Way, way back in 1996 I was sitting in the Computerworld New Zealand sub-editors’ area and pondering the recently delivered, and not very enthusiastically received, news that we were about to lose our Macintoshes. IDG, as we were then, was standardising on PCs.
We would have taken the news a lot worse, if the Macs had been any good. They weren't — they were rubbish. In those days the Apple OS was not multithreaded, it had fallen behind Windows in that regard, and the hardware we were using was the first generation of the PowerPC. Crashes and freezes were common and, in a production environment, increasingly intolerable.
These were machines that caused users, and Apple, a great deal of trouble. This was the depths of Apple’s great depression.
I remember the obituaries being written. Apple had lost, so they said. It had lost not because of the poor quality of its recent products and its lack of focus (remember the Newton?), but because of a failure in strategy: it had focused on manufacturing proprietary hardware, when all the action was now in software.
Microsoft was proving that. Hardware was history. It was a commodity.
At the centre of Apple’s problems was this adherence to proprietary technologies, the pundits said. It made the hardware for its operating system rather than allowing others to do so, as in the seemingly victorious PC model. It could not create, on its own, the kind of ecosystem that was growing around the PC — in both hardware and software innovation.
1996 was also the year Steve Jobs returned to Apple. Apple bought Jobs’ NeXT and the following year, after Gil Amelio’s departure, he became interim chief executive. One of the first things Jobs did was shut down a belated, and still nascent, attempt to licence the Mac OS, to allow others to build Macintosh clones.
The company hasn’t looked back since. First there was the reinvention of the Macintosh with the iMac series, and great new notebooks followed. There was a new, powerful, Mac OS, based on open source Unix. Then things went all consumery with the iPod, iTunes and most recently the iPhone.
But what hasn’t changed, to any great degree, is Apple and Jobs’ adherence to binding together proprietary systems.
Sure, iTunes is available for both Mac and PC, but it always points to the iTunes store. The Mac OS and Apple’s hardware are still tightly mated — you can’t really have one without the other. And look at the iPhone. It runs Mac OS, Apple’s Safari browser and you need an iTunes account to even activate it.
So, is it time to venture that Apple’s failures of the 1990s had nothing whatsoever to do with whether its products were proprietary or “open”? Its problems were that it was making lousy products and was innovating in the wrong places.
When Jobs returned, the company became focused again. It returned to doing what it does best — producing (and marketing with genius) stylish, proprietary products that complement and strengthen the company’s already extraordinary brand.
A good few years ago, an IT analyst I know called Graeme Philipson told me the Apple brand was so strong you could sell anything with it: sneakers, TVs, whatever. People would buy just because of the brand. The brand wasn’t looking to flash then, but Philipson was eerily right.