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27/12/2017

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Feature There has been no shortage of rose-tinted retrospective adulation marking the 30th birthday of the Macintosh over past weeks. Here at El Reg, we’d be the last to deny Apple’s significance and continuing influence on the history of personal computing. But to put everything in perspective, we thought it was worth looking back at some of the occasions when Apple got it wrong.To be fair, some of its failures have been truly glorious. The oft-criticised Power Mac G4 Cube may have been overpriced and underpowered, but it was a marvel of engineering that remains unmatched by most desktop PC designs to this day.But there have also been disasters, many of them entirely self-inflicted. The Antennagate episode from 2010 was the most recent example of this, but there have been many others, such as the rash of failures among early Time Capsule devices that led Apple to simply wash its hands of them as soon as they were out of warranty.Then there’s Apple’s fondness for form over function, which led to the ergonomic disaster of its completely unusable circular hockey puck mouse.So here, in chronological order, are the products and services that Apple almost certainly won’t be celebrating in years to come.

Keen to capitalise on the unprecedented success of the Apple II micro, Apple spent what Steve Jobs described as “incalculable amounts” developing the Apple III in 1980 together with its new Sophisticated Operating System, SOS. But pressure to bring the machine to market too quickly led to woeful design flaws: little things like overheating circuit boards and chips popping out of their sockets.“We designed the Apple II with six guys and it’s about the most-installed computer of all time. We designed the Apple III with a corporation of 1,600 and it still doesn’t work,” Jobs is said to have quipped.A revised model, the Apple III Plus, corrected these faults, but not in time to prevent the machine from becoming Apple’s first high-profile failure.Falling back on the ever-reliable Apple II once more, Apple developed a carry-around model called the IIc in 1984. The c stood for compact, and the slimlime design of the IIc, complete with an integrated keyboard and a carry handle at the back, was an obvious predecessor of the more successful iMac.

Unfortunately, a weight of almost 3.5kg meant that this portable computer stumbled at the first hurdle, never to rise.Released in 1983, the Lisa was in so many ways technically superior to the Mac that eventually succeeded it. The Lisa was the first mass-market personal computer to be based around a graphical-user interface – inspired by research work that Steve Jobs and other Apple execs had seen at Xerox – with mouse and menu interaction. It also included advanced features, such as multi-tasking and memory protection, long before the Mac got them.Reviews at the time acknowledged the Lisa’s technological advances, but a $10,000 price tag mean that sales were dead in the water. The Lisa 2, released in 1984, slashed the price in half, but Apple eventually decided to cut its losses and in 1986 it allowed Lisa owners to trade up to one of those new-fangled Mac thingies for just $1,500.Ahead of its time in conception, if not execution, the Newton MessagePad was the grand project of John Sculley – the man who had ousted Steve Jobs from Apple in 1985.First launched in 1993, the Newton was intended to be a PDA – Personal Digital Assistant – and in that sense it anticipated the modern smartphone and, of course, the iPhone itself. It was supposed to analyse and intelligently interpret your personal information in order to organise your life on your behalf.

Sadly, the Newton’s reach exceeded its grasp by a few light years, and its unreliable handwriting-recognition turned it into a laughing stock. A piss-taking appearance on The Simpsons was the final nail in the coffin, and Steve Jobs had his revenge on Sculley’s toy when he returned to Apple in 1997 and swiftly killed off “that scribble thing”. Copland was all about making the Mac OS modern. In 1987, three years after the launch of the Mac, a band of software engineers decided to update the Mac’s system software. And give it proper memory protection and pre-emptive multi-tasking into the bargain.They started writing Pink, an object-oriented OS with the Mac’s familiar UI on top and solid computing foundations beneath. Pink was soon sidetracked by Apple’s 1989 deal with IBM, one result of which was an independent OS called Taligent. This was Pink by another name but, separated from Apple, it went nowhere.

In 1993, Apple, under new management, had another go: a project was established to build a ground-up OS with the established Mac UI as a friendly front-end. It would, they hoped, drive Apple way ahead of the competition, then the upcoming Windows 95. They called it Raptor. One smart move was to base it on a microkernel, allowing the engineers to focus on the essential plumbing, wiring and steel framework, and then build the fancy glass exterior around it.Management procrastination killed Raptor by riling the team leaders so much that they quit. But the same bosses soon decided that they really did need a microkernel-based OS after all, and told a second team of engineers to go and build it. Work began on Copland early in 1994. Three months later it was announced to the public and, in May 1995, it was scheduled to be released the following year as Mac OS 8.The fact Mac folks are all using the NeXT-derived Mac OS X tells you exactly how good the Copland team were at meeting that deadline.

Within nine months of starting work, the Copland team had bloated out of all recognition. The idea behind Raptor had been to build the kernel and then steadily add features. Apple could ship and then evolve the product. Copland started out the same way, but quickly became mired in an attempt to do everything all at once. It started out with four people and less than a year later had hundreds working on it, 50 on the kernel alone.There were demos, but apart from new Mac UI support for customisable themes and a multi-threaded Finde, Copland seemed largely indistinguishable from System 7. When the Copland team failed to deliver public beta software in May 1996 as promised, CEO Gil Amelio realised the company needed an alternative.Whether he should have bought Be’s BeOS or NeXT’s OpenStep is a question that will continue to be debated among Mac fans, but few of them would say he should have stuck with Copland. Whatever the OS’ technical merits, if any, the next Mac OS needed a new face, not the old one. It needed something to make explicit Apple’s claim that this was new, modern technology. Amelio got that, but he wouldn’t have if he’d kept Copland. Arguably, there’d be no Apple now, either. TS

Apple had the right idea with eWorld: set up its own, consumer-oriented online community to rival pioneers such as AOL and CompuServe back in the early, pre-Internet 1990s. It was a brighter, more friendly and more cartoon-like alternative to AppleLink, Apple’s existing online service for folk in the trade. And if you wanted to chat online with fellow Mac users it was actually a pretty good place to be.However, high subscription fees and the Mac-only entrance policy meant that subscriber numbers never really took off, and eWorld closed its doors just two years later.It did, however, set up a pattern. Apple has struggled with its online offerings ever since. Mac OS 9’s iTools - “a revolutionary new category of internet services”, said Apple in 2000 - started out free and then, when times got tough, had a subscription fee grafted on. The service mutated into .Mac and, later, Mobile Me, but these brands too eventually fell by the wayside.

Even Apple’s latest attempt, iCloud, faltered at first, although last year’s release of iOS 7 finally saw it maturing into something that’s actually quite useful, though still not as resilient as it ought to be given Apple has had at least 20 years of experience with consumer online services. Apple has never really, truly embraced gaming, but there was a brief period when (equally brief) Apple CEO Gil Amelio flirted with the gaming world in an attempt to extend Apple’s reach beyond the Mac and into the living room. The Mac got a vaguely DirectX-style API out of it, called Game Sprockets, but better known is the hardware developed in partnership with the Japanese company Bandai, the Pippin games console.This actually had a lot going for it and included a modem and internet connectivity as early as 1995. One of your reporters remembers playing Bungie’s first-person shooter, Marathon, on the console.But, like so many of Apple’s belly flops, the Pippin was wildly overpriced. It cost $600 and was simply ignored by gamers who flocked to the less expensive PlayStation. It didn’t help that the Mac - Pippin’s source; the console was essentially a 66MHz PowerPC 603-based Macintosh - was not known for a extensive catalogue of A-list games.When Amelio was shafted replaced by Steve Jobs in 1997, Apple went back to ignoring gaming again – until, purely by chance, it turned out that the iPhone was quite good for playing games.

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