them initially using WebObjects. Ha.

Mike Abdullah — Oct 29, 06 2208

A computer company with an entirely duel-core line.

Now that is something I want to see! Some sort of running battle within my computer :)

Christian Machmeier — Oct 29, 06 2209

Great write-up, Scott!

If you're one of those, who know about the value Apple has done to us (and that isn't quite hard to get), the history of "the company" is the more incredible. I mean it isn't even necessary to draw a polemic picture of a hypothetical present the fact remains that Apple has brought very much so much more design into mainstream. And almost all of that happened in the last couple of years (probably starting with the introduction of the original iMac G3, which was greatly perceived by the world), after the return of his Steveness (A coincidence? Almost certainly!), and by the sheer amount of innovation popping out of Cupertino. I'm happy of being a part of it (well, sorta)! And I feel sorry for everyone not having seen "the light" yet. :)

Trausti Thor Johannsson — Oct 29, 06 2210

One more example that is easy to forget. The Movie industry, without shake and the pro movie apps that apple does, Lord of the rings would not have looked as good, Sin City would probably not have been made and the list goes on.

Apple brought togeather a lot of pro apps in music, movies, graphics and combined them into a real package

bret — Oct 29, 06 2211

Reading through some of Steve Jobs' Best Quotes Ever makes me wonder if the pattern of Apple Inc.'s ups and downs is history or not.

Dan Price — Oct 29, 06 2212

This is a great write-up. Alas, for me at least, the words will ring hollow for as long the rest of the world (and every major business outside of desktop publishing) continues to use Windows on cheap Dell PCs, convinced that Macs are over-priced toys and that Microsoft, not Apple, were responsible for the modern IT industry.

It will take a long time to overcome these entrenched ideas. Things are not as bad as they were back in in 1997, but I still find myself fighting my corner against PC-zealots who continue to think 'Macs are crap'. Yes, I've heard those exact words many, many times.

Also, you mentioned .Net and C#? How was Apple responsible for these technologies?

Eptisam — Oct 29, 06 2213

iPod. That's the obvious one, right? Apple has sold nearly seventy million of these things in the last five years. It's more than a huge success for Apple, it's part of the culture. What would the music industry look like today without the iPod?

Yeah, I would love to know that. Maybe we would have a more competitive MP3 player field. Maybe record companies would have been forced to release their files in MP3?
I'm not sure if the end result (had the iPod not existed) would have been better than what we currently have, but I can imagine a dozen better outcomes than the current one!

mj — Oct 29, 06 2215

Eptisam wrote: "I'm not sure if the end result (had the iPod not existed) would have been better than what we currently have, but I can imagine a dozen better outcomes than the current one!"

Um, I call bullshit.

"BETTER" is far too subjective to be a value of any use. There was stagnancy since the release of the CD and all the iPod did was pander to a very stagnant market. Back then people were wailing about how great their MP3 players were - whether it was a 10-song Flash player or a massive brick of an Archos device with effectively unlimited storage.

Blaming the lack of a competitive market on the iPod is just daft. When the other MP3 player manufacturers realise that product design is more than a jazzy name, then you might see some progress. iPod, after all, is a shit name.

Galen D. W. — Oct 29, 06 2217

Now that is something I want to see! Some sort of running battle within my computer :)

I knew there was something wrong with that. I just suck at spelling, that's all.

Benji XVI — Oct 29, 06 2218

Blaming the lack of a competitive market on the iPod is just daft.

mj, I don't believe this is what Eptisam was doing. In fact he explicitly says "I'm not sure if the end result (had the iPod not existed) would have been better than what we currently have".

The fact is it would be a better situation to have a more competitive market. Because although you may like the iPod, someone else might be served by another good player that offers a slightly different feature-set, or design, or whatever. "Better" can indeed be subjective - including what makes a better digital media player. This fact means that a market with lots of great PMPs would be objectively better than a market with only a few made by one company. Better here meaning "best serving the greatest number of consumers."

Whether this is the ipod's fault - no of course it isn't. The ipod is the best thought-out PMP out there. But there was no bullshit here.

Scott Stevenson — Oct 29, 06 2219 Scotty the Leopard

Eptisam: Maybe we would have a more competitive MP3 player field.

I read this a few times and I'm not sure what you mean. How can you have a more competitive field when you remove what is arguably best option for the consumer? Having a lot of options isn't useful if none of them are very good.

Maybe record companies would have been forced to release their files in MP3?

Hmmmm. How do you figure? :)

Scott Stevenson — Oct 29, 06 2220 Scotty the Leopard

Dan Price: Also, you mentioned .Net and C#? How was Apple responsible for these technologies?

.Net/C# was based on Java, and Java was based on Sun's experience with OpenStep.

Michael — Oct 30, 06 2221

So how will this (hopefully) never-ending Apple story continue (sadly one day without SJ)? What do you think? Will the cult continue?

Scott Stevenson — Oct 30, 06 2222 Scotty the Leopard

Will the cult continue?

Apple's not the only instance of this, just the one most accessible to us. As for what will happen, who knows? I can think of one person who might fit the bill, but I don't want to name names just yet.

The thing is that it shouldn't be someone who tries to be Steve Jobs. It will somebody who can carves out his/her own personality while keeping the feel of Apple.

Eptisam — Oct 31, 06 2267

Not sure if anyone will be reading my response, but I think that one of the effect the iPod has had is that DRM solutions are viewed with a greater credibility, because there seems to be this one vendor out there than can make it work.

So imagine a very fragmented market still going on today... *Maybe* this would have forced record companies to sell some more files through vendors like emusic.

Obviously this is all conjecture, but for me, for the ipod to have been this *great* device, it would have had to bring some industry wide positive effects. Example of those effects would be things like:

- A standard to connect an MP3 player to a car stereo (yes apple does that, but only for themselves).
- A standard with respect to audio files (again, apple keeps fairplay mostly for itself)
etc.
- A standard ITUNES product that works with my muvo.

Just having a smaller form factor, I think, would have eventually being brought by someone else. What is tougher imho are the moves that go beyond just one company.

Anyways, my overall point is that while I really see tangible positive effects from the existance of Mac Os X, I think the fact the iPod has become a sort of monopoly has done some disservice to the consumer as a whole because the bar was not set high enough (in terms of consumer features).

Scott Stevenson — Oct 31, 06 2269 Scotty the Leopard

Not sure if anyone will be reading my response

I read all of them. :)

Just having a smaller form factor

A smaller form factor was a piece of the iPod success, but I personally don't think it the reason in itself.

but for me, for the ipod to have been this *great* device, it would have had to bring some industry wide positive effects

To an engineer, iPod and iTunes are seperate products. To Apple and Apple's customers, they are one product. It's very similar to the arrangement between Mac hardware and Mac OS X. It's the two together that make the whole package work.

Apple could have just sold the iPod as-is, but they realized the method of buying music was a major obstacle to portable music player adoption. So rather than wait around for somebody to solve this, they came up with their own solution.

Apple basically breaks even on the iTunes store. They run it because they know that the vast majority of sales are going to iPod owners. If they didn't know that to be the case, it wouldn't be cost effective to keep running it.

If the industry was laid out with a bunch of so-so media players and free-standing music services, the well-designed music players and likely all music would be more expensive. As it stands, iPod is the market leader and it's also almost among the most affordable. If all music players were free, I think most people would choose an iPod.

So I understand what you're saying, but the model you suggest has its own potential gotchas.




 

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