In Depth: When Apple drops the ball: the gear that flopped

In Depth: When Apple drops the ball: the gear that flopped

As a company, Apple seems to court the naysayers. Of course, it’s been about to collapse for the last 25 years, with plenty of examples of things not going to plan, technology that wasn’t adopted, products that failed to sell, or that died before version 2.0.

But often during the last three decades those cunning designers at Apple have shown remarkable prescience. Their triumphs are clear.

But how about this: examine those seemingly failed products and technologies, and you’ll find that they naturally fall into three categories of failure: style over substance; ideas embodied ahead of the prevailing technology; or trying to solve the right problem, but not necessarily in the right way.

Mad Macs

Apple G4 Cube

Apple has produced a fair few Mac models that some might consider ‘failures’. Any list of examples will be subjective since they all have their own lovable features, but there are some that are less forgivable than others.

Let’s start with the Macintosh Portable. Affectionately known as the Luggable, it’s generally considered to carry with it an accompanying Family Fortunes-style rejection noise. Heavy and expensive, and – until they added the v2 backlight – it was unusable in daylight.

The weight was due to lead-acid batteries: despite giving (for its time) a phenomenal battery life, they died permanently if fully discharged, and – because they were wired in series to the supply – once dead, you couldn’t even use it plugged into the wall.

But before consigning its reputation to the scrapheap, the defence begs the jury’s indulgence with some choice pub-quiz facts. It was the first computer to send an email from space (how cool is that?), and it had a reconfigurable trackball. More importantly, it effectively formed the basis of the Sony-built PowerBook 100 (with the trackball in the centre). As anyone who ever owned one will tell you, the PowerBook 100 was one of the greats.

The G4 Cube is the canonical style-over-substance Mac. It wasn’t even strictly a cube: a 200mm cubed CPU housing yes, but held in a 250mm-high acrylic box. Underpowered, with the CD drive vertically mounted, external speakers, an external (and similarly sized) power supply, the box would crack if you didn’t use kid gloves – and there was no audio-in. Oh, but it looked good – good enough to feature in an episode of The Simpsons.

It failed because it was both too expensive and slow. The form-factor was almost right: at introduction Mac mini was treated as a miracle new design, but in essence it was just the Cube done right. You can stack five new Mac Minis into the same volume, and the power brick is built in. Despite its failure though, it’s still a sought-after object of desire, not least because it makes an excellent MacQuarium.

Of course, with every new Mac’s arrival, old Mac hands ask the same question: ‘Is this the machine engineering wanted to ship, or did marketing get hold of it?’ To some, the entire Performa series was a marketing disaster. They lacked oomph, the occasional maths coprocessor, had weird memory configurations (5MB maximum) and there was a new version every three weeks (70-plus models between September 1992 and November 1996.)

But the idea of getting our grubby paws onto a cheap(ish) colour Mac was worth the minor flaws. It has ‘oddball marketing department’ written all over it. Let’s single out the oddest: the Performa 610 DOS compatible. This was a 68040-based old-school Mac with a 25 MHz Intel 486SX coprocessor card stuffed into its Processor Direct Slot. Despite the name, it shipped with Windows 3; you could toggle between OS versions on the fly, or run two monitors simultaneously.

These days you can do it all in software, but back in the day this was bleeding-edge. There are probably only a small number of Twentieth Anniversary Macs in the UK. Of which, at a guess, the bulk are in glass cases. It was an all-in-one unit (if you discount the large external subwoofer) with a vertically mounted CD-ROM, built-in TV tuner, built-in radio, 2GB drive, an active matrix LCD display, but only 10in deep. It was the first desktop PC to use an LCD, and given a long enough ADB cable for the keyboard, you could actually wall-mount it. It was massively over-priced though (over $7k), offered a trackpad instead of a mouse, and the screen was only 12.1 inches.

It suffered by being ahead of its time – by about 7 years. It was the proto-iMac G5, and another example of the internet now fixing problems that used to be dealt with by splashing the cash on hardware. Macs don’t need TV and radio receiver hardware now because we’ve got YouTube and iPlayer. If only large LCDs had been available, it could have been the first media centre PC.


Apple eMate

A history of Apple isn’t just a history of Mac hardware. Apple attempts to innovate in pretty much every arena it enters, with hardware near-misses, cul-desacs, and failures aplenty. Any list of purported Apple missteps will include the Newton narrative: Steve Jobs hated John Sculley’s baby, styli were evil, the handwriting recognition sucked, Apple was spread too thinly and engineers were better deployed elsewhere, so Jobs axed the Newton.

But it wasn’t just a PDA; the eMate 300 was a Newton with a keyboard. Aimed at the education market and priced accordingly ($800), it was a pre-cursor to many future technologies. It was a tough little thing: entirely solid state, it had a practically waterproof keyboard, expandable memory, and shipped with basic office software. Oh, if only it had been wireless! Given the cost corollaries of Moore’s law, the eMate 300 was clearly the steampunk embodiment of a One Laptop Per Child device.

Apple has a great track record for opening up new markets. Did you know that Apple produced the first consumer digital camera? Well, actually it was the second – but it was the first mass-market one. The QuickTake 100 was the pinhole camera of digital world: it could only take 24-bit PICT files, with a maximum resolution of 640×480, and then only eight at a time. But it was so freeing; it cut out the ‘snap, develop, scan’ process to which we were inured.

For a design conference in May 1994, our correspondent managed to whip up the proceedings notes as PDFs with pictures of the speakers, in under an hour. For the delegates, this was pure Arthur C Clarke magic. So what was the reason it failed? It awoke the slumbering camera incumbents to the fact they could no longer delay the move to digital.

Some Apple kit had a really short shelf life: see the Apple Network Server (ANS). Not many people have even seen – let alone used – one. The ANS was a PowerPC-based box designed to run AIX, and was Apple’s confused attempt to break into the Enterprise Server market. In essence, it was a hugely expandable PowerMac 9500, with the ROMs removed, stuffed into a tumble-dryer sized cabinet.

It was designed to not run Mac OS, and very quickly wrote its own death sentence. At $19,000, it remains Apple’s most expensive catalogue-priced machine. On second thoughts, it does manage to succeed as the best tech bargain ever: one recently sold on eBay for $1.56 (shipping $120).

Apple Pippin

Apple actually made a games console. Well, they designed it, and Bandai made them. But they only made about forty thousand. The Pippin was also Apple’s attempt to create a network computer (NC).

Oracle tried to establish an ‘NC Consortium’, including Apple, to produce thin clients: diskless, internet-based computers. Pippin would have failed just for the usual reasons games platforms fail: it was too expensive ($600); it used encoded CDs; it used a TV as display; and it was massively underpowered. It also flopped as an NC, with no network connection, and just a 14.4k modem.

The icing on the cake? That’d be having just the single third-party developer. (Apple learned from this mistake, with developer engagement – perhaps the main reason for iOS’s success.)

Back catalogue


Apple has plenty of entries in the ‘Where are they now?’ software back catalogue. Some are much missed, others however, deserve their place in the pantheon of coding ignominy. When Microsoft brought out Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), Apple felt it needed a ‘me too’ to compete.

Publish & Subscribe would be better than OLE, with all sorts of whistles and bells. You could publish part of a spreadsheet document – say, the sales chart – and then subscribe to it in a word-processing document. The word-processing document would then see any updates in the original, and offer to update as well.

P&S slumped to defeat on three levels: developers found it difficult to work with, so it was poorly adopted; it would often break because the original was on a floppy disk at home (remember, kids, not everyone had a network); and finally, users couldn’t see the point of it. The Mac OS had a great scrapbook, and copy and paste worked well. Apple re-learned the zeroth law of engineering.

Apple has had more than one stab at producing a Macfriendly UNIX operating system. Why? For the same reasons OS X is based on UNIX today: UNIX is stable, has a huge back-catalogue, and gets you into enterprise.

A/UX was their first go. Based on UNIX System V, it was POSIX compliant, had an XWindows server, included TCP/IP networking, and would run on something as lowly as Mac SE/30. It allowed you to run Mac applications alongside UNIX applications. To say it wasn’t mainstream was an understatement, but the technology it contained led on to many innovations we take for granted today. It ran Mac software transparently, but it did so by using a virtual machine, and offered the beginnings of a mainstream GUI interface to UNIX. This was before GNU/Linux, and it was very much a closed source.

Apple was so keen to get the Mac into engineering and higher education sites (or at least not have them excluded from them) that it even tried the ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ school of software development. The Macintosh Application Environment (MAE) was an emulation package designed to run on Sun Solaris and HP Ultrix that let UNIX denizens run Mac applications.

In fact, MAE emulated pretty much the entire Mac OS 7.5 in an X Window. So you could do your finite-element-analysis work on your trusty SPARCstation, and then fire up MacWrite to produce the report in. You could copy and paste between UNIX and Mac environments, open files from NFS volumes, and, perhaps most importantly, run the sorts of applications not normally found on standard UNIX machines such as PageMaker or QuarkXPress.

Although dropped in 2004, HyperCard was a tool for creating object-based documents (stacks) that contained both the code and data. It was easy to use and fun to program using English-like HyperTalk. How important was it? Well, it influenced or inspired the development of JavaScript, AppleScript, HTTP, web browsers, and even the concept of the wiki. Even the original Myst game was written in it.

For some it was the killer-app for the original Macintosh. So why even consider it a failure? Its creator, Bill Atkinson, is fairly clear on this point: a lack of network awareness: "I grew up in a boxcentric culture at Apple. If I’d grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first web browser. My blind spot at Apple prevented me from making HyperCard the first web browser."

Outside the box

Apple laptop

Apple isn’t just boxed products, though. In the internet age, online services deserve our consideration, too. You’d have to be of a certain vintage (aged 40 or so) to remember AppleLink. It was Apple’s pre-web online community, accessed through client software and a modem. It was for distributors and developers only, and boy, was it expensive.

Apple tried using a third party (Quantum) to create a consumer version, AppleLink Personal Edition, but it was even more costly. eWorld was therefore Apple’s third attempt at an online service. It looked great, had a web browser, email and FTP, but it was massively expensive, and Mac only. It failed, in part due to fierce competition from a recently renamed Quantum – America Online, or AOL. (If at first you don’t succeed, right? After its ‘success’ with eWorld, it took another four years for Apple to have another go. iTools/.Mac was really just about giving Mac users an email address, and it was free. See, they had learned their lesson.)

Ah, hindsight: it’s wonderful thing. What you thought of at the time as failure often turns out to be an important stepping stone; technology hailed as the next big thing might be next week’s chip-paper. Apple has a great track record for both. Without HyperCard, the web might have taken longer to start.

With no QuickTake we might still be scanning photographs. If they’d fixed the handwriting recognition before shipping we might all be using Newtons instead of iOS devices. Had eWorld worked, the internet might still be a walled garden, and e-commerce the next big thing. Be thankful for small mercies.

  • Now why not read Fusion drive: what it is and how it speeds up your Mac?