A Legend in Its Own Mind

Apple (née Apple Computer) has been doing some high priced promotion to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its Macintosh computer. Double page ads with pictures of original and contemporary Macs recently ran on successive days in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and many other vehicles. The commemoration took over Apple’s home page. Apple acolytes can watch an infomercial featuring almost famous-like types, whose lives were made richer, fuller, deeper, and more transcendent when they got a Mac.

The promotion has all the trappings of a major new product launch, but without the new product. Reruns of greatest hits do not equal great marketing. Taking a trip in the Way Back Machine to 1984, was the original trans-luggable Mac such a success that it should be celebrated today?

In 1984, Ronald Regan was in the White House, but computers were not in the houses or offices of most people. Personal computers, even “portables,” were heavy and expensive. They made up for this by doing relatively little. Out of the box they did nothing but show a blinking cursor on dark screen of a CRT monitor. If you wanted apps with that, an extra $500 or so would get you a spreadsheet or a word-processing program. For some hundreds more, you could get a dot-matrix printer to make an ugly printout of an ugly screen. In other words, the bar for a superior product was none too high.

Even compared with this modest baseline, the early Macs were works in progress. Their implementation of graphical computing ideas borrowed from Xerox PARC was slow. Drag the mouse, and wait for the system to catch up. The original Mac was underpowered, overpriced, and not positioned toward a market, which valued its potential enough to pay a premium for it.

Apple had the graphical computing field essentially to itself at least until mid-1990 and the release of Microsoft Windows 3. With the Microsoft two button mouse, Windows became the first viable mass-market graphical computer system. By then the Mac was a more robust product, but could not sell enough in either the home or business markets to avoid losses. The company suffered near death experience in the mid-1990s, when it fired Steve Jobs.

Apple rallied and survived, yet its later dominance was based on its consumer electronics – music players, tablets, and phones – not computers. This is not to say that Apple isn’t doing well in computers. Gartner estimates that Apple achieved a share of 13.7% of US PC shipments, though in a shrinking market.

In its most recent quarter, Apple derived more than five times the revenue from phones as from computers. This shift has been happening for some time such that in 2007, the company formally changed its name from “Apple Computer” to just “Apple.”

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

The contemporary Mac is a good, if rather expensive, computer. I’m writing this post on one. Moreover, Apple’s OS X software is arguably superior in a number of ways, such as less prone to crashes and viruses. Yet this is old news. Over the last, say, half dozen or more years Macs have not improved significantly, though they have gone through a number of cosmetic changes – all in silver, a bit lighter and thinner, and slightly sharper graphics.

Rather than celebrating a thirty year old footnote, Apple might better use its resources to reinforce what they have done for us lately – even if that means actually doing something for us lately.