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Apple Tech is Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

English: Apple IIe computer (enhanced version)
English: Apple IIe computer (enhanced version) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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October 7, 2013 Deadline
November 2013 Issue

Apple Tech is Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

Technology revolutions are not as sudden as people believe. Not even Apple has released successful revolutionary products every year or two.

“The Myth of Steve Jobs’ Constant Breakthroughs” by Harry McCracken, appeared on Time Magazine’s Techland site in September, 2013 (http://techland.time.com/). McCraken examines the myth of “revolution” that has lingered after the death of Jobs. You have to feel sorry for chief executive Tim Cook and lead designer Jonathan (“Jony”) Ive, as they try to live up to mythology. Apple, as a company, has a mixed history of innovation.

My wife and I are an Apple household. We own an iMac, Mac mini, a collection of MacBook Pro models, iPhones, iPods, and an iPad. Apple dares to deliver products that its designers and engineers want, not what customers are asking to buy. Yet, I would not describe Apple as a “revolutionary” tech company.

Technology and business reporters don’t seem to know much about Apple’s history of spectacular failures. The Apple III, the Lisa, the Newton, and the PowerMac Cube are only some of the notable duds from Apple. Instead of giving up after a failed product, Apple learns from its mistakes and tries again.

I love my aging iPhone 4, which replaced a Palm Tungsten E and a phone. The iPhone and iPod Touch are distant relatives of the failed Apple Newton, which McCraken fails to mention. The 1993 Newton MessagePad provided Doonesbury and other comic strips months of material with its poor handwriting recognition. The various iOS devices, including the iPhone and iPad, represent evolutionary progress from the Newton and ideas borrowed from other personal digital assistants.

Apple takes risks, as the Newton demonstrates. Sometimes, the resulting product flops.

Apple helped launch the personal computer revolution with the Apple II, but people forget it wasn’t until the third model, the Apple IIe, that the company found success. Apple manufactured the IIe for more than a decade, from early 1983 until the line was discontinued in late 1993. That’s not a sudden revolution. Even the mild success of the Apple IIGS in the late 1980s relied on compatibility with Apple IIe software. Loyal Apple users bought the IIGS to keep using favorite, but aging, software. Most of the market switched to IBM PC and compatible systems as Apple squandered a decade of leadership.

While the Apple IIe was selling well, Apple tried to introduce revolutionary personal computers. Apple launched the Apple III in 1980… and it flopped. The III was expensive, unreliable and a variety of popular Apple IIe applications would not work on the system. Apple wanted to move developers to a technically more advanced platform with the Apple III. To this day, Apple continues to break older applications when it updates hardware and operating systems. While this might be the price of innovation, it causes heated debate among tech enthusiasts.

Three years after the Apple III fiasco, Apple released the Lisa, forerunner of the Macintosh. The over-priced and painfully-slow Lisa flopped in the marketplace, as well. Apple dumped hundreds, if not thousands, of unsold Lisas in landfills.

The Macintosh evolved from the failures of the Apple III and the Lisa. Either famously or infamously launched in 1984, depending on your perspective, the Macintosh was a moderate success. As a journalism student during the late 1980s, I witnessed the pairing of Macs with LaserWriter printers revolutionize the publishing industry. Software like PageMaker worked better on the graphic-centric Macintosh. Although desktop publishing was a small industry, Apple owned that market much as it once owned the educational computing niche. The Mac struggled and Apple’s market share slipped. The great technology of the Mac made the computer too expensive for most people and businesses. It was not “The computer for the rest of us,” despite the marketing slogan.

A year after introducing the Mac, Jobs was forced to leave Apple.

Microsoft shipped Windows 3.1 in 1992, and Apple continued to stumble. Just as the Apple III gave IBM and other companies a chance to dominate the business market, the company’s failure to adjust Mac pricing in response to Windows 3.1 encouraged the publishing and education markets to turn to the PC world. Apple computer had relied heavily on two computer lines: the Apple IIe and the Macintosh SE series.

By July 9, 1997, it looked like Apple might fade into history. Attempts to license the Mac operating software and hardware designs to other manufacturers faltered. Attempts to create a new operating system with IBM floundered.

Desperate, Apple turned to Steve Jobs again. Jobs was appointed interim CEO of the company, as part of a merger with Jobs’ NeXT. Microsoft invested $150 million in the company, a fraction of Apple’s $2.5 billion value at the time, primarily to signal that the two remained committed to developing software for the Mac. It was a dark time for Apple loyalists, a dwindling community of computer users.

In late 1998, Apple shipped the iMac, and the myth of Jobs the Revolutionary was resurrected. Initially, a lot of influential critics hated the new all-in-one design of the iMac. The new iMac lacked a floppy drive. It featured USB ports, instead of old-style keyboard and mouse connectors. The iMac was a radical departure from the past, and people complained. Yet, the iMac avoided the fate of the Apple III or the Lisa. It revived Apple.

In 2001, the iPod arrived. Three years between major new product releases represents caution, not revolutionary zeal. Today, the original iMac and iPod are considered among the most important designs in tech history.

When the iPod arrived, it wasn’t the first digital music device, nor did it have the most features. But, combined with iTunes and easy importing of existing CDs, the iPod changed the music industry. Still, the change was not overnight and the iPod was not an instant success.

The iPhone shipped in 2007. The iPad shipped in 2010, nine years after the first iPod shipped. Evolution, not revolution, and not even rapid evolution. The annual, “One more thing!” that Steve Jobs would unveil at conferences? It was often a slight improvement to an existing thing or a reimaging of a failed product.

The new 2013 Mac Pro might be a stunning success, or a dismal flop. It is a dramatic design: a ten-inch tall black tube, a little wider than six inches. Ive has said the design rejects everything people associate with powerful desktop computers.

The Mac Pro design is a risk, like the first iMac was. That’s what Apple does.

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