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

22. What if Apple had never gotten into the phone business?

jobsiphoneThe sheer idea of an Apple phone was so irresistible that people spent almost as much time discussing it before the iPhone was unveiled as they have afterwards. And in less than two years, Apple has managed to turn its handset into the country’s most influential and best-selling phone. But there’s probably still an alternate universe in which Apple looked at its odds of success against giants like Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola–not to mention the brutal price competition in a business in which some consumers expect a phone to cost a penny–and decided to stick to computers and MP3 players.

Harry’s guess: The cell phone industry wouldn’t have stood still if the iPhone hadn’t come along: Phone hardware would have continued to get better-faster connections, better cameras, slicker screens, and cooler industrial designs. But phone software? Chances are that it would have barely evolved in an iPhone-less world.

23. What if Apple had lousy marketing and great products?

apple1984More than with any other company I can think of, it’s hard to disentangle the products Apple makes from the means it uses to promote them. It’s all one seamless experience. So it’s hard to picture a scenario in which Apple made wonderful machines that were poorly promoted. But that would be an interesting test of just how much of Apple’s success is based on quality, and how much is driven by hype.

Harry’s guess: There would still be a cult of Apple true believers if the company never spent a nickel on marketing (or, alternative, made ads like this one). It might be far smaller, though. Let’s face it: If all those iPod billboards and iPhone commercials didn’t convince prospective customers that Apple products were as much lifestyle choice as electronics devices, Apple could save itself a boatload of money.

24. What if Apple had great marketing and lousy products?

applecubeThere are those who’d contend that this is the secret of the company’s success, as summed up in the Steve Jobs reality-distortion field. It’s certainly true that Jobs-induced trances have been known to leave reasonably intelligent people blind to obvious flaws in Apple products, as seen in this glowing 2000 review of the famously disappointing G4 Cube. (The piece is unbylined but it’s by…er, me.) Most folks, however, would acknowledge that the Apple mystique has at least something to do with quality of its wares. But what if it decided to keep the ad campaigns as they are but to crank out the cruddiest, most generic crud possible?

Harry’s guess: You could make a case that Apple was on its way to such a strategy in the mid-1990s–its ads from that era were far better than the computers they promoted. But Apple’s most powerful form of marketing is the kind it doesn’t have to pay for and can’t control: the word-of-mouth recommendations of happy customers. Those would dry up pretty quickly if the products turned bad, no matter how slick and entertaining the ads remained.

25. What if Apple went after market share with cheap Macs?

applesPundits keep expecting Apple to slash the entry-level price to buy a Mac, thereby dramatically increasing sales and making up in volume what it loses in margin. And pundits keep turning out to be wrong, wrong, wrong. Apple’s strategy is remarkably consistent: It convinces customers that Apples are worth paying quite a lot for, thereby allowing it to compete mostly in the high end of the market and make lots of money even if relatively few people ever buy a Mac. As Steve Jobs puts it, “What’s wrong with being BMW or Mercedes?”

Harry’s guess: If Apple made really cheap computers, its operating system might still be a pleasure, but its hardware would be the same as everyone else’s, almost by definition. Such Macs would inevitably be less Maclike. And if Apple made slightly cheaper computers? Well, those machines could be just as nice as the ones that it does make. It’s just clear that Apple will only go there if it has no choice.

BONUS QUESTION: What if Apple licensed the Mac OS today?

psystarThis I know: If Apple still exists in the year 2508, still makes software, and still refuses to allow that software to run on other hardware, there will still be doubters calling for it to start licensing immediately. Even if whatever Apple makes has 90 percent market share. And despite the Mac’s meaningful recent gains in market share, there are those who say it’s foolish not to sell the Mac OS to competitors starting right now. But the only other company selling OS X computers is tiny Psystar, who didn’t bother to seek permission first.

Harry’s guess: If Apple licensed one or more companies to make Macs, it would make for some of the company’s biggest headlines ever. Unlike the era of 1990s clones, you’ve have the biggest PC makers on the planet fighting for the right to manufacture them. And Microsoft’s power to suppress a Mac-powered uprising among its Windows customers is nowhere near what it would have been a decade ago. So I think it’s possible that Apple could do quite well with a licensing strategy–but I can’t imagine an Apple run by Steve Jobs and/or his management team choosing that strategy. At least not while Mac market share is growing and Mac profits are handsome, which they are. And maybe not even if they weren’t.

Okay, I’m done speculating. Please jump in–and feel free to ask (and answer) some additional Unanswerable Questions of your own…

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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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