29 Oct 2010 Alternate Timeline History
 |  Category: General

Warning: The following story contains elements of fiction and wishful thinking about a past that never happened. Those who are bothered by speculative fiction are cautioned to stop reading now.

In the past two posts I have taken a look at the major competitors for the Apple II in the years 1977 to 1982 and beyond, reviewing their strengths and weaknesses and contrasting them with what the Apple II had to offer.

In the broad spectrum of Apple’s history, the company sold the Apple II and II Plus pretty much “as is” for five years with only slight improvements (Applesoft in ROM, the Autostart ROM, slight evolution in DOS from 3.1 to 3.3, and appropriate peripherals), while in the background the company was using the income from their flagship product to pay for the research and development of the Apple III (released 1980), the Lisa (released 1983), and then Macintosh (released 1984).

The reasons for that further R&D was to come up with a blockbuster product to take the place of the Apple II and to successfully compete against the coming entry of IBM into the personal computer arena. Reasons for later R&D was to create advanced computers based on the research from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC); Apple had been given permission from the Xerox to create products based on that research.

While Apple was struggling to create its vision of the future, the lowly Apple II was its major source of income and supported the company, despite the company’s missteps on the path to the world we have today. What happened was:

  • Apple did not have a strong product to compete with the IBM PC when it appeared in 1981
  • IBM made the fateful decision to give Microsoft freedom to sell its disk operating system to companies other than IBM
  • Companies who managed to create a modified BIOS to interface with MS-DOS made it possible to build computers that ran the same software designed to work on the IBM PC
  • Microsoft’s power and influence rose, while IBM’s dropped
  • Apple’s decision to license some aspects of the Macintosh user interface resulted in the first release of Microsoft Windows
  • The Macintosh, while delivering a more technically advanced product than its competitors running on the Intel microprocessor, did not do so in a competitive way

The result is, of course, the reality of the present. By the middle of the 1990s Microsoft Windows had virtually captured the market, with the Macintosh marginalized to a small percentage of the total.

The past is the past; it is immutable. But …

  • What if Apple had made different decisions as to how to advance their business after the release of the original Apple II and II Plus?
  • What if the Apple II line had been allowed to evolve in the same way as the Macintosh line has been evolving over the past ten years?
  • What would the computing landscape look like today?

Back To The Future?

In stories that use alternate history as a plot device, there is usually a change in one key decision that causes a different outcome. For example: History tells us that Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard, John Parker, left Ford’s theater during intermission to have a drink next door in a saloon. That gap in protection made it possible for John Wilkes Booth to get close enough to Lincoln to fatally wound him. If Parker had made the decision to NOT leave his post at that critical point in time, events of history would have happened quite differently.

In the same sense, different decisions at Apple could have resulted in a very different history from what we have today. It would have been far more complex than the single yes/no decision faced by John Parker in my Lincoln example, but hindsight gives a clearer picture of how things could have gone, and the right decisions made at critical junctures would have made a tremendous difference in the outcome of computing history in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Look at how Apple’s product strategy has worked in the years since Steve Jobs returned to the company. The company has a stable line of products that have changed primarily through offering gradual advances in processor speeds, memory capacity, storage, graphics, expansion options, and of course the Mac OS X system software. These advances have come at times with leaps from one type of technology to another, such as the change from the PowerPC processor to Intel processors, or a discontinuation of an older and less capable technology, such as the discontinuation of the 3.5 inch floppy drive.

If this strategy had been followed in Apple’s history from the start of the company forward, let’s consider how things could have been done differently. To facilitate the discussion that follows, the alternate reality world I am going to create will be called “A2World”; the actual world in which we live will be identified as “RealWorld”.  In A2World, I will get to be the one directing design, marketing, and sales decisions (it’s my game, I get to make the rules). So with that in mind…

In A World…

Development of what was called the Apple III in RealWorld began by 1978. (I would suggest reading this profile of the Apple III, which gives a superb overview of the features of the Apple III as it actually appeared in RealWorld. Also, take a look at the Apple III FAQ by Washington Apple Pi.) Instead of making a new computer that was designed to be a departure from the Apple II and its hardware and software, this new computer in A2World would take a more evolutionary approach. It would not be “designed by committee” or directed primarily by marketing ideas, but would take those ideas and create a machine that incorporated those advances, would be reliable (not rushed out the door before adequate tesing could take place), and would be more affordable.

In A2World, it was decided to name this new computer the “Apple II Pro”. To fit with this choice of name, the operating system (with its advanced block device drivers and character device drivers) would be called ProDOS (not the same as the ProDOS in RealWorld). This version of ProDOS was virtually indentical to SOS 1.0 as it appeared in RealWorld, with the exception of including a suite of file transfer utilities that would allow copying of data files between ProDOS and DOS 3.3 disks. Because of the changes in the operating system, some of the same restrictions would apply to usability of the files that were transferred, just as there were limitations with file transfer between ProDOS and DOS 3.3 in RealWorld.

To make sure that adequate new applications were available for the new Apple II Pro under ProDOS, Apple made sure that detailed information was available for programmers to use. This included an advanced assembler, and release of information what would allow programmers to learn everything there was to know about coding for the Apple II Pro in either Pascal or the new Applesoft Pro (known as Business BASIC in RealWorld).

To allow use of classic Apple II software, an emulation mode was also included, but was not restricted to that of a stock Apple II Plus, but rather a full 64K II Plus. For interested programmers, hooks were made available that third party utility writers exploited to allow access to the newer hi-res graphics modes and the expanded memory supported by the Apple II Pro. However, the more powerful Applesoft Pro and Pro Pascal could make better use of these new features.

The Apple II Pro was designed to appeal to those who wanted to use the Apple II platform for business and productivity purposes, but also leave open the ability for recreational software authors to create better and more powerful games than had been possible on the Apple II. In order to stimulate interest and sales, Apple made the new system available for $1995 (significantly less than $4000 price for which the Apple III sold in RealWorld). The Apple II Plus was not taken off the price lists, but was price-reduced from $1295 to $795. This drop in price made the older Apple II more affordable to those who had not been able to get them before, positioning it as a starter system. The Apple II Pro price set to half what it sold for in Realworld made the purchase of this new computer less difficult to justify.

As a result of these measures, 1980 was a blockbuster year for Apple. The Apple II Pro experienced very good sales, as did the older Apple II Plus (at its lower price). Consequently, Apple’s market share increased in advance of the release in 1981 of the IBM PC. This made for a more level competition field between IBM and Apple than what occurred in RealWorld.

The Next Big Thing

While the Apple II Pro project was being conceived and executed, Steve Jobs and other Apple employees had their famous visit to the Xerox PARC. Here, they were exposed to the amazing technology that had been pioneered by PARC’s researchers, as has been well documented in this history and elsewhere. They came back with the determination to create a product utilizing this advanced user interface (overlapping windows, icons, menus, and a mouse for a pointing device). Instead of the “invented here first” mentality of RealWorld, this 32-bit computer was also treated as an evolution of existing computer technology. No proprietary “twiggy” drives, but additional development time was given to allow hardware better than 5.25 inch disk drives to be used. Since Apple was not in a panic mode to find a product to replace its aging Apple II line (as in RealWorld), this new computer did not appear in 1983 but rather waited until 1985 to make its debut.

While You Are Waiting

Coinciding with the release of the Apple II Pro in 1980, research and development was being done on how to improve the Apple II to better compete with other rivals. Atari had come out with its home computer in 1979, with advanced graphics and sound capabilities. In A2World, Apple was not afraid of creating a computer that could be used as a great game machine; in fact, it needed something to replace the Apple II Plus, something would be better at games than was possible with the hi-res graphics and single-bit sound offered by that old machine. Inspired by the use of graphics sprites that could move independently of each other over a background (pioneered by both Atari and Commodore in the VIC-20), Apple in A2World began to research how to augment the graphics capabilities of the II Plus and the II Pro. Synthesized sound capabilities were also added to the design of the new computer.

The result, which was introduced to the public in 1982, was given new product names. The less costly version, suitable for home or school, was christened the Apple III Home. The higher end version was named the Apple III Business. Again, these were not designed to be mutually exclusive of each other. Recognizing that what is learned today in the school is used in business tomorrow, the III Business model came standard with some features that could be added to the III Home, and some that could not. Rudimentary networking capabilities were added to both models, making it possible to implement a subset of Xerox PARC’s Ethernet protocol, which was still in the process of being standardized at this time. It was primarily planned to use in an office environment, to facilitate sharing files between computers, and in a school environment for teacher management of computers. The III Home and III Business models had enough in common that they could be used mixed in either environment, and the price difference between made purchase decisions easier for customers.

Both models maintained their backward compatibility with older Apple II software, for those who still wanted to run things written in 1977 or 1978, but provided the more advanced modes that made more advanced games and graphics-intensive software possible. To address customer demands, these computers were designed to make it easier to increase RAM beyond the standard 128K provided as a base. Later releases of the Apple III Home and Business models took advantage of decreased RAM prices to allow as much as 1024K of RAM to be added, all available to the system and user programs.

Disk storage did not stay limited to 140K per floppy. The venerable Disk II was tweaked to allow data to be stored on both sides of the disk, increasing the capacity to 280K. Further advances paralleled those available on the IBM PC side, and with time the company marketed newer drives that were capable of handling 720K per disk, and ultimately 1.2 MB per disk. This was also popular with customers, since it made file sharing between Apple computers and IBM computers much easier; Apple’s drives could handle both the newer, high capacity formats, as well as the older DOS 3.3 and even 3.2 formats. With Apple’s computers using the ProDOS block-oriented scheme for device access, addition of hard drives (as the prices began to become more affordable) was a fairly simple matter.

By the mid 1980s, both of these models were doing quite well in the market place, and even received bumps in capacity and included peripherals, to help maintain and grow Apple’s market share. WIth its advanced sound and graphics abilities, Apple did not take the market away from Commodore and Atari, who fought it out for the low end of the market for below $500 computers. Nevertheless, the 6502 had been pushed as far as it could, aside from third-party accelerator options that a skilled owner could self-install. By this time, however, the Next Big Thing was ready for prime time.

Thirty-Two Bits Takes Over

The computers offered by IBM and its clones, utilizing Intel’s chip were making inroads due to the availability of faster microprocessor speeds and the ability to directly address as much as 1 megabyte of RAM. The 6502 used in the Apple III Business and Home models still had to use a form of bank-switching in order to utilize extra RAM. But, just as it appeared that the Intel-based computers were going to surpass Apple, it was finally time for Apple’s Xerox investment to begin to pay off.

In 1985, Apple introduced a computer that utilized Motorola’s 68000 microprocessor, and did so in a big way. Named “Macintosh” (okay, in A2World I could have named it anything I wanted, but this name just seemed easier to deal with), this computer was released in two versions also, paralleling Apple’s 8-bit product line. The Macintosh Pro came standard with two megabytes of RAM, expandable to as much as 16 megabytes, and the Macintosh (standard) came with 512K, topping out at 4 megabytes of RAM. They utilized smaller Sony 3.5 inch drives at a capacity of 800K per disk, but could also access the 5.25 inch, 1.2 meg capacity Apple II and III series floppies. But beyond these specs was the amazing Macintosh Operating System (MOS), with its revolutionary user interface. It gave better graphics density than was possible on Apple’s 8-bit computers, and was color-capable through an external monitor (although the built-in monochrome monitor was more affordable).

These computers sold at a higher price point than the Apple III Home and Business models (which were given modest price reductions at the time of the release of the Macintosh), ranging from $2200 to $3500, depending on the configuration. The clincher was the inclusion of a full Apple III Business emulation mode. It was then quite easy to bring along all existing software to current owners, while still having access to the newer, more advanced graphical user interface offered by the Mac. Apple had learned well from its experience in moving its customers along from the older Apple II Plus/DOS 3.3 mode to the Apple II Pro/ProDOS mode: Support current customers by not obsoleting all of what they already know and own, while giving them the capability to take advantage of better technology.

This one-two punch made it harder for the PC clones running the command-line MS-DOS operating system to keep pace with Apple. Again, as when the Apple III models had been released, Apple made sure its loyal customers had no reason to look to Intel for a computer for home, school, or business needs. This gap widened as technology moved into the 1990s and beyond.

Discussion

The differences between A2World and RealWorld are quite distinct. But the examples given for A2World are more consistent with the behavior of Apple since 2000. Instead of new, completely incompatible platforms that lock out older customers and require a completely new investment in hardware and software, Apple has taken its Macintosh models and evolved them gradually. The operating system has also similarly evolved to accomodate opportunities for increased memory, processor speed (and even processor type, with the change to Intel), and available devices to connect.

Had Apple pursued this avenue during its first decade of existence, we would not have had three different sets of abandoned users (Apple II, Apple III, and Newton). Instead, the gradual advancement with protection of older data as proposed in the A2World scenario left the owner of an Apple II Plus envious of the Macintosh when it was released, but not locked out from all of his older digital data if he chose to upgrade to one of the new models. It would be more consistent with the difference today between the owner of an iBook and the owner of a MacBook Air. There are certainly things that cannot be done on an iBook that can be done on a MacBook Air, but nearly all of the important data from that iBook will easily migrate to the newer platform.

The A2World alternate reality would have resulted in a wildly successful Apple over 15 years earlier than it actually has happened, and no bad feelings about broken promises from the company.

Notice that my fantasy of this more successful Apple Computer is NOT because I have a desire for Apple to win and everyone else to lose. Instead, it is an application of what has been learned about how to handle the computer market in its maturity and applying it to the same market in its infancy. It also assumes that Apple, during the wildly successful years I have created for A2World, did not get arrogant or complacent about its position. Any company who choses to take that path is certainly destined to experience a fall. And as happy as I am that the Apple, Inc. of today is experiencing popularity and positive press it has not known since the days of the Apple II and II Plus, it still would not be hard for it to be “cut down to size” by taking their improved position for granted.


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