25 Unanswerable Questions About Apple

Apple's history has had more moments of truth than that of any other tech company. Maybe any other company, period. Discuss.

By  |  Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 1:10 pm

8. What if Steve Jobs hadn’t bought a computer graphics company from George Lucas?

luxojr1It’s the greatest side business in business history. In 1986, while Steve Jobs was ramping up NeXT, he also paid $5 million to buy Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division. It was mostly a hardware company at the time, but it hired some animators (including Disney expatriate John Lasseter) to makee wonderful little cartoons to show off its technology. Eventually, Lasseter and crew started making wonderful feature-length cartoons, and animation was changed forever. Jobs deserves huge credit for seeing Pixar through some extremely thin years at the start–and he made vast profits when Disney, inevitably, acquired the company in 2006.

Harry’s guess: John Lasseter would have made fabulous animated films for somebody, but the special place that is Pixar might not have come to be if it had remained part of Lucasfilm. And the world would have been a sadder place, without ever knowing what it had missed.

9. What if Apple had crushed Windows in court?

reversi1Microsoft Windows, in case you hadn’t noticed, has paid the sincerest form of flattery to the Mac for almost a quarter of a century now: In countless ways, it looks like it and works like it. Apple has never been thrilled with that fact. But back in the days of Windows 1.0, it granted Microsoft a license to crib the Mac’s interface, in part to ensure that Microsoft continued to support the Mac with applications such as Excel (which was at first a Mac-only product). By 1988, however, Apple CEO John Sculley was feeling more combative than compromising, and he took Microsoft to court over Windows’ similarities to the Mac. The case dragged on until 1994, when the U.S. Court of Appeals declined to consider the case.

Harry’s guess: If the Feds had imposed comprehensive restrictions against Microsoft selling anything that looked even vaguely like the Mac, history might have turned out very differently. But there’s nothing in the history of legal wrangling over software patents to suggest that Apple had a real chance of scoring such a sweeping victory. And if Microsoft had dealt with more niggling limitations on specific features, you’ve gotta think it would have found workarounds that would have let Windows be pretty much the extraordinarily successful product it turned out to be.

10. What if Sun had bought Apple?

sunlogoIn 1996, the conventional wisdom was that Apple was dying. It had to deal with vultures swooping down to pick at its bones even though it still–just barely–had a pulse. Among them was Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy, a major force in enterprise computing who lusted after the consumer market and therefore tried to snap up Apple at a cut-rate price.

Harry’s guess: Sun was (and is) a developer of nifty technology, but it doesn’t know a thing about marketing products directly to consumers. It’s hard to imagine a Sun-owned Apple coming up with the iMac or the iPod or any of the other products that turned the company around–and much easier to envision scenarios in which Apple continued to wither away. Especially since Sun descended into a major crisis of its own within a few years from which it’s never completely recovered.

11. What if Oracle had bought Apple?

oraclelogo

In early 1997, Apple had acquired NeXT and the services of Steve Jobs as an advisor, but it still wasn’t clear the company was going to make it. Oracle founder Larry Ellison launched a high-profile takeover attempt, saying that he’d turn Apple into a maker of network computers (read: dumb terminals connected to the Internet) and would put his good friend Jobs on the board. He gave up in April of that year after failing to raise enough money to seal the deal. Within months, Jobs returned to Apple management anyhow, as the company’s “iCEO.”

Harry’s guess: Larry Ellison’s distaste for personal computers is deep in his DNA, so it’s hard to imagine him guiding a company that manufactured them to glory. Might his plan for Apple network computers have been just crazy enough to work? Well, Ellison founded the New Internet Computer Company to make NCs in 2000; it lasted until 2003 and only sold about 50,000 machines. That said, Ellison’s palship with Steve Jobs opens up the possibility that an Ellison takeover of Apple would have resulted in Jobs’ return to power and Apple’s rebirth by a slightly different route than the one that occurred.

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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Len Cole Says:

    Hey, cool! You gave us a bonus question: the second question 5. ­čÖé

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    I messed up the numbering…fixed!

    –Harry

  3. marty_k Says:

    Great piece, Harry. Enjoyed it a lot!

    Thanks,
    Marcin

  4. Louis Says:

    The fact is, if Steve jobs had been easier to deal with (he threw a pile of contract prepared by IBM, saying he wants a one page contract and that is all) today all PCs would be running mac os.(remember this is long before windows and at the time it is so ahead of it’s time)

  5. Brant Says:

    Louis: You’re thinking of something that happened at NeXT. IBM wanted to license the NeXT OS for the IBM PC as an alternative to WIndows, not MacOS (although maybe you’re sort making the case that NeXT Step is the same as MacOS X).

    Here’s some what ifs:

    – What if Apple had decided to focus its engineering efforts on improvements to the Apple II and build a GUI on top of the Apple II rather than create the Apple ///, Lisa, and Mac?

    – What if the Apple /// had a fan (and didn’t have the overheating problem which lead to its failure)?

    – What if Apple had allowed the spin-off of Newton, Inc. to occur?

    – What if Claris had been allowed to run as a separate independent software company?

    – What if Metrowerks hadn’t existed and the transition to PowerPC had been fumbled due to lack of native applications?

  6. SubGothius Says:

    To the list, I would add the following (arguably answerable) question:

    Q: What if Steve Jobs had been willing to wait just one more year for the Motorola 68010 chip to become available for mass production?

    A: The Mac could have debuted with hardware support (allowing OS support) for virtual and protected memory in 1985! Instead, the Macintosh System Software was compromised at its very foundations from the start with a shared-memory scheme that allowed apps to crash the OS (also a weak point of pre-NT Windows), and which remained a legacy weakness of the “classic” Mac OS all the way up through Mac OS 9.

  7. nikki Says:

    great article thanks…its made me think..:-)

  8. Gregg Says:

    Harry, this was as well-thought-out and reasoned as any retrospective-slash-look-forward as I’ve read.

    Excellent, balanced, and “sluethful,” if you will.

    Congrats.

  9. Video Games Says:

    You guys are definitely true nerds.

  10. drbunsen Says:

    What if Apple bought Sun today?


    @Brant: Apple did build a GUI onto an improved Apple ][ compatible – the 16-bit IIGS, which came out after the first Macs.

    Nevertheless you pose a very interesting question. If resources of the /// and Lisa projects had gone into building the Mac system software on improved ][-compatible hardware, they could conceivably have ended up with a cheaper box, backwards hardware- and software- compatibility, and a much easier transition for the thousands of homes, businesses – and significantly, schools – with existing investment in the ][ series architecture.

    At the time, they were the number one personal computer brand, and first year Mac sales were disappointing. If they had managed to keep and build on the lead they had developed with the ][s, well …

  11. Lun Esex Says:

    @drbunsen

    Don’t forget that sales of Apple IIs funded ALL of Apple’s development on the Apple ///, the Lisa, and the Macintosh through at least the end of the 80’s.

    Additionally there was always resentment within Apple between the teams: Non-Aple II teams resented that the Apple II was still the more popular computer and cash cow of the company; the Apple II team resented that not only were the other teams getting all the attention, but that the Apple II was first relegated to schools and home use only (at the introduction of the Apple ///) and then it was supposed to fade away entirely after the introduction of the Mac. In the meantime the Apple II kept many business, scientific, and other professional users happy and productive (see Visicalc, the first “killer app,” and later AppleWorks).

    In hindsight, the two things I think Apple should have done differently about the Apple II vs. other Apple computers conflict are:

    1) Adopted the third-party Apple II tricks by companies like Applied Engineering that allowed 80-columns, lowercase, expanded memory, etc. and incorporated them into the Apple /// so that it was more fully software/hardware compatible with existing Apple II software. At its release the Apple ///’s emulation of the Apple II was considered intentionally crippled. The truth is that it emulated a stock Apple ][+ just fine, but almost no one was running only a stock Apple ][+. The upgrades they’d made to their Apple ][+s weren’t compatible with the Apple ///, though, so the software they had that required the upgrades wouldn’t work.

    2) Used better IC sockets on the Apple /// motherboard, or no sockets at all. The cheap sockets they initially used are what caused its reliability problems and doomed the machine. Alternately a fan would have also worked, but given Steve Jobs’ penchant for fan-less computers better sockets would have been the only realistic solution.

    Given the two of the above, one more step would have ensured futher success: Not forcing their products lines into distinct “home and school” and “business” niches. People turned away when they tried to buy an Apple II for their business and were told that it wasn’t a suitable machine and they were steered towards the Apple /// for $1000 more. Thankfully Apple will now cheerfully sell businesses iMacs and Mac Minis and MacBooks even though they aren’t “Pro” machines.

    The user interface of the Lisa was actually initially developed on Apple IIs and ///s, with prototype mice. Years later there were many GUI apps that ran on the Apple IIe (before the IIgs) like MouseWrite, MouseDesk (a Finder-like program), MouseCalc, StyleWrite, and GraphicWriter (desktop publishing, on an 8-bit Apple II!). That’s proof that the hardware was up to the task. If the Apple /// had been a success, AND a true successor to the Apple II, it would have been a unified platform that the Lisa/Mac GUI software could have been released on. It already had a fairly robust O/S, with a hierarchical filing system, hard drive support, standardized device drivers, expanded memory support up to at least 256K, etc. It took a LOT of additional work for the Mac to get these things after its initial release.

    FWIW, Apple also worked on a 68000 co-processor card, which could have allowed for a graceful transition from 8-bit processors to 16-bit, with full backwards-compatibility (much like their later 680×0 to PowerPC to Intel transitions, which learned lessons from the poor Apple II to post-Apple II transition).

  12. ol' 6502 Says:

    2. You have a strange definition of “borrowed”: “Xerox was given Apple stock in exchange for engineer visits and an understanding that Apple would create a GUI product” [Wikipedia, Xerox PARC] It’s even arguable that Xerox earned more from the Apple stock than they ever did from the Alto or the Lisa-priced Star hardware despite PARC’s unquestionable innovations. See “Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer”, Smith and Alexander, 1988.

    Furthermore, to judge by the recollections of the team members of the Lisa and Macintosh, available at folklore.org, their GUI development was well along before Jobs ever visited PARC. It certainly was different: The Alto, like early DOS GUIs and the original Windows, didn’t have overlapping windows, while the Lisa OS did. And LisaGraf/QuickDraw, the assembler-based graphics routines (which could be considered a simpler precursor to PostScript) were Bill Atkinson’s baby, all right.

    6. Steve Jobs didn’t found Pixar, he bought it from George Lucas (and quite the investment it turns out to have been).

    …Not sure if I want to read the rest, just pulling this together took much longer than reading the first page (no single-page version?) and I don’t want to lose more time reading it.

  13. Lawrence Velázquez Says:

    A smaller but still-interesting question:

    What if Apple had stuck with PowerPC instead of migrating to Intel?

  14. English speaking reader Says:

    ‘Let alone’, dammit, not let along. Does that make sense? Did someone disable spell-check?

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