Published in ComputorEdge
Five years ago, in early 1997, things were looking really bad for Apple and for Macintosh computers. That year, the company lost hundreds of milllions of dollars and Apple nay-sayers everywhere saw a company in its death throes. People I encountered in my daily life as a techie always asked me when Apple would go under.
What I tried to show them was a company that had already taken a major step along the road to its recovery. While 1997 wasn’t a year any Mac friend wants to repeat, it was the “getting worse before it gets better” part of a comeback story. For those who, like me, had done tech support for Macs since the early 1990s, there was a bit of faith and a lot of hope.
We only had to wait a year for something to point to. In 1998, the iMac was the best-selling computer in the world for four months, helping the company post four profitable quarters for the first time ever.
In an industry where corporate turnarounds had previously taken years, even decades, Apple moved quickly and decisively. The company retreated from an overextended development and marketing position, back to its core product line, and further solidified its technology. Then Apple took the battle to the PCs, offering for actual purchase processor speeds and device communications the Wintel world had been promising for years.
In1997, Apple enthusiasts saw several major housecleaning steps that paved the way for the company’s return. The new G3 chip was the catalyst. It startled everyone—including Apple—with its speed superiority over the Pentium II and Pentium MMX chips, released earlier that year.
Mac loyalists were thrilled. No longer were Mac-vs.-PC discussions limited to interface. We could brag that Mac processors handily outdid Pentium-series chips in computing speed tests, even as clock speeds remained very close.
And then Apple leveraged U.S. Justice Department action against Microsoft, scoring $150 million from Bill Gates to make sure Apple didn’t fail and leave Microsoft as an undisputed monopoly. Also part of the deal was a guarantee that Microsoft Office would be available for the Mac, ensuring easier file exchange between platforms.
Further simplification was in the air at Apple. In early 1998, the company cut its product lines, reducing the confusing array of printers, monitors and CPUs to a reasonable level. That move eliminated long explanations to budgetary bean-counters (all using PCs) when you were trying to outfit a lab.
With the release of the iMac in mid-1998, Apple again stepped far ahead of its Wintel competition with a three-prong, one-box attack. The iMac left behind the slow, low-capacity floppy-disk drive. It added Universal Serial Bus (USB) connectivity, with true plug-and-play, features PC makers had been talking about for years.
And the iMac declared the maturity of the computer as a product, by changing its color. Before a product reaches maturity, what it is matters far more than its appearance. But when iMacs were unveiled, with a new form factor and bright colors, computers became items to display in a home, rather than conceal in a drawer or under a desk. Buying peripherals was no longer just a question of finding the right speed for a CD writer. Now you had to match it to your computer, and even your curtains.
Apple’s 15th anniversary year, 1999, kept the upswing going, with the new PowerMac G3 desktop bringing internal design elegance into line with the sleekness of the exterior. The PowerMac G4 and September’s iBook launch made sure the world knew the Mac was growing and changing at the speed of its competition.
Apple also remained true to its art and media loyalists. With FireWire on the desktop, consumers had access to digital moviemaking. New software, iTunes, iPhoto, and iMovie, and now iDVD, made manipulating digital media simple for the first time ever. But these offerings were also becoming more desirable for basic-level consumers, who suddenly had MP3 files and digital still and video cameras to play with. No PC let folks do their own video editing, or make sound-synchronized slide shows as easily as a middle-schooler could do it on a Mac.
And the company kept moving. In 2001, MacOS X finally came out, promising increased stability and the possibility for the MacOS to run on Intel architecture. Mac folks liked the idea that Apple was again expanding its appeal to wider audiences, using existing standards. As wireless networking took off, Airport led the way, allowing schools and small businesses to save money on cabling.
The company has continued to innovate, making everyone curious with its new iMac design, a small dome and 15-inch flat-panel monitor on a movable arm. The reviews are good, indicating that an 800 MHz G4 processor and 40-gig hard drive with a CD burner, 128 megs of RAM and three USB and two FireWire ports just might be good enough for the next little while.
What next? Only Apple knows, and if the pattern continues, they’ll even surprise themselves.
Jeff Inglis is a Mac user and freelance journalist who runs a Microsoft-free computer. He has worked around the U.S., New Zealand and Antarctica. He is now based in Portland, Maine, where he works and hangs out with friendly people and dogs.