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Good Apples: Cupertino's failures that weren't
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Sep 3, 2015, 02:00 PM
Microsoft gets a lot of attention, praise and applause when it pre-announces products it's going to release one day and that somehow represent a golden future of the technology industry. Apple goes the other way and gets the opposite reaction: it prefers to announce products that actually are the future of the industry but you can buy them now. Maybe it's just that they casually drop in the words "available today" a little bit too smugly but for whatever reason you can put money on any Apple product being mocked, derided and decried at launch time. Later? Not so much.

Sometimes it's even fair: we've looked at Apple's worst failures before. Only, the very most mocked products turn out to be the little failures that could. They turn out to be the failures that weren't. They were the products that would at least fail and in many cases were fully expected to sink Apple. Instead, you've heard of every single one of them and you probably own a few.

Apple Macintosh
It's the toy that no business would ever buy and anyway it's underpowered. That much was true, the original Mac was a pain to work on but it was still better than DOS. Plus look at it this way: in 2015 sales of PCs continue to drop like bricks in a river and the only desktop computer doing well is the Mac. It is the sole success. The only one. Or look at it this way: the Mac came out in one of the most gigantically competitive times in the entire history of the computer industry and every single competitor from then has died away. Apple is the last one standing.

Things were different in the 1990s when Apple was an inch away from death and it turned itself around with the original iMac. That was so successful in the end that it not only saved the company but somehow people put up with its hockey puck mouse. Still, when it came out, Microsoft's Bill Gates put his brilliant analytical mind to it and concluded: "The one thing Apple's providing now is leadership in colors. It won't take long for us to catch up with that, I don't think."

Now, Microsoft is a competitor and it takes a lot of nerve for any competitor to say something nice about a rival's products: they've got shareholders ready to pounce if they ever did. So it's unfair to chide Gates but he could've been a bit more classy about it.

The iPod
It cost a fortune and it didn't work with Windows. Pah. Not a chance. For once the naysayers do have a good point: after all, look around an Apple Store today and can you find an iPod? They're somewhere at the back, you can miss them. Then how many people actually have iPods?

One of our staffers, who wasn't at the time but was still well-vested in Apple, saw the iPod release and said "why would anybody buy one of these." Then he did. Then, very quickly, he couldn't live without it.

They then said it would never catch on and now, hardly anyone is buying them. The naysayers were correct, to a certain point of view.

Yes, about that iPod. It was destroyed by the iPhone which is the device Microsoft's Steve Ballmer mocked. The same thing about praising your competitors applies here and always will but Ballmer does make Gates look classy:

"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It's a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I'd prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get." Steve Ballmer in USA Today, 2007.

Yes, you know this and you know where we're going with it: Apple announces iPad, it's going to be flop but, whoops, it doesn't. Only, when an Apple product has been proclaimed a failure and then manages to sell a measly few hundred million you get people segueing over into the yeah-but stage. It's the tablet that made tablets a success: it's the table that made anyone ever hear of a tablet, even though Bill Gates and Microsoft launched the then-thick form factor nearly a decade prior. Yeah, but nobody's buying iPads now, are they?

Latest figures say that Apple's iPad sales are 18 percent lower in the June quarter of this year compared to last and that this means they sold about 10.9 million of them. It's slacking off and rivals are saying it's dead, Apple is saying people will upgrade later. We don't know who's right and we can't find sales figures for rival tablets. We can find plenty of reports of how many tablets different companies have made and sent to stores but if they'd actually sold all of those we'd have several each ourselves. Statistics don't lie.

Apple Stores
Often the criticism of Apple and the analysis of precisely why it is going to fail is based on research. "Problem is, the numbers don't add up," said Bloomberg Business about the then forthcoming Apple Stores. Quoting researcher David A Goldstein they reckoned Apple would have to sell $12 million of Macs per store every year and it simply wasn't going to happen. "I give them two years before they're turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake," said Goldstein.

We've shown you the familiar quotes from Microsoft dissing its rival but when the Stores were launched, Apple's own ex-Chief Financial Officer winced: "Apple's problem is it still believes the way to grow is serving caviar in a world that seems pretty content with cheese and crackers," said Joseph Graziano. It's easy to mock someone who was both wide of the mark in his analysis and also presided over Apple's money in years leading up to its near-death, so let's.

We're going to give up trying to justify Microsoft dissing Apple as a necessary reaction from a rival under pressure. For sometimes, such as with Siri, you have to conclude that they believe the junk they're saying. Watch Craig Mundle, Microsoft chief researcher in 2011, totally fail to comprehend that Microsoft didn't invent Siri. Of course he pooh-poohs it but he also says that Microsoft has had Siri features for a year or more. "We could probably learn something [from Apple] on the marketing side," he says.

Commentator and ex-Apple guy Jean Louis Gasse tweeted about this. "Microsoft Research Chief: We had (something like) Siri before Apple. If true: We're imbeciles If false: We're imbeciles."

One Less Thing
We started looking into this with the idea that there were some Apple hits that began as clear failures but it seems as if every Apple product has gone that route. Maybe some both start in expectation of failure and in confirmation of it but everything starts off badly. Sometimes we get things that are genuine, full-blown misses but Apple stubbornly keeps on going. We're thinking iTools here. The original Apple cloud service that begat .Mac that begat MobileMe that begat iCloud. None of those first few were successes and plenty of people have trouble with iCloud today but compared to the original iTools, the latest version is rather extraordinarily successful.

Yet iCloud is one big service, the Mac is one machine, the iPad, the iPhone and iPad are each one device. One specific product. Apple's also taken heat for changing just parts of a product. Most keenly, it got hell for dropping the floppy disk drive. That was in 1998 and if Apple commented about it, it was just to say that was the way the future was going. They were right: in 2011 Sony formally announced the end of the floppy disk. Sony invented it, but Apple both launched and buried it: after the iMac, it was like watching dominos fall very quickly as PC manufacturers ditched it too.

Similarly -- practically identically -- Apple was the first to drop the CD/DVD drive and it did so with the iMac in 2012. We're still in the penumbra of that decision as it is possible to get PCs with DVD drives but it's harder than it was. All the signs point to Apple having again made the right call and again been ahead of the curve.

It doesn't mean that they are always right, it doesn't mean they always will be, but it's a hell of a track record and it is more than enough to make us pause before concluding something is a flop. For some reason you can't say that about most of the technology industry which is even today saying Apple Music is a flop, the Apple Watch is stillborn and the new MacBook has no chance of success because it's thrown out essential ports.

-William Gallagher (@WGallagher)
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Sep 4, 2015, 10:18 AM
Not shipping the computers with Flash could possibly be in here as well
Spheric Harlot
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Sep 4, 2015, 11:10 AM
The optical drive was first dropped with the MacBook Air, shipped in 2008.
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Sep 4, 2015, 02:08 PM
Total niggling speck of a comment: Apple certainly sold the first consumer machine with a 3.50 inch floppy, but the HP150 also had a 3.5 inch drive.... in 1983.
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Sep 4, 2015, 02:41 PM
I agree on the iPod. Once I got one, I was sorry I waited so long. I disagree with the final conclusion. Fortunately, I got one of the last 160GB HD models, since I need that one for 140 iTunes library. The more expensive digital iPods cost too much and aren't that large.

As for the DVD drive, totally disagree. I still use the external on the newest Mac Pro models and the Air models...
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