Macworld is still proceeding apace as we write this, albeit without Apple actually exhibiting. As the show was in town we thought, as a counterpoint to last week's list, we'd look at the worst systems to come out of Cupertino.
If you're the kind of person who thinks that Apple can do no wrong, and that anyone who points out that the emperor occasionally has no clothes is a filthy disciple of Bill Gates in the pay of the Wintel conspiracy then stop reading right now.
In the past I've been guilty of saying bad things about Apple and their users but Shaun's keeping me honest on this one. Let us know if you think we've missed anything in the comments section below.
Honourable mention: Mac Portable
|The Mac Portable. Image: allaboutapple.com|
Iain Thomson: OK, we can all have a giggle at 'portable' computers from the early days of computing but at nearly 16 pounds the Mac Portable really was taking the piss.
It was four inches thick, bulky enough to be awkward to carry and had a screen that was unreadable half the time, with the original models. Occasionally you'd see some poor devil struggling down the street with one of these and hope he or she had a good chiropractor. The fact they'd paid a small fortune for the device can't have helped their mood either.
The Mac Portable also had a novel problem when it came to power. Because the power supply was wired in series if you ran the batteries down completely then the computer wouldn't recharge. This led to a lot of users having to find workarounds to avoid owning a very expensive doorstop.
Shaun Nichols: It's hard to believe that in only two years time Apple went from the suitcase monstrosity that was the Mac Portable to the sleek, powerful Powerbook 170 model.
The two systems were night and day: the portable was big. Like 16 pounds worth of big. The Powerbook was smaller, just as powerful and sported a great design and big, bright screen.
As Iain noted, the Portable used lead acid battery packs that didn't do it too many favours. They made the system both heavy and unreliable. Add to that the full compliment of drives and connections, and you had monster of a computer that in reality wasn't much more portable than a regular desktop box.
This was a rare case in which Apple messed up by putting computing muscle above sleek form factor. Fortunately they were able to correct the issues by 1991 with the first Powerbooks.
Honourable Mention: Color Classic
|The Color Classic. Image: Ivanexpert.com|
Shaun Nichols: While making the list I jokingly suggested to Iain that we could do an entire Top 10 list based on what Apple did between 1991 and 1996. In fact, don't be surprised if we actually do one this summer.
The Color Classic was a system that might have been a good idea had it been rolled out a few years earlier. The aim was to produce a compact system in the style of the original Mac models, but equip it with a colour screen. In essence, a system that combined the best features of the classic Macs with the best features of the latest Macs.
Unfortunately, the actual product managed to combine the worst of both worlds. The space constraints of the classic case limited the effectiveness of the colour screen and forced the company to go with underpowered hardware. Meanwhile, the falling cost of computers made the Color Classic's $1800 price tag seem steep for a low-end system.
Iain Thomson: Technically the Color Classic is part of the Performa range, of which more will be said later.
The failings of this system are many and manifold. A colour screen sounds good but in fact didn't add much to the computer, besides jacking up the price considerably. Originally designed for the education market the Color Classic failed to get much traction and was not one of Apple's success stories.
It could be argued that this system forced Apple to rethink building screens into systems. Sure it looks very good but it increases the overall cost of the system and limits users to a particular view. Built-in screens made sense at the start of the computing age but they have thankfully gone the way of the dinosaurs.
|The Apple Quicktake. Image: Wikicommons|
Iain Thomson: In the early 1990s Apple decided to get into the digital camera business. This was during Scully's ill-fated first attempt to get into the consumer electronics market and nothing typified why this didn't work more than QuickTake.
At the time the digital camera market was in its infancy and megapixel ranges were so low you wouldn't even consider them usable in your phone today. Nevertheless Apple chose a stinker of a product to slap its logo on. The QuickTake range were outdated at launch, had no zoom or focus and stored just eight pictures.
Sure you could download your snaps very easily onto your computer but that hardly made it a usable product. It typified Apple's approach at the time, when the company's management thought that its users would buy almost anything if it had an Apple logo on it. That attitude seems to be largely reformed now, although if you look at the iPod Shuffle I have my doubts.
Shaun Nichols: Peripherals are very much a hit-or-miss area for Apple. Sometimes you get a great product like the Cinema Display or the Laserwriter, and other times you get the QuickTake.
In hindsight, we can say that computer companies make for lousy digital camera vendors. The high-end brands we see in the market today are almost all companies that made old-fashioned film cameras, and that's because it turns out that the digital part of the camera is actually the easy part. It's the optics technology and features that really make the difference.
That Apple wouldn't be able to make a decent digital camera should be no more surprising than finding out that the engineers at Nikon build pretty lousy desktop operating systems.
|Apple Pippin. Image: Wikicommons|
Shaun Nichols: For many years now users have been clamouring for Apple to step up its efforts in the computer gaming space. If they knew about the short-lived Pippin, however, they may just change their minds.
While it didn't compare to the video game boom of the early 1980s, there was a brief period of time in the mid-1990s when faster processors and CD-Rom games were looking to replace the old cartridge consoles. This opened the door to new companies and led to the launch of a handful of competing consoles.
The Sony Playstation came out as the big winner of this era, but there were many other consoles that didn't make it into the later end of the decade. Among them was the ill-fated Apple Pippin.
Basically, the idea was to modify the Macintosh hardware and operating system and then license the whole platform out to third party vendors as a gaming console. The result was the Apple-Bandai Pippin.
Unfortunately for Apple, developers didn't quite jump at the idea, and with little outside support, the Pippin sold less than 100,000 units.
Iain Thomson: Actually I heard less than 50,000 but we'll agree to differ.
The Pippin was designed and sold as a computer but perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a gaming console. As such the price tag for the system was too expensive for the gaming market and the platform failed to take hold. Games manufacturers too were less than enthralled. The console market was more crowded than it is today and they had enough to worry about with other systems.
As Microsoft found out to its cost entering the gaming console market is a major step. It's fashionable to dismiss consoles as dumb computers but it is a sophisticated market to crack and you need a great console, wide support and great games. The Pippin failed on all three counts.
8. iPod Hi-Fi
iPod Hi-Fi. Image: Wikicommons
Iain Thomson: In the summer of 2006 I was at a particularly bad party when I first saw one of these.
Our host had picked it up one from a recent trip to the US and had his iPod in the top to provide background music. I'm a bit of a hi-fi nerd so asked him what he used for his normal music. It turns out this was his hi-fi, and when he told me how much he'd paid for it restraining my disbelieving laughter was hard.
From a sound perspective the iPod Hi-Fi had all the depth and fidelity of a drunken one-night-stand. The docking station wasn't compatible with some iPods and while having two speakers next door to each other is all well and good from a design perspective but it cripples any attempt as stereo sound. For the same money you could have bought a semi-decent hi-fi system that played CDs, cassettes and linked into your computer.
The iPod Hi-Fi highlights a consistent theme in Apple's audio approach. When it comes to converting data into sound the company is top notch, DRM issues aside. But it always seems to fail at the final gateway.
The iPod is a wonderful device for storing and playing music for example, but the earbud headphones are dire in the extreme. Its desktop systems fared better, but only just. When it comes to audio Apple needs to look at music from start to end, not just from the data perspective.
Shaun Nichols: Apple did manage to get some pretty good sound when it teamed up with Harman Kardon on the SoundSticks, so it's not like they're incapable of producing a decent speaker system.
Unfortunately, the iPod Hi-Fi was not one of those products. Really, it was a classic case of Apple not knowing when to back off and let its partners develop the products rather than compete with an in-house offering.
As Iain noted, the basic design didn't lend itself well to solid acoustics. Probably not a big issue when you're using it as a desktop or bedside stereo system, but for $350 the Hi-Fi should have delivered the performance of a complete home stereo system.
In the case of the Hi-Fi, it was better to just go low-tech: plug your iPod into the wall charger and plug the headphone jack into your regular stereo system or even a high-end set of computer speakers.
|Apple Power PC. Image: Wikicommons|
Shaun Nichols: Some might be surprised by this one, but hear me out before you pick up the torches and pitchforks. The PowerPC project was a marvellous piece of engineering, but not a great business decision.
The merits of the chip itself are readily apparent today, derivatives of the POWER line are widely used for high-performance systems, gaming consoles and embedded systems.
But it wasn't the right choice for personal computers. The high price of the chips combined with its increased energy consumption were all major drawbacks, as was the ordeal involved in porting over software from x86 platforms such as Windows.
There were many factors to the growth in Mac sales Apple has seen in the last five years, but the decision to go from PowerPC to Intel x86 processors should certainly be recognised as key. As the largest chip maker on the planet, Intel is far more able to develop and supply chips tuned to the needs of Apple's desktop and notebook models on a scale the IBM-Motorola partnership never could.
Iain Thomson: Well you certainly surprised me when you came out with this one Shaun.
The decision to go for the RISC architecture was a good one at the time; it certainly made sense from an engineering standpoint. It also encouraged competition in the computer marketplace, but by the time serious work started on PowerPC that battle had been lost and failing to get on board with Intel basically condemned Apple developers and customers to a ghetto of also-rans, with a tiny per cent of the market.
The PowerPC chips were marvellous bits of engineering to be sure, but squabb ling among the various partners, as well as the technical limitations of the chip for PCs, doomed the whole process. There's still a place for PowerPC chips, usually in your car control system, but they have little place in the PC.
6. Mac OS9
|MAC OS9. Image: Zedomax.com|
Iain Thomson: OS9, released in 1999, was Apple's last flogging of the dead horse that was System 7. It was a dog of an operating system in many ways, and a great thing to remind OSX fanboys about during flamewars.
Newly-returned Steve Jobs might have hailed OS9 as the best thing since sliced bread but OS9 was pathetically bad at multitasking and if you were trying to do more than two things at once reboots were the order of the day. I wasn't using Macs at that point but judging from the frequent, loud and occasionally obscene comments coming from the design department I gathered it had few fans there.
Ever since Apple's move to the Intel processor platform OS9 has been largely incompatible but there are still a few dedicated fans running OS9 and keeping the flame sputtering. Why they bother is beyond me. OSX is a great bit of work and there's no reason not to upgrade.
Shaun Nichols: Come on now, Iain, Jobs had to play up OS9.
What was he going to say? "Look, we're working on a decent operating system, but until we can figure out how to make it run without setting your computer on fire, here's a few bells and whistles on the same crappy system we've used since the Reagan years."
OS9 was pretty much a stopgap. Apple tried to play it up as much as they could, but it was pretty much implied that they were just trying to have something fresh to pitch with the new computers. Much like Microsoft tossing out updates between Windows 98 and XP, the company was just meeting the marketing cycle while it worked on the real update.
I also think that OS9 gets a bad rap because it was followed by such a huge leap in OS X. When you run the two side by side you feel like you're hopping into a time machine 10 years in the future.
Ironically, because it can run in tandem with OS X on PowerPC systems, OS9 is also probably the most widely used version of the old MacOS still floating ar ound today.
|Apple Eworld. Image: Low End Mac|
Shaun Nichols: Unless you're a Mac user going back to the early 1990s, chances are you never heard of eWorld. Like most of Apple's commercial flops, the ill-fated ISP was an intriguing concept marred by high cost and low availability,
eWorld was an interesting spin on the walled-garden ISP that was so popular at the beginning of the commercial internet. The dial-up service was navigated as a city-style layout. Users accessed different areas of the service by clicking on 'buildings,' such as the post office for email or the town hall for chat and forum pages.
Unfortunately, eWorld suffered from the same shortcomings that plagued Apple throughout the decade; it was expensive and obscure.
On top of an $8.95 monthly fee that included 2 free hours of access, users had to shell out $5 per hour during business hours and $8 per hour for night and weekend access. Reading this article on eWorld would have cost you roughly the price of a good sandwich.
Additionally, Apple decided to limit the service to Mac users in hopes of boosting hardware sales. Because taking on Microsoft wasn't enough, Apple apparently wanted to go after AOL at the same time.
To nobody's surprise, the service folded in 1996.
Iain Thomson: Shaun had to explain to me what eWorld was, since I'd never heard of it. Based on my research I can see why.
eWorld was an attempt to make the internet a user-friendly place and introduce people to online activities in a safe way. The end result looks painfully bad, like a child's idea of what the internet would look like. Apple however wasn't along in sticking useless interfaces on its systems. After all, Microsoft Bob, is similar in a lot of ways.
But to my mind it was the cost factor that really killed eWorld. Apple overcharged massively to the system in a way that makes hotel phone and internet charges look like a bargain.
4. Performa line
|Apple Performa. Image: Wikicommons|
Iain Thomson: Given Scully's prior experience in the fizzy drinks market he should have realised that when it comes to brand choice more is less. Michael Spindler's short-lived reign as chief executive carried on his mistake and it took the hands of Gil Amelio to finally give the line the lethal injection it so desperately needed.
The Performa line was Apple's attempt to segment its market into professional and consumer computers. It was an abject failure, in part because the plethora of choices confused buyers, particularly those who weren't that savvy about technology to begin with.
Models got different names if they had slightly bigger hard drives or based on what software came bundled. Dealers had a tough time keeping a good selection of stock so many consumers couldn't get exactly the model they wanted.
To make things worse the Perfoma line produced some of the worst computers in the company's history. Most of the systems were underspecced, over-priced and lacked any of the design flare that has come to be Apple's calling card under the tenure of Jonathan Ive. In the past we've singled out the 6200 series for special criticism but to my mind the whole range deserves inclusion.
Shaun Nichols: When Steve Jobs tells people "we don't know how to make a cheap computer," he's partially referring to the Performa line.
Apple has trouble producing value machines for a couple of reasons. First, the company sets its own OS and hardware specifications based on what it wants to do, not what is readily available. Apple builds MacOSX around the one or two models it wants to offer. Microsoft designs Windows in large part around what hardware and components PC vendors want to offer.
The second issue is volume. Budget PCs have a very thin profit margin, and companies have to make their money through selling large numbers of the cheaper systems. Apple simply does not have a large enough market to make low-end systems practical.
Unfortunately, these were all lessons the company had to learn the hard way with the Performa series. By cutting back on specs and targeting the low-end market, the company ended up taking a huge hit to its bottom line while having to deal with a generation of machines that couldn't adequately run its software.
3. "Hockey Puck" mouse
|The famous Hockey Puck styled mouse. Image: Applenewbies.com|
Shaun Nichols: The release of the original iMac was in many ways revolutionary. The case design, system specifications and marketing were all hugely successful. Not as popular, however, was the iMac's mouse.
Dubbed the 'hockey puck,' the circular, one-button mouse looked pretty slick on a desktop, but for many people it was also a painful lesson in ergonomics. The circular design was a radical change from most mice and could put a great deal of stress on the wrist and elbow.
Some people do still defend the hockey puck, claiming that if held properly (either via the fingertips or pressed into the palm) it's not so bad, but for most everyone else the mere sight of the puck brings a cringe.
There was some benefit, however. The hockey puck helped to boost the market for third-party peripherals, and its cold reception forced Apple to rethink its ergonomic approach for future mouse designs.
Iain Thomson: I've got a touch of RSI myself at the moment but if I'd been using one of these for any length of time I'd have to have someone else open my ketchup these days.
I can only assume Ive suffered a small episode of petit mal episode when he came up with this little monstrosity. It looks very pretty to be sure, but for regular users it was like the Spanish Inquisition had joined Apple's design department. It's about the worst thing I've seen him do and it was thankfully soon dropped. Like Shaun I'm highly sceptical of claims that if used right it could be fine for the wrist, and who wants to relearn how to use a mouse?
Thankfully the iMac was the first to embrace USB so users could use third party supplier's kit. It soon became rare to see an iMac with the hockey puck still attached.
2. 20th Anniversary Mac
|Apple's 20th Anniversary Mac. Image: Ehmac.ca|
Iain Thomson: This was very nearly a contender for the number one spot on the list.
In 1997 you could buy a pretty decent PC system for a couple of thousand dollars. You could buy a top of the range system for a few thousand dollars more, and a fantastic monitor to use it with. So why Apple thought people would be willing to spend $9,000 on an average system in a pretty casing is beyond me, and everyone else as it turned out.
Apple dropped the price on launch, and kept dropping it - much to the annoyance of early adopters who protested at paying such a heavy geek tax. The price fell and fell and Apple was reduced to selling the final units off at a loss just to shift stock.
I'm sure the marketing department thought the idea of producing a 20th Anniversary product was a wonderful one. But they should have talked to the engineers. Based on the specifications of the computer, and the state of the competition, the management must have been using a bit too much Bolivian marching powder if they thought this one was a goer.
Shaun Nichols: I don't necessarily have issues with the 20th Anniversary Mac in itself, my problem is the time and circumstances in which it was released.
1997 was a time of outright crisis for Apple. The company was struggling to stay afloat and facing major budget issues. With many people seriously doubting the future of the company, the executives chose to occupy precious engineering, marketing and retail efforts on what amounted to a vanity project.
The company is staring down the barrel of bankruptcy court and the execs roll out a $7,500 luxury system that is delivered by limo? Seriously not cool. No wonder one of Jobs' first actions upon taking over was to clean house.
I know that the 20th Anniversary Mac had nothing to do with the company's financial troubles, and it was just a little side project to celebrate a company milestone, but given the timing and setting of the move, it sent a signal that the people running Apple paid more attention to what happened over the last 20 years than what would happen over the next five.
1. Apple III
|The Apple III. Image: oldcomputers.net|
Shaun Nichols: As we've seen a few times on this list, sometimes Apple's brass will let aesthetics override practicality. Never was this more apparent than with the infamous Apple III.
To keep the system compact and the operation quiet, the Apple III eschewed pesky things like fans and heat sinks, while chips were crammed in together tightly. The result was a system that ran just a wee bit warm.
In fact, the Apple III ran so warm that it had a nasty tendency to cause heat damage in floppy disks and warp the motherboard. The extreme temperatures also tended to cause chips to come loose from the board, prompting one of the strangest repair techniques ever. Users were advised to pick the computer up a few inches off the ground and then drop it, hopefully jostling the chips back into position.
The Apple III only lasted a few years, and the targeted business market went largely to IBM and the PC platform.
Iain Thomson: It's a measure of the temperance of Apple users that buyers of the Apple III didn't storm the gates of Cupertino and strangle Steve Jobs with a power cable.
As Shaun has said the Apple III gave rise to the most infamous tech support advice in the history of the industry. If I'd spent nearly $8,000 on a computer I'd expect advice a tad more reassuring than dropping the system, and Apple ended up replacing the first 14,000 Apple III's after howls of protest..
Woz described the Apple III as designed by the marketing, not engineering, department. That may be true but the design wasn't the only problem. The software emulation on the Apple III was dire and crippled the system, quality control was poor and the system was oversold. All in all a thoroughly bad egg.