Apple's prediction for the future

August 25th, 2014 9:54 AM
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Noted historian Steve Weyhrich once took to speculative fiction to answer the question: What if the Apple II line had been allowed to evolve in the same way as the Macintosh line has been evolving over the past ten years? The resulting alternative history is a fascinating look at what might've been.

As it turns out, Apple had their own fantasy for a world in which support for the Apple II continued. In 1987, makeup was applied to age key employees, including Steve Wozniak and John Sculley, casting them as their 1997 selves for this video reflecting on the past decade of Apple:

The video is unintentionally hilarious, not so much in the bad acting as in the misplaced optimism. The news anchors report, "Almost all the growth in the last decade happened in one place: the desktop. And of course, that means Apple." Yet the years 1987–1997 saw Apple's market share dwindle under the leadership of several lackluster CEOs.

But you have to admire Apple's intended dedication to our favorite computing platform. "This being 1997, some people feel the Apple II concept is getting old. We don't agree. [Introducing] the Apple II V.S.O.P. (Very Smooth Old Processor) — the computer for the new millennium!" As the video was shot three years after the release of the Macintosh, I have to wonder if Apple really did see a future for the separate product line of the Apple II, or if they were just tweaking their audience with this prediction.

Another augury: "A computer that talks is no big deal. A computer that really listens — that's a breakthrough. Apple computers have always been friendly, but we've gone from friendly to understanding." Siri listens, but we're still ages from machines that actually understand human speech. I discussed in my review of the Joaquin Phoenix film Her: "Accents, background noise, and sentence structures that don't conform to expected inputs can all derail such interactions. Even when Watson competed on Jeopardy, although it could interpret natural language, that input was typed, not spoken."

But the video was worth it for two lines that had me laugh out loud: at 3:43, a Mac diagnoses a PICNIC error; and this zinger: "In other news, Jack Tramiel opened a new restaurant today."

For more historical predictions of technology's future — some of which have come true, but not quite as expected — see the 2009 blog post, "AT&T predicted the future. Can Microsoft?"

(Hat tip to Daniela Hernandez of Wired)

Computer Chronicles looks at the IIc Plus, GS/OS 4.0

November 28th, 2011 11:41 AM
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The Apple II was no stranger to the limelight of Computer Chronicles, a weekly television show that documented the rise of the personal computer industry, starting on PBS in 1981. The entire library of Computer Chronicles episodes is available online from The Internet Archive — no surprise, as when the show ended in 2002, its creator and host, Stewart Cheifet, took a position as director of the Archive.

One 1988 episode of Computer Chronicles coincided with the release of the Apple IIc Plus and GS/OS 4.0. Demonstrating these products on the show were Apple employees Anne Bachtold and Laura Kurihara, who struck me with two aspects of their presentation. First, they don't shy away from technical terminology and details. I suspect this show had a savvy audience that understood these terms, but given that personal computers were still in their infancy thirty years ago, I wonder how many non-techies tried tuning in but found this jargon impenetrable. Second, we all know the names of Apple II employees and alumni like Jef Raskin, Guy Kawasaki, and even Chris Espinosa. I marvel that there were so many more bigwigs like Bachtold and Kurihara whose contributions to the Apple II platform have been omitted from the annals of history. It demonstrates society's tendency to "celebritize" particular personalities to the point that their supporters get lost in their shadows.

Although he couldn't come to the studio for the interview, there's also a brief segment with John Sculley, who says that the Apple II provides users with "a real feel for the chips", likening it to a stick shift next to the Macintosh's automatic transmission. I think that's very true, as evidenced by how the Macintosh has grown increasingly graphics-oriented and closed. With the schematics and open nature of the Apple II, users can work much closer to the metal.

There's also a brief discussion of the possibility of an Apple II laptop, or even a computer that can run both Apple II and Macintosh software. What a world that would be!

Here's the full 28-minute episode. Feel free to skip time index 13:38 – 15:22, which focuses on the Mac IIx.

Hat tip to Steve Weyhrich!

History according to a sugar water salesman

September 26th, 2011 10:30 PM
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John SculleyAround this time last year, the Cult of Mac interviewed John Sculley, the businessman who Steve Jobs recruited away from selling "sugar water" (Pepsi) to run Apple. The company's board of directors would eventually side with Sculley and oust Jobs, initiating the next chapter in the soap opera that is Apple's turbulent past.

It must be something about autumn that brings Sculley to the minds of reporters, as Janet Guyon at the Wall Street Journal recently grilled the former CEO. You'd think that his and Apple's story, being the stuff of legend, would be well-known by now, but even in these latest reports, interesting tidbits surface.

The first was that Sculley had a history with Apple predating his professional involvement: he made his former employer one of Apple's biggest clients.

I had seen one of the first spreadsheets developed for an Apple II computer after being invited to Harvard Business School to talk to a class about the Pepsi Challenge. When that product was commercialized in the early 1980s, I bought every Pepsi bottler an Apple computer and told them they could have it for free as long as they sent us their sales reports on a floppy disk every week. This greatly condensed the time it took us to get sales reports.

Despite that intersection, Sculley's experience at Pepsi didn't make him a technical wizard. But it did help him develop the skills which Apple assessed themselves as lacking. Jobs' own Reality Distortion Field could bring in supporters for any new product — but what about for an old one?

I found the challenges of Apple particularly intriguing. What they needed was someone who could keep the Apple II computer, which was a cash machine, commercially alive for three more years because Steve Jobs was still a year away from introducing the Macintosh. In 1983, Apple was outsold by each Atari and Commodore by 2-to-1 … Keeping the Apple II alive didn't require someone to know much about computer technology, it required someone who knew something about how to market and sell a near end-of-life product.

Just like how Woz and Jobs complemented each other with technical and entrepreneurial know-how, so too did Sculley and Jobs learn from each other:

[Steve Jobs and I] were learning from each other. He was learning from me about "experience marketing," how to sell consumer products, how you run a much bigger company and how you recruit people from outside your industry.

Still, they had their differences, including one that could've significantly impacted the development of the Apple II. Some Apple II Bits readers have pinned the blame for the Apple II's demise on Jobs. Whether or not that's true, by process of elimination, the odds begin to favor that interpretation. Says Sculley:

We were still very dependent on the profits of Apple II. I felt we had to push profits of Apple II and Steve wanted to lower the price of the Mac to get sales up.

Whatever their past partnerships or antagonisms, the triangle between Sculley, Jobs, and Apple was unlike any that Sculley had ever encountered — in a way that does not bode well for the future of the company:

Apple is Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs is Apple. That was entirely different from anything I had experienced coming out of Pepsi.

Pepsi never had so public a leader or so identified a creator as Steve Jobs. Given the recent resignation of Sculley's former partner, what does this mean for the company the two have left behind?

The questionable role of Steve Jobs

October 14th, 2010 1:58 PM
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When I was a teacher, I asked my 11th-grade students who founded what was then called Apple Computer Inc. "Steve Jobs!" they confidently replied. I prompted them, "Yes, he was one of two Steves. Who was the other?" I died a little bit inside at their blank stares, then showed them G4's special on the Apple II to rectify the matter. (They were, surprisingly, impressed by Wozniak's wizardry as demonstrated in that show.)

Sadly, it is not just the next generation whose reality has been distorted. Whatever Apple's origin, Steve Jobs has attained a popular culture ranking greater than his counterpart and will go down in history as having had more impact on the company. But does that belief reflect historical truth?

Doubtless much of Apple's success has been attributed to Jobs. Last month's Juiced.GS cited Carmine Gallo's book The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, which outlines seven principles Jobs has used to attain success:

  1. Do what you love. Think differently about your career.
  2. Put a dent in the universe. Think differently about your vision.
  3. Kickstart your brain. Think differently about how you think.
  4. Sell dreams, not products. Think differently about your customers.
  5. Say no to 1,000 things. Think differently about design.
  6. Create insanely great expectations. Think differently about your brand experience.
  7. Master the message. Think differently about your story.

Gallo's book is not the first to define these concepts. The Cult of Mac recently interviewed John Sculley, CEO of Apple 1983–1993. In that lengthy transcript (8,321 words!), the former sugar water salesman affirms several of the above points, including #4:

[Jobs] always looked at things from the perspective of what was the user's experience going to be? But unlike a lot of people in product marketing in those days, who would go out and do consumer testing, asking people, "What did they want?" Steve didn’t believe in that.

He said, "How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before." He believed that showing someone a calculator, for example, would not give them any indication as to where the computer was going to go because it was just too big a leap.

And #5:

What makes Steve's methodology different from everyone else's is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do — but the things that you decide not to do. He's a minimalist.

But are Jobs' philosophies truly what drove Apple to success? In Susan Lammers' 1986 book Programmers at Work, an interview with the late Jef Raskin, a former Apple employeee, offers a different perspective:

If Jobs would only take credit for what he really did for the industry, that would be more than enough. But he also insists on taking credit away from everyone else for what they did … He has not designed a single product. Woz designed the Apple II. Ken Rothmuller and others designed Lisa. My team and I designed the Macintosh. Wendell Sanders designed the Apple III. What did Jobs design? Nothing.

Andy Hertzfeld offers an opposing view of who can be considered the father of the Macintosh, but that computer is just one example. Mike Maginnis brings the above product line up to speed by amending it with the iPod, the design of which should be credited to companies PortalPlayer and Pixo. So what has Steve Jobs actually designed Apple Inc.? "Probably not as much as Jobs would like you to think," Maginnis suggests.

But as far as our favorite computer is concerned, there is one story that most sources agree on — one quoted in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs and retold in Sculley's recent interview:

If you go back to the Apple II, Steve was the first one to put a computer into a plastic case, which was called ABS plastic in those days, and actually put the keyboard into the computer. It seems like a pretty simple idea today, looking back at it, but even at the time when he created the first Apple II, in 1977 — that was the beginning of the Jobs methodology. And it showed up in the Macintosh and showed up with his NeXT computer. And it showed up with the future Macs, the iMacs, the iPods and the iPhones.

Jobs may not be the design genius he's made out to be, but his marketing genius is significant. Last month made 25 years since he was ousted from Apple; compare the decade without Jobs to the years since his return in 1996, and you'll find the company has been revitalized and made significantly more profitable.

It was during Jobs' absence from the company he founded that the last Apple II, the template for all that was to come from Apple Inc., rolled off the production line. He may have been responsible for the commercial success of the computer, but he cannot be directly blamed for its death. In the end, what else matters?