A brief retrospective on failures

Tech Life

Reading the Feeds the other day I stumbled upon an article by Mr Bryan Gardiner on Wired’s Gadgets/Mac section, called Learning From Failure: Apple’s Most Notorious Flops. The short, eight-part piece was written on January 24, on the occasion of the Macintosh’s 24th birthday, and wants to be a brief examination of eight of the supposedly most unsuccessful Apple products. These are the Newton, Pippin, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, the Macintosh TV (essentially a black LC 520/Performa 520), the PowerMac G4 Cube, the Apple IIc, the round mouse (the one which made its debut with the first iMac G3) and the Apple Lisa.

There are many parameters with which we can judge a product’s success. The most obvious is the purely commercial one. How much did the product sell during his life-cycle? If the number of units sold has been ludicrously low, to even lead to a premature discontinuance of the product itself, then we can undoubtedly call it a commercial flop. Looking again at the list of Apple flops drawn by Mr Gardiner’s piece, it is obvious that the ‘failure parameter’ is not always the same, yet in the brief introduction the common denominator of all these failures is clearly outlined:

[They are products] that just didn’t live up to consumer expectations and market demands.

But the round mouse – being bundled with G3 iMacs and Powermacs – actually sold a lot. And what led to the Newton platform termination wasn’t exactly its poor sales, strictly speaking. And the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh is a unique case. More about this later.

My question is: were those 8 products real, all-round failures? I wouldn’t be hundred-percent sure. At least four of them have reached the cult status: the Newton, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, the Cube and the Lisa. The Newton was misunderstood and consequently thwarted by the press (technical and not) especially in regard to the Newton’s handwriting recognition capabilities. Admittedly the first Newton models were not that good at it. But the MessagePad 2000, 2100 and eMate were very much improved models with a better handwriting recognition. A technology, I must stress, still unseen and unparalleled in the PDA market. There simply isn’t another PDA on which you can write with a stylus in a natural, paper-notebook way, and which recognises your handwriting (or leaves it as it is) that well. Sure, it makes errors, but with your help it can learn. Other proofs of the Newton’s non-failure are the incredible quantity of software produced for it and the fact that, 10 years after its termination, there still is an active, thriving community of Newton users. Even today the Newton attracts interest, and judging by the number of new users appearing on NewtonTalk and speaking enthusiastically about it, I’ll ask my question again: was it really a failure?

The Pippin shows up regularly when outlining such lists of failed Apple products. Nothing much to add here, except perhaps that it’s a little unfair to mark as failure something that was never branded as an Apple product. At Apple they must have sensed Pippin’s ill fate, that’s why they licensed the technology. I still think it had the best controller design (you can see a good picture of Pippin’s AppleJack controller in this Low End Mac article).

Earlier I said that the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh was a unique case. I think it’s incorrect to analyse this particular product through a commercial or a consumer’s expectation perspective. Mr Gardiner writes:

Unfortunately, the computer featured a lackluster array of internal components and offered nothing new in terms of technology. Some also considered the computer to be overpriced and underpowered. The lesson for Apple? Slick design alone doesn’t sell computers.

The fact is that the TAM’s raison d’être was neither to offer something new in terms of technology, nor to sell a lot. It was a unique designed computer made to celebrate Apple. It’s like a special edition of other products like cars or cameras, which usually do not add anything either in features or in technology, are manufactured in limited quantities and on top of that are unbelievably expensive. For instance, some Nikon or Leica film cameras have special edition or anniversary models that come in a gold finish, are a limited, numbered series and cost a fortune. The TAM is no different: roughly 11,100 units were made before Apple broke the molds, and the initial price was $10,000. These figures speak alone: quite clearly, it wasn’t a Mac made to sell.

About the Apple IIc, I have insufficient data to claim it was not a complete failure. One of the most informative online sources seems to be Steven Weyhrich’s Apple IIc history page at the Apple II history Web site. Apparently, the Apple IIc suffered the same pricing problem of the Lisa and the first Macintosh: the then-high costs of all the technology packed into these machines forced Apple to put out quite steep price tags. Quoting the aforementioned Apple IIc page:

[Apple’s] original goal had been to sell the IIc for $995. As productions costs turned out, they found that they couldn’t hit that price, so they came up with $1,295, balancing the decision with the number of people who were predicted to buy the optional Monitor IIc or an external Disk IIc drive.

The only problem was that although the IIc was a technological breakthrough in miniaturization, customers at that time didn’t value smallness. They viewed something that was too small as also being cheap and lacking power. Although The Apple IIc was equivalent to a IIe loaded with extra memory, a disk drive, two serial cards, and a mouse card, most customers seemed to want the more expandable IIe. Apple marketing went to much effort to make the IIc attractive, but it didn’t sell as well as the IIe.

The second paragraph contains, in a nutshell, the reason why the Apple IIc didn’t sell very well, although I would like to emphasise the very last words: it didn’t sell as well as the IIe, which was a huge success. It’s like saying that the iMac G4 was a failure because it didn’t sell as well as the colourful iMac G3. From the same Apple IIc history page we also learn that the Apple IIc remained in production from April 1984 to August 1988. Not that bad and surely better than other, much more short-lived, Apple products (Apple III, anyone?).

There is no denying that the ill (some say undeserved) fate of the PowerMac G4 Cube has to be ascribed to its high price. And I believe it was only a matter of price. The proof that its form factor was a winner lies in its subsequent incarnation, the Mac mini. The Mac mini’s performance/price ratio is quite the opposite of the Cube’s, which was rather powerful for its time (8 years ago), but not that much to justify its pricing. I bet that if Apple had maintained a lower profile for the Cube, it would still be selling it (can you imagine – a Mac Pro Cube with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor? Tasty).

Similarly, it’s undeniable that the awfully steep entry price of the Lisa ($9,995 in 1983) did not grant a very long life to this fabulous machine, which was the first to have a graphical user interface with the desktop metaphor we are all now accustomed to see. It’s a real pity, because the Lisa had great potential.

And now, the infamous round mouse or ‘hockey puck’ mouse, as all the tech world seems to call it. I don’t quite understand the general bashing (perhaps it’s nicknamed ‘hockey puck’ not for its shape, but after all the bashing). Perhaps it’s just me and my slim, long-fingered hands, but I’ve been using one for 9 years without a problem. It has to be handled slightly differently than a more elongated mouse (like the Apple Pro Optical Mouse or the Mighty Mouse, for example), and you can’t expect to be resting your hand on it. The way I hold it (putting my thumb and little finger at either side of it and using the forefinger and the middle finger to press the button) has made it the most comfortable mouse I’ve ever had, believe it or not. Before using that mouse I frequently ended my day with an aching wrist – that issue disappeared after using the rounded mouse. In conclusion, I don’t know and I can’t say whether the round mouse has been a huge fiasco or not. On a strictly personal level, it has not. That’s why I thought I’d mention my positive experience with that mouse – a voice out of the bashing chorus.

On a closing note, Apple has surely made some mistakes in its 30-year history, and some of its products have been total disasters. Mr Gardiner’s choice is questionable, in my opinion, especially in regard to the Newton, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, and perhaps the Apple IIc. I tend to be more in agreement with Low End Mac’s Second Class Macs choice (see “The 12 Worst Macs” on the right of that page).

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