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Undue Status for Macs

Response to Ted Lewis "Absorb and Extend: Resistance is Futile," IEEE Computer, May 1997, pp. 112, 109-111

To the Editor:

Saying that the computer industry has "reinvented the Mac" gives the Mac an undue status. Rather, the industry made several attempts to Englebartize computing, only one of which--the Mac--really stuck prior to 1990. Englebart's ideas weren't implemented in Unix and DOS because the market didn't see much need for them. Plug and play, wimp interfaces, GUIs and sundry other desktop metaphors could have been built on the early PCs, but developers couldn't see the revenue potential.

Apple's remarkable achievement had little to do with the technology, per se. (Englebart's and Xerox's Star technologies were well known by the time the Mac was conceived.) Rather, it had to do with the cultivation of a new market for shallow-learning-curve, graphical computing environments. Before the Mac, it was an open question whether a sufficiently large market existed to justify the development effort. Apple was prescient in predicting that the market for these computers was significant enough that it could make money at manufacturing products for it.

Two things did the Mac in. First, it took the same route as Control Data did when it standardized around the 10-bit byte - it pushed a standard that most computing professionals (outside of the areas of multimedia and desktop publishing) didn't see much value in. Second, Apple lost sight of the fact that computing is more than interfaces and convenience. Its commitment to backward compatibility was absurd and unrealistic for the 1990's. The same can be said of Apple's attachment to the early Mac "look and feel" which bordered on the fanatical. Along the way, their energies were so diluted by both the maintenance of a tired, overworked operating system, and the development of products (e.g., Taligent, Newton) in areas in which they had no extensive experience, that their mainstream product line floundered. Apple did not understand that modern computing consumers eschew brand loyalty for price, and is extremely intolerant of technological blunders. The world just passed Apple by.

Also, I don't think that Netscape knows, or that Oracle, IBM, and Sun are learning all that much, from Apple's discomfort. Microsoft is in the leadership position because of its early association with Intel, and because it's marketing folks were the most aggressive. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of Windows retail sales are to OEMs. If Netscape, Oracle, IBM, or Sun are to succeed, they'll have to succeed at the OEM level. But with what? IBM couldn't do it even when it pitted OS/2 against outdated, inferior Windows 3.x.

To paraphrase Nixon's special counsel, Chuck Colson, "...if you have the computer industry by the OEM, its hearts and minds will follow."

Hal Berghel