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

17. What if Steve Jobs and Bill Gates hadn’t struck a deal in 1997?

billgatesGot a few minutes? Watch the YouTube version of Steve Jobs’ Macworld Expo Boston keynote from 1997. Today, the man can provoke wild applause by announcing a $50 price cut, so it’s shocking to see Mac fans boo him as he tells them that Apple will adopt Internet Explorer as the Mac’s default browser and accept a $150 million investment from Microsoft. The deal also ended the two companies’ legal tussles over Windows’ interface, and assured that Microsoft would continue development of Office for the Mac.

Harry’s guess: The Microsoft deal was a stopgap, but an important one–Apple probably needed that $150 million at the time, and it removed distractions such as the possibility that Microsoft would discontinue Office and thereby make Macs a non-starter in a business environment. But I kind of think that even in the absence of such an agreement, Apple would still have found a way to lope along until products such as the original iMac got it back on the right track. In other words, we might have gotten to today’s Apple via a slightly bumpier, more circuitous road.

18. What if Apple had continued to make the Newton?

applenewtonI’m not sure if Steve Jobs ever publicly articulated his reasons for killing the pioneering Apple PDA in 1998, not long after he regained control over the company he cofounded; conventional wisdom says that it was doomed by the fact that it was John Sculley’s pet project.

Harry’s guess: At the time Jobs returned, Newtons were getting larger, more complicated, and more expensive, which was precisely the wrong direction to go. Moreover, very little of the technology required for a powerful pocket-sized computer existed a decade ago. It’s hard to imagine Jobs-era Apple turning the Newton into a mere PalmPilot wannabee. Yet it might have taken more than a decade of development to turn it into something resembling today’s iPhone. By simply murdering its PDA and then reinitiating handheld development when the technology caught up, Apple may have gotten to the same place it would have if we’d seen a decade of new Newtons–but with a lot less expense and hassle.

19. What if Apple had continued to license clonemakers in the 1990s?

powercomputingFor a little over two years in the mid-1990s, it was possible to buy a Mac that wasn’t a Mac, in the form of licensed clones from APS, DayStar, Motorola, Power Computing, Radius, and Umax. (The only ones that anyone really remembers are the ones from Power Computing, and those are recalled mostly for their scrappy, Ernie Bushmiller-plagiarizing marketing campaign.) To nobody’s surprise, Steve Jobs shut down licensing upon his return as soon as he was legally able to do so.

Harry’s guess: I’m not a Jobs apologist, but I think he made the right call–or, at least, the only one that permitted Apple to follow the path it’s taken ever since. A Mac OS that had to run on multiple companies’ hardware could never have been as interesting or reliable as one designed for Apple machines; an Apple that made Macs that competed against other Mac OS systems wouldn’t have been anywhere near as distinctive. And the licensees which Apple had assembled before Jobs; return were a mostly a ragtag bunch of small companies, making it unlikely that Mac cloning would have grown into a business worth billions in profits to Apple or anyone else.

20 What if Apple had never gotten into the music business?

ipodadOn January 9th, 2001, Steve Jobs introduced iTunes at Macworld Expo, and Apple took its first baby step into the world of music. Almost nobody noticed. Later that year, it made a giant leap with the first iPod. But even then, the odds seemed to be against the company reinventing itself into a consumer-electronics powerhouse. And who would have guessed that it would wind up as the nation’s largest music merchant just seven years later?

Harry’s guess:
Apple would still be a successful manufacturer of high-quality computers. But it would be a much smaller company, and people would worry more about its long-term prospects. (The iPhone, after all, is marketed more as a next-generation iPod than a next-generation Mac–it might never have come to be if the iPod hadn’t appeared first.) As for where digital music would be without Apple, I think it would have become pervasive anyhow–but more slowly, with less appealing products and services that might have competed less successfully with alternatives such as CDs and stolen MP3s.

21. What if Apple had never opened its own stores?

applestoreShoppers in Tysons Corner, Virginia and Glendale, California got the chance to be the very first Apple Store customers back in May 2001. Seven and a half years later, there are more than 230 Apple Stores, from Boston to Beijing. They’re famous for their primo locations, minimalist aesthetic, and Genius Bar support desks; they’re also a far cry from the retail establishments that sold most Macs in the past, including largely unsatisfactory mass merchants such as CompUSA and dedicated-but-underfunded local mom-and-pop establishments. It’s now hard to remember that the control freak of a company that is Apple ever entrusted the selling of most of its products to other shopkeepers.

Harry’s guess: Apple would still make excellent computers even if it didn’t sell them itself. But their hipness factor would be meaningfully lower, and the excellent innovation that is the Genius Bar, now being mimicked by Apple competitors, would never have come to be. My guess: Nearly all Mac sales would have moved to online sellers such as Amazon.com and MacConnection by now.

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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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