I got 101 problems but Apple ain’t one

I’ve closed comments on this because a lot of people seem to want to focus on whether Konfabulator and Watson are rip-offs or were ripped-off. Instead, I’m trying an experiment and have moved everything to a Wiki page so people can contribute evidence about each item in the list. What’s a Wiki?

So Matt Haughey was looking back on a 1997 article from Wired giving 101 Ways to Save Apple and since he’s into hippie copyrights he won’t mind me stealing his blog post idea. (You too can steal future blog ideas at del.icio.us’s toblog tag)
Remember that the list was written in 1997, before the iPod, before the MP3 revolution, before even the Bondi Blue iMacs. As far as anyone could tell, Apple would be dead within a year.

Reading through the suggestions, there are a lot that were amazingly prescient, specifically numbers 4, 7, 10, 12, 14, 19, 23, 25, 29, 37, 40, 50, 62, 70, 77, 83, 98 and 100. None of these predict the iPod as a way to turn the company around, but who could have?

91. Start a new special projects group led by either Jobs or another passionate and creative designer to create the next “insanely great” technology. This time, focus on rolling the technology into the existing Mac line; make sure developers are inspired and in the loop.

It’s not exactly marketing genius to say “you need a killer product.” However, the Senior Director of the Special Projects Group is Tony Fadell, the man who came up with the idea of creating an MP3 player tied to a downloadable music store. You can read about how he came to be at Apple at Wired’s article on the history of the iPod.

70. Simplify your PC product line. Reduce the number of Apple motherboards and the number of distinct Apple system models.

Apple definitely did this, you can now choose between an iMac, PowerMac, iBook, PowerBook and eMac. Of course there’s still some confusion, I’d be hard pressed to tell you the advantages of a 12″ G4 PowerBook over a 12″ G4 iBook.

7. Don’t disappear from the retail chains. Rent space in a computer store, flood it with Apple products (especially software), staff it with Apple salespeople, and display everything like you’re a living, breathing company and not a remote, dusty concept.

That’s a big affirmative. Apple started in 1997 by putting Apple sections in CompUSA stores, and in 2001 they opened the first Apple store. They now have over 90 stores and the devotion Apple fans have to the stores can be seen in this video of the line for the grand opening of the Ginza Apple store in Tokyo.

98. Testimonials. Create commercials featuring real-life people in situations where buying a Mac (or switching to a Mac) saved the day.

Apple’s Switch campaign from 2003 was a huge success, making a minor star out of at least one switcher. There was an absolute flood of parodies, which is a good measure of how influential an ad has been.

37. Take advantage of NeXT’s easy and powerful OpenStep programming tools to entice a new generation of Mac software developers.

OS X (the reason I own a Mac) is a direct descendant of NeXT and was a revolution for MacOS. Apple acquired NeXT in early 1997, you would do well to find out where OS X came from.

14. Do something creative with the design of the box and separate yourselves from the pack. The original Macs stood out because of their innovative look. Repeat that. Get the folks at Porsche to design a box. Or Giorgio Giugiaro. Or Philippe Starck. We’d all feel better about shelling out the bucks for a Power Mac 9600 if we could get a tower with leopard spots.

I don’t even need to provide links for this. In 1998 Apple introduced the iMac, which ushered in a new era for Apple. Since then Apple’s industrial design has been consistently top notch. This was probably the most important thing to turn Apple around, more than OS X, more than the iPod. The iMac gave Apple a new lease and the momentum to pursue the things people think of as Apple now.

Of course not all the suggestions were as good. These are some that the opposite was done to Apple’s success, or simply weren’t tried, or were tried and cancelled or some other sort of negative outcome.

One of the most prolific memes is the idea of getting MacOS to run on Intel chips:

34. Port the OS to the Intel platform, with its huge amount of investment in hardware, software, training, and experience. Don’t ignore it; co-opt it. Operating systems are dependent on installed base; that is your biggest hurdle now. It is not the head-to-head, feature-set comparison between Windows and Mac OS.

60. Abandon the Mach operating system you just acquired and run Windows NT kernel instead. This would let Mac run existing PC programs. (Microsoft actually has Windows NT working on Mac hardware. It also has emulation of Mac programs with NT running on both Power PC and x86.)

76. Make damn sure that Rhapsody runs on an Intel chip. Write a Windows NT emulator for Rhapsody’s Intel version.

94. Maintain differentiation between Wintel and Apple. Cross-platform means Apple OS on Intel boxes, not just add-ins to Windows. Making the Mac more like Windows, or making all technologies “cross-platform,” is a going-out-of business strategy. Extend and improve the Mac’s capabilities to handle Wintel data and emulate Wintel for those applications that require it.

It’s almost like Slashdot wrote these, because whenever the topic of OS X comes up someone invariably says “I’d love to run OS X, why won’t Apple put it on my cheap, home-built x86 box?” Since it’s a Slashdot troll question, I’ll let Slashdot answer: “Silly idea,” “Doesn’t make sense,” and a bonus “No Intel On OS X Part I: Economics 101.”

Apple is definitely in the hardware game, they’re not going to port to Intel. Do you see that dot after the word “Intel”? It’s a period, the argument is over. But because there are idiots out there who like to point to the x86 port of Darwin as evidence, let me add that if by some cosmic collision Apple decided to throw out all software that had been written for OS X/PPC and put OS X on x86 you’d be no more able to run it on your home-built system than you are able to run OS X/PPC on a non-Apple PPC. Which brings us to our next collection of bad business ideas:

1. Admit it. You’re out of the hardware game. Outsource your hardware production, or scrap it entirely, to compete more directly with Microsoft without the liability of manufacturing boxes.

36. Clone the PowerBook. When the shabbily made 5300s started to fall apart, catch on fire, and explode, a lot of Apple customers were forced to turn to Wintel for laptops. There was no place else to go. If clones had been available, the users might have stayed in the family.

It’s understandable that people would think that cloning would save Apple at the time this was written. Microsoft was doing well, Apple wasn’t, people used install base as a measure of success. However, Apple lost money on clones so Steve Jobs killed the clone program when he came back to Apple.

3. Start pampering independent software vendors. Your future depends on strong, user-friendly software. ISVs are losing confidence and crossing over to the Dark Side to take advantage of Wintel’s market share. Remember what happened to OS/2 – not enough applications, updates too late, scarce industry support. And all the marketing dollars IBM threw at it couldn’t help.

I don’t think it’s exactly “pampering” 3rd part developers when they feel ripped off, like in the cases of Watson, Konfabulator and Netflix Fanatic. There’s some counter-arguments, but I guarantee that those developers have soured on the idea of developing for OS X in the future.

13. Exploit every Wintel user’s secret fear that some day they’re going to be thrown into a black screen with a blinking C-prompt. Advertise the fact that Mac users never have to rewrite autoexec.bat or sys.ini files

That doesn’t exactly go along with the Unix/NeXT/Darwin strategy. On the plus side, virtually all the people who go into Terminal are there because they want to be, not because their computer broke. Also, remember that this was 1997 when Windows 95 still felt like it was running on top of DOS.

59. Invest heavily in Newton technology, which is one area where Microsoft can’t touch you. Build voice recognition and better gesture recognition into Newton, making a new environment for desktop, laptop, and palmtop Macs. Newton can also be the basis of a new generation of embedded systems, from cash registers to kiosks.

Yeah, that happened. Of course, hope springs eternal.

72. Try the industry-standard serial port plug. RS-422 should be a last resort.

Apple has gotten in the habit of dictating industry standards instead of following them. The iMac brought USB to the masses, the iBook brought WiFi to the masses, and, uh, the G5 may bring Bluetooth to the masses (but don’t count on it).Stephen pointed out that Apple also brought Firewire / IEEE1394 to the huddled masses. What he didn’t point out was that Apple also won a Grammy for Firewire.

87. Price the CPUs to sell. Offer novice users the ability to enter the Mac market at a competitive price point and move up the power curve as their level of sophistication increases. The initial price keeps new buyers away.

A lot of people associate Apple with high prices, which I think helps Apple to a degree by making them a premium brand. The reason for the high prices is that, unlike PC makers like Dell and Gateway, they don’t have to worry that if they overprice their computers you’ll go buy the parts and build it yourself. I think the evidence for this is in the portable arena, Apple’s notebooks are quite competitive with Windows notebooks. This isn’t because Apple lowered their portable prices, but because the Windows laptops don’t have to compete with home-built systems so they can raise their prices.

93. Develop a way to program that requires no scripting or coding.

Admittedly I never used it, but wasn’t that HyperCard?

That’s pretty much all I’m willing to write on the subject. This isn’t a complete list of anything, so feel free to take this, wikify it or build on it or tear it down with counter arguments. Matt’s not the only one with a hippie license.

16 thoughts on “I got 101 problems but Apple ain’t one

  1. What I found odd about that list were some of the ideas were self-contradictory. Kill off the Newton but invest in Newton?
    Also, HyperCard still required some scripting to do anything useful. However, Tiger does have that Automator thing which should be interesting.
    FWIW, the non-obvious differences between the iBook and the 12″ Powerbook are that the Powerbook has DVI and DDR333, while the iBook is SVGA and DDR266. DVI was the killer feature which made me decide on a Powerbook instead of an iBook (since at the time I had a DVI-only monitor).

  2. Yeah, the Newton stuff was the most obvious contradictions, but the list was written by a group of people. I’m going to hope that it wasn’t the same person saying “support the Newton” and “kill the Newton.”

  3. Regarding the penultimate point about Apple’s pricing:
    I always thought that Wintel boxes were so cheap because of the commodity markets of computer components. Motherboards, IDE drives, power supplies have all settled into standard formats and are just churned out by hundreds of different companies in Asia, and have to be extremely competitive on price. Apple components are not a commodity market, and have settled on prices accordingly.
    Contrast that with laptops, which each is a custom design problem, that requires custom components (custom battery, heatsinks, wiring, motherboard). Both Wintel and Apple laptops fall under this consideration. So Wintel laptops don’t get a price advantage from commodity components, and Apple is able to compete pricing wise.

  4. Jeff –
    A lot of the parts of a PowerMac are the same commodity parts as a high-end Windows PC: lots of fast RAM, a big hard drive, a sexy video card. Apple doesn’t see the volume for their PPC chips and motherboards that other manufacturers might, but they probably do better business for their motherboards than some of the smaller x86 motherboard makers.
    I think that you are right about the economies of scale benefitting Windows PC makers though. I suspect that the real reason for Apple’s high prices are a combination of less volume, less competition and some factors we haven’t thought of.

  5. Yeah, and a lot of those “budget” laptops (like the low-end Dells) are just rebranded OEM piles of crap. I think Winbook was one of the first manufacturers of that stuff… my mom got a Winbook when they first became affordable (“only” $1800 for a 486/66 with a whopping 4MB of RAM and a passive-matrix grayscale display!).
    Also, USB was already a well-established component standard before Apple used it as the sole expansion port on the original iMac. It’s just that nobody made components for it, until Apple finally gave them a market (since PC users were still all like “Why bother with USB when I already have two RS-232 ports, and can add more ports with a $10 card if I run out?” and so on). Ironically, USB was designed by Intel. (So was PCI, another standard which Apple seemed to push more quickly than PC manufactuers, who were content with VESA Local Bus and ISA at the time when Apple got fed up with NuBus.)

  6. The high-end PowerBooks also have beefier graphics cards (up to 128Mb RAM on ’em) than the iBooks. Plus the light sensors that control screen brightness and keyboard illumination, which is pretty cool.
    But the PowerBooks currently look a bit anaemic when you consider the higher price than the iBooks. Roll on January…

  7. ” let me add that if by some cosmic collision Apple decided to throw out all software that had been written for OS X/PPC”
    You wouldn’t need to throw anything out. It could all be recompiled for OSX/x86. Mach even supports multi-architecture binaries which NeXTstep made use of when it ran on 68k, x86, SPARC and PA-RISC. I used to compile my NeXTstep apps as a multi-arch binary for all of those platforms into a single app and OSX can do the same. If you take a close look at XCode, you’ll notice that Apple is definitely keeping this option open.

  8. Just to add to all the notes about the differences between the pb 12″ and ibook 12″ – the killer difference for me was the fact that the iBook’s video out only runs at the native lcd resolution (1024×768, I think), and the powerbook can run up to 1600×1200+ externally. I want to be able to hook up a 20″+ monitor and get some real work done with a high-res desktop.

  9. Regarding Watson, Konfabulator and Netflix Fanatic:
    Watson: Apple told the Watson dev that they were working on, and offered him a job. He was too stupid to take it, and got clobbered.
    Konfab: This is an iffy one, I think they probably did copy it to some degree, though at the same time Tiger isn’t actually out, so we still need to see what Dashboard really looks and works like.
    Netflix: Cricket worked for Apple, and got hit by their rules regarding ownership of code. It is actually a common thing for technology companies to owm code developed by their employees. The fact that Cricket used internal resources to develop the code, and was selling the app, make Apple seem a bit less evil.
    Apple still could do better with their dev. relations, but the examples of issues are not clear cut.

  10. All this Konfabulator staff had Apple since mid 1980 in they’re
    Apple Menu functions. And second the whole concept of actual Konfabulator is Oberon only from the ETHZ Technical High School and University in Zürich.

  11. I linked to the Daring Fireball counter-arguement because there’s a legitimate argument that Apple didn’t need to copy 3rd part developers to come up with these tools.
    That doesn’t mean that the developers for Konfabulator and Watson feel any better about having their market pulled out from under them. It also means that 3rd party developers for Apple will think twice about creating something that Apple could roll into the next release of the OS, which means fewer 3rd party developers on OS X.

  12. “That doesn’t mean that the developers for Konfabulator and Watson feel any better about having their market pulled out from under them.”
    Watson’s developer got shafted both ways – he sold Watson to Sun, theoretically to develop a similar Java-based app, but in the end Sun, as always in acquisitions, has ended up dropping the ball and ending the project.
    So Watson’s users are out of luck.
    I wonder what’s worse. On the one hand, it can’t be nice to have Apple put out a similar, competing, free product.
    On the other hand, it can’t be nice to work hard building up a product and a user base, and then have it summarily executed by the acquirer.
    In the Apple scenario, at least you still control your own software. If you can innovate, you may still be able to compete. Otherwise, you can give it away, open-source it, whatever. At least it’s still a living piece of work, with your name on it, rather than just a forgotten, dusty folder in Sun’s file cabinet.
    In the Sun scenario, you get some cash, but the app dies. Your userbase is out of luck. If you have any great ideas for new features, you have to just sigh wistfully at what might have been.

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