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Apple Fools: Times the House of Jobs went horribly awry

Plenty of bumps in the 40-year road for Mac makers

By Shaun Nichols, 1 Apr 2016

Apple at 40 Today marks the 40th anniversary of Apple's official establishment. Since 1976, the House that Steves Built has pushed out some of the most beloved personal electronics products in the world.

There will no doubt be plenty of articles waxing poetic on the many successes that have dotted the last four decades for the Cupertino giant.

This is not one of them.

Instead, we look back on some of the occasions when Apple looked the fool, either by releasing a clunker of a new product, botching a release, or simply being the victim of bad luck.

To keep things fresh, we omitted the screw-ups mentioned in our 2014 Macintosh anniversary tribute. Fortunately, when you've had a history like Apple's, there's still plenty to choose from (and one bonus instance where Apple doesn't at all look the fool). Let's start with...

Firing Steve Jobs

Perhaps at no time in Apple's history did it look any dumber than that fateful night in 1985 when Apple's board of directors decided it had had enough and stripped Steve Jobs of his power at the company, effectively pushing the Apple cofounder out the door.

Steve Jobs

Jobs was a moody tyrant. Glad he outgrew that.

To be fair, it's not hard to see their thinking at the time. Jobs was notoriously difficult to work with, and he was pushing to have the not-yet-a-hit Macintosh business pushed over the still-reliable Apple II business.

But, looking back, we can see why this was such a poor move. Since that exit, Jobs maintained his reputation, but also made clear that his at-times testing leadership style was very much worth it. After he left, Apple began a decline that nearly killed it, and when he returned, the company began the rise to what it is today. A lot of that credit should go to the army of talented designers and engineers, but Jobs was undeniably a driving force.

So what was the dunder-headed move that would come close to firing Jobs? How about...

Nearly not hiring Steve Jobs back

Fast forward to the mid-1990s, when years of poor decisions (we'll get to those in a moment) have left Apple in desperate need of a new operating system to help get the Mac into the 21st century.

Ultimately, Apple would acquire NeXT, bring back Steve Jobs, and go on to revive itself with the iMac and OS X. But not before considering a different road that would have undoubtedly led to a very different history. Also in the running for Apple's buyout bucks was BeInc.

Also founded by a former Apple exec, Be's BeOS was at the time a very sleek and advanced operating system of its own. Ultimately, Steve Jobs was able to make a stronger case than Be's Jean-Louis Gassee, averting a probable disaster, as even Gassee himself admits.

That Apple's execs at the time let it get that far is silly enough, but what's even more harrowing are the reports that, prior to looking at either NeXT or Be, Gil Amelio considered moving the Mac over to Solaris or even...*gulp*...Windows NT.

And that whole situation was set up because of...

Getting passed by Microsoft and Windows

The early versions of Windows were not exactly threats to the MacOS when it came to cosmetics and function. As with many of its hits, Redmond didn't get a home run the first time around, but persisted until they got it right. In the case of Windows, this started with Windows 3.1 in the early 1990s and continued with Windows 95.

The Start menu in Windows 95

All it took was 10 years and billions of dollars

While Microsoft was refining its GUI-based OS into a decent environment, Apple was letting itself crack under mismanagement and a pair of crucial missteps in their development roadmap.

The first of these was "Pink", the late-1980s effort to revitalize the MacOS with a number of important features that would have kept the Macintosh Operating System up to snuff with a microkernel-based OS that was to be the basis of the new PowerPC hardware platform.

The development never came about, and a few years later another Apple misstep would lead to the disastrous Copland project. Another attempt to refashion MacOS into a more modern platform capable of getting out way ahead of Windows again, Copland failed and Amelio was forced to look elsewhere, luckily to Steve Jobs, who thanked the management team by ousting most of them.

Around that same time, we had...

The ill-fated PowerPC

It's hard to say that a brand that endured for more than a decade was foolish, but in Apple's case the PowerPC just wasn't a great deal. Developed in a joint venture with IBM and Motorola, the PowerPC was the trio's answer to the Wintel menace that arose in the 1990s.

The IBM PowerPC 601

The 'IBM' logo was the first sign it would go poorly

The PowerPC itself compared well to Intel for much of its life, but as the only desktop platform really using the CPUs in desktops and notebooks, Apple was at a disadvantage. When the company rebranded in the early 2000s, Apple decided it had been stubborn long enough, and did the sensible thing by moving over to Intel processors.

Don't feel too bad for the PowerPC, however. It has enjoyed a fine life post-Apple as its descendants would be used for both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, as well as IBM's Power server line.

Before the switch to Intel, though, Apple would make a less successful foray into the PC world when it inexplicably shoved...

PC parts in a Mac

No, we're not talking about the DOS-boot cards in the early Power Mac and Performa models (though that probably wasn't the best idea either). We're referring to the design abomination that was the Power Mac 4400.

If you had to pick a metaphor for what was wrong with Apple in those days, you could not do worse than this half-hearted attempt to match the horde of PC vendors who were shifting Windows machines hand-over-fist in those days.

Apple did this by trying to shove a Mac into a PC-like enclosure and other bare-bones hardware options, along with a specially-modified motherboard that had a non-upgradeable CPU (remember when people used to upgrade the CPU on their Macs? How quaint).

PowerMac 7220

Even the floppy drive was on the wrong side

The result was a machine that managed to combine everything people disliked about both the Mac and PC machines of that era. Not surprisingly, Apple found itself on the brink of financial ruin about that time.

The ill-fated Performa/PowerMac arrangement that nearly drove Apple to financial ruin was also aided by the decision to allow...

Mac Clones

You can see why Apple thought this would work. Microsoft was making a fortune by licensing its OS, and the flood of vendors to the market helped expand the Windows ecosystem and make everyone tons of money. Why couldn't this work for Apple?

The Mac clone program allowed a handful of partners, including Motorola, Power Computing and Radius to build their own boxes, then pay Apple a royalty to use its ROM and the MacOS. The clones were, by and large, decent machines and some were arguably better than Apple's own offerings at the time.

They were also, however, a terrible business decision for Apple. They didn't do much to expand the market share of the MacOS, so rather than help to capture ground from Windows, the clones only served to take more hardware sales away from Apple and force it to compete within its own market.

The clones were among many projects to get the axe when Steve Jobs regained control of the company, but first Jobs had to swallow his pride by...

Putting Bill Gates on the big screen

In hindsight, this was the deal that helped to save Apple and bring about its rebirth, but at the time, the sight of Gates lording over Steve Jobs and a room full of Macworld attendees was taken as a clear sign that the Mac vs PC war was over, and Microsoft had won.

Youtube Video

Steve Jobs was keenly aware of this too, as upon hearing the horrified/enraged reaction from the crowd, he uncharacteristically lost his cool on stage and laid into the audience about showing "respect" for the company Apple had been at war with for more than a decade.

Apple and Jobs would soon turn things around and once again be in position to tweak Microsoft every chance they got. But even in the midst of that stunning turnaround, there were mistakes like the...

Hockey puck mouse

Just thinking about it makes your wrists hurt, doesn't it? Apple's super-stylish iMacs were, by design, minimalist when it came to their peripherals, and Jony Ive's big splash included a rather regrettable one-button disc that helped shore up the bottom line of many third-party peripheral makers.


What. The. Puck?

Supposedly the hockey puck mouse wasn't so uncomfortable if you held it right, palming the mouse rather than holding it like a "claw" with your fingertips. Few of us actually bothered to do that however, grimacing through the first few days of use and then heading off to the store to get a more hand-friendly mouse.

Wrist-wrenching peripherals or not, Apple was on its way back, and the iMac would soon be equipped with MacOS X, the PowerBook, and a fresh crop of Intel-powered machines that would propel the company into a second golden age.

Apple would also establish itself as an entertainment powerhouse with the twin forces of the iPod and iTunes. Even those brands, however, were not immune to slip-ups.

iTunes Ping

The year was 2010 and Apple could do no wrong. The iPhone was huge, the Mac was setting record sales numbers, and iTunes was dominating music sales. There was only one area left for Apple to take over: social networking.

Enter Ping. The social network Apple shoe-horned into iTunes was pitched as a way to share music with all your friends as well as discover new artists.

Ping is dead, iTunes notice, credit screengrab iTunes

And nobody was sad.

Unfortunately for Apple, there were already dozens of other services that did the same thing, and pretty much all of them did it in a much better way than iTunes. Ping wasn't really a ghost town, as that term implies a place that once had inhabitants. It was a like a shiny business park that nobody ever bothered to lease out.

After two years of pretending that Ping wasn't a complete failure, Apple finally gave up on its social networking ambitions and killed off the service. It was embarrassing, but it did little to stop Apple.

So we now approach the present day. Sadly, Steve Jobs died in 2011, leaving the company to Tim Cook and a new generation of execs. Apple is one of the biggest brands in the world, and is still churning out record financial numbers on a regular basis.

That doesn't mean they can't still fall flat on their faces though; for example, how about the time...

iOS 8.0.1 died in two hours

Here at The Register we know all too well that feeling of putting something out for the whole world to see, only to realize it has a glaring error that everyone immediately spots. It happens to the best of us.

Fortunately, our mistakes never resulted in millions of phones breaking at the same time. The same can't be said for iOS 8.0.1.

Sad iPhone

Unfortunately they didn't make a crashing sound

The 2014 iPhone update contained a bug that resulted in iPhones having the cellular connections on their phones disabled, leaving them unable to make calls or connect to LTE data networks. Apple killed the update in about 90 minutes. Making matters worse, the update came just days after the iPhone 6 was released, leaving many who had just spent hundreds of dollars on a new phone suddenly unable to use most of its features.

So there you have it, 40 years of Apple goofs. Happy birthday to that lumbering tech giant down in Cupertino, and just to show that El Reg doesn't always have it in for you, let us offer up what we think is...

The Apple 'mistake' that everyone gets wrong

Yes, after so many pages of taking the mick out of Apple, we wanted to point out that one of its worst "gaffes" was actually a very shrewd move that turned into one of the great investments of all time. Behold...

Apple Newton MessagePad


Yes, the much-maligned Apple PDA is occasionally acknowledged as being ahead of its time, and while it is true that the hand-held sported a number of features that we rely on for smartphones and tablets today, its real benefit to Apple was the silicon that went inside it.

You see, when Apple engineers were designing the Newton, they knew that they needed a CPU that had plenty of muscle, but a much lower power consumption than the desktop processors of the day. So they sent out the call for designs on a low-power RISC processor.

It came down to two possible chips, one built by AT&T and another built by UK company Acorn. Apple decided that AT&T's option was too costly, and instead they shelled out $2.5m to work with Acorn on their design. The result was a startup named Advanced RISC Machines, or ARM for short.

Do you see where this is going?

The Newton was a flop, but ARM would go on to be, well, ARM. When the chipmaker held its IPO in 1997, Apple netted an estimated $800m. That was enough to more than cover the entire cost of the Newton project, according to former Apple engineer Larry Tesler.

So, the next time you want to have a laugh at Newton's expense, be sure to also thank it for the chip powering your smartphone. He may not have been a hero, but he was nobody's fool. ®

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