Ive is very much acting in line with Jobs’ legacy.

There’s a lot of mythmaking at Apple, and it’s in some ways responsible for Apple’s recent success, but in this case it really obscures the history. Jobs was all about removing functionality in favor of form in his work at Apple, starting with his take-over of the Macintosh project at the latest. While he didn’t do this at NeXT to the same degree, as soon as he came back at Apple, he doubled down on it.

Apple has never been the “fun” alternative (if you count all its competitors, rather than pretending the only alternative to the Mac has ever been the IBM PC, which was never true). On the other hand, removing important features in order to cut production costs was pretty standard in the late 70s and early 80s, and would have been completely acceptable in the generation of machines the Apple ][ belonged to. (The Apple ][ initially was unable to display lower-case letters, in order to save on ROM; similarly, Sinclair BASIC used single characters as commands, to save space.) We owe Jobs’ and Ive’s legacy to the predictable commercial failure of the Lisa and certain cynical ideas Jobs developed about the market in the wake of that failure. The relative success of competitors like the Atari ST and Amiga despite marketing and advertising failures demonstrates that Jobs’ model of the computer industry in the mid-80s was completely wrong, but it nevertheless defines the behavior not only of Apple but of many of Apple’s competitors to this day.

The Lisa would have been a half-decent machine, if made with today’s technology. It was, however, made with late-70s technology, and very little attention was paid to performance. As a result, this machine cost two thousand dollars in 1982 money, couldn’t operate without an external hard drive of roughly equivalent price, and once operational would take minutes to perform simple operations. It was a failure, because it was an expensive and unusable machine; on a purely technical level, it was a success at being interesting, building in many truly novel ideas. After the market failure of the Lisa, Jobs kicked Raskin off the Macintosh project and turned the Macintosh into an attempt at a low-budget version of the Lisa.

(Raskin’s ideas for his original Macintosh project really were novel and revolutionary in a way that the Macintosh was not; unfortunately, aside from a short-lived attempt at selling it as ‘Swyftboard’ extension cards for the Apple ][, these ideas only ever made their way into the Canon Cat — a dedicated word processor that cost as much as a Lisa.)

Jobs decided that the failure of the Lisa was the result of high cost and low performance (which is true), but (being non-technical) he had no idea what kinds of functionalities are actually slow or require special hardware and (being an egomaniac) he made ridiculous pronouncements about performance in public and held his engineers to them. As a result, the original Macintosh had a small, built-in monochrome (not greyscale!) display, half the RAM of competitors, no multitasking, and only one mouse button. It sold for less than the Lisa, but for double the price of competitors that had double or triple the performance. Much of the development and prototyping cost actually went into repeated changes to the shape of the case.

As a result of the Macintosh hemmoraging money (despite the high margins, not enough people were buying them to make up for the famously wasteful development, and by the time the Mac shipped it was four years behind the curve on hardware) and Jobs’ habit of yelling at employees until they cry, he was replaced as CEO by John Sculley, and eventually forced to resign. (Apple under Sculley continued a Mac-centric plan, but continued to lose money; however, Macs under Sculley actually had color displays and more-or-less competitive hardware.)

For people who have short memories and only care about Apple post-1997, this may seem like ancient history and irrelevant. But, we have to recognize that during the era when Jobs wasn’t in charge, Apple pushed the Mac in the direction of being like its competitors. During those years, the Mac competed on features. There were low-budget models that cost less but had crappier hardware. For a short period in the 90s, there were licensed (and unlicensed) third-party Mac clones that could run Mac OS. (Apple didn’t compete well with the other players, but with Atari practically going out of business again due to the failure of the Jaguar and Lynx and Commodore’s spectacular mismanagement of the Amiga line, they ended up surviving a pretty tumultuous period, with their major competitors as of the late-90s being mostly competitors run by former Apple employees — NeXT and Be. Apple at this time was a little like Yahoo is now: losing money and repeatedly making awful business decisions, but holding on to enough loot from its glory days of decades before to still be an important player to consider, like a senile giant.)

When Jobs came back, he cancelled all ongoing projects and instructed his employees to start working on making a Mac OS emulation layer for NeXTSTeP. He then had a cut down version of their next-generation Mac released, in a colorful case and without a floppy drive. (Releasing a machine in 1998 without a floppy drive was like releasing a machine today that can’t display lower-case letters.) Eventually, we got a fully re-branded NeXTSTeP/BSD hybrid that could run legacy Macintosh applications, in the form of OSX, and a bunch of really bizarre case designs (ranging from something that resembles a modern tablet embedded in a brick of lucite to screens mounted like desk-lamps). (We also got a couple conventional towers, but you have to recognize that in 1997, Macs were all still beige boxes.)

In other words, Jobs’ influence on the Macintosh prior to 1986 was to drop anything resembling an interesting feature (including his famous refusal to include expansion ports on the original Mac) in favor of fancy beveling, and Jobs’ influence on the Macintosh from 1997 to 2000 was primarily to drop important hardware in favor of translucent colored plastic and drop current multi-year development projects in favor of just copying what his last company did.

(We should examine NeXT a bit. NeXT was full of people from the original Macintosh team — Jobs took the best and brightest from the Macintosh and Lisa teams with him when he left. NeXT used an off the shelf UNIX kernel, hired on the inventor of Objective C, and did some interesting technical work by mid-80s standards (we owe many of the strange behaviors and limitations of the modern web browers to the fact that Tim Berners-Lee liked the NeXT UI builder tool), hidden behind a machine that still had a monochrome display at the edge of the 90s. NeXT didn’t have the same resources as Apple did, so development couldn’t be so wasteful; the NeXTCube was a decently solid machine. Still, NeXT boxes were expensive, and the company hobbled along just like Apple did. During this era, Jobs wasn’t continuing his Macintosh habit of taking somebody else’s design, stripping features from it at random, and calling himself a genius for knowing which features to strip; but, when he got back to Apple, he did this with his own NeXT machines.)

Apple’s real success under Jobs, though, was to take existing products on the market, make clones that strip important features at random, and sell the clones for double or triple the cost of the technically-superior originals. In other words, to perform the same operation that turned the Alto into the Macintosh (by way of the Lisa) on the existing MP3 player & smartphone markets.

When Apple runs out of things to copy, it tends to either produce ill-conceived products of its own or start removing features from its own previous generation at random. Jobs didn’t have to be good at removing features: he had sufficient charisma that he could pass off all his mistakes as works of transcendent genius. But Apple is now run by his ghost, and while Apple employees are close enough to the source to have their realities warped, the rest of us have been snapping out from under the spell.

The truth is, removing features is something that has to be done very carefully. Jobs’ charisma masks the fact that nothing he did from 1979 to 1999 was a good business decision and every one of his successes are owed to his ability to persuade strangers to believe plainly false things. Without that shield, Apple can’t last very long with the same rulebook, because none of the rules ever had to make sense before.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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