A Personal Journey from True Believer to Naysayer

I have a confession to make.

I was once an Apple True Believer.

I believed that company could do no wrong.  I believed the sun rose and set in Cupertino, California, wherever that was. I dreamed about one day visiting the Bob's Big Boy on Bandley Drive where Wozniak and his pals ate late night cheeseburgers and worked out the details of the first Apple II floppy drive.

I had a multicolored Apple decal on the back window of my gold Datsun pickup.

One of the happiest days of my life was unpacking my brand-new Apple II computer in October, 1978 and hooking it up to the used GE 10 inch color TV I had bought through the Greensheet.  I had been waiting an endless month for delivery from flakey mail order outfit AAAA Computer Hows (I was probably their first and last customer).  I paid $1010, absolutely the cheapest deal on a 16KB machine I could find.  The packing foam was blue, as I recall. The computer was so light, and under the cover, so empty, I remember thinking.

Once connected, the picture rolled and warped and looked like hell but I thrilled to see computer text scroll before my eyes. 

I saw my name on the screen. I saw my future.

I studied the listings in the Red Book for hours on end.  The machine was a wormhole through which an alternate universe could be glimpsed.  I got hooked on Star Trek. I drove to user group meetings at a library on Westheimer, hungry for information—six rich doctors, six professional programmers, and City of Houston Air Pollution Control Instrument Technician II Charlie Palmquist. I started writing my own football game.

I spent far too much time wondering if the proper spelling was Apple Computer Inc. or Apple Computer, Inc.

I squirreled away the makings of a future Apple Shrine.

But only a few years later, I had put all things Apple behind me, in favor of the IBM PC—that practical, but unlovable platform.  Why?  Because Apple had blown it with a series of blunders. They had become irrelevant.

 

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Machines and Mistakes 1977-1989

1977: The Apple II

Not a mistake.  A brilliant machine hatched from the mind of a quirky genius who knew exactly what he wanted a personal computer to be able to do.  By keeping it all in his head, Steve Wozniak created a synergy of firmware and hardware. No machine in its day did as much with as few ICs—sound, game controllers, expansion slots, color, high-resolution graphics, and lots of memory.  This legendary machine made Apple. Learn more at the Virtual PC Museum.

1980: The Apple III

Apple recognized the II's limitations as a business platform.  No lower case.  No coherent 80 column story.  Limited CPU speed.  No hard disk. But rather than fix them, it kept making IIs the way it always had, and brought out a new machine, the Apple III.  And from 30,000 feet, the new box looked like just the thing to keep the CP/M boxes and the about-to-be-released IBM PC at bay.  It had an 80 column display, and a good keyboard.  It had twice the memory and twice the CPU power of the Apple II.  There was a hard disk option.

But...the Apple II's  OS architecture was cryptic and utterly unlike the II's.  Its II emulation didn't support the popular 80 column cards.   Worse, the machine developed a reputation for being unreliable.  The III ran hot and chips unseated themselves and for whatever reason, few were sold. Most of those that were spent their lives in II emulation mode.  With a 40 column display, and no lower case.

As Apple fiddled, market share burned. The IBM PC gained steam.

1983: The Lisa

Beautiful engineering, software and otherwise; a machine ahead of its time—but priced at $10,000, this was no personal computer.  Essentially, born dead.

1984: The Macintosh

What excitement this machine stirred, especially among the True Believers. Apple was back. Look out, world! 

On Release Day, I left my PC project for the morning and crowded into a ComputerCraft store on Chimney Rock to watch a demo with fifty other people.  It blew me away. The mouse. The sharp black-on-white display.  The quasi-portable upright box.  The auto-eject 3.5 inch floppy.  The proportional fonts.  A printer that could get it all on paper.  The 32 bit CPU.  The jump-in-the-deep-end commitment to graphical UI.  Even the keyboard and mouse connectors were insanely great.

No single Woz was responsible this time, but there were fewer than a dozen committed maniacs on the core development team.  (One of whom, Finder author Bruce Horn, I would later share an office with at Eloquent.)

But concealed in the brilliant glare of MacPaint, MacWrite, and the Finder were serious flaws, obvious to anyone who used a Mac for more than a day or two.

Not Enough Memory.  The original Macintosh was a sealed unit.  You literally couldn't open the box without a torx screwdriver and a "case spreader" tool available only from Apple. And inside was an ugly secret: a paltry (by 1984 standards for a $2500 machine) 128KB of memory, and no way to expand it.  20K of the total was used as a screen buffer.  Another 30K went for basic fonts and other system functions.  An application had maybe 70K available for its own code and data.  During this same period, a comparably-priced IBM PC had 320K, of which 290K was available to applications.   MacWrite ran out of memory somewhere around Page Five. Over on the PC, WordStar cranked out 200 page documents without breaking a sweat.  The Macintosh beat the PC on CPU power and brilliant firmware—but the PC gave developers four times as much memory.  Programmers like memory.

Not Enough Disk Space.  Crippled by limited RAM, the lone 400K floppy would at times whir almost continuously as the OS thrashed.  Sometimes the drive would come on for no apparent reason and stay on for a minute or two.  Copying floppies was a painful swap fest.  There was no hard disk option.  Most IBM PCs of the day had two floppy drives, and hard disks were readily available.

These flaws were especially painful when you consider how easily they could have been avoided.  It would have cost Apple almost nothing to put 256K in there, and having a hard disk option from the get-go would not have been rocket science.  It's as though they designed a fabulous new car, and decided to give it a two gallon gas tank.  It was enough to make this True Believer switch platforms.

Three strikes and you're out.

1985-1989: Sculley, Gassée, etc.

As Apple grew, the Bean Counters, Bureaucrats, and Credit Takers took over. John Sculley, he of the self-aggrandizing autobiography given to each Apple employee as a Christmas gift, saw to it that no further brilliance radiated from Cupertino.  (That's not completely true; the LaserWriter was a hell of a machine.)

After a painful, deadly delay, Macintoshes eventually got more memory and a hard disk, and even cases that could be opened and expansion slots inside. 

But high prices bled precious market share. Apple's Crown Jewel, the Mac OS, became a tangled, hard-to-build, tricky-to-extend mess.  Apple lost much of its technological high ground in 1989 when Windows 3.0 came to market with OS support for memory indirection and protection.  No more handles to moveable memory blocks.   Programmers liked that.

The first portable Macintosh was light-years behind PC laptops; the Newton made Apple a laughing stock. (The Palm Pilot demonstrated that a well-executed Newton could have been a hit.  There's nowhere to hide on this one.  It wasn't ahead of its time.  It was over-hyped and under-engineered.)

 

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