Mac Boot Camp, part 6: The retread redeemer

The introduction of the portable iBook this year rounded out the product line of the NeuApple that Steve Jobs envisioned. Currently, Apple has a computer for every main market segment. Now that Jobs has carried out his business plan, will he stick around?

The end of the Spindler Interregnum found Apple bloated with unsold product inventories, adrift without a strategic focus, and weakened by massive infighting among marketing yuppies who were marking their turf with lifted legs. Machine production, based on forecasts developed by marketing, turned out to be a really, really bad idea. It seemed that Apple was underproducing the machines that people wanted to buy and overproducing the ones that people didn’t want at all. Unsold inventories skyrocketed.
This article is part six in the "Mac Boot Camp" series by Larry Loeb. If you missed the first five articles or want to refresh your memory, here they are:
Mac Boot Camp, part 1: What’s a Mac program like? Mac Boot Camp, part 2: The managersMac Boot Camp, part 3: Mac hardware, the early daysMac Boot Camp, part 4: Cupertino strikes back Mac Boot Camp, part 5: Spindler. The diesel has landed
So, one might argue that things were not good in Cupertino. The smart money was shorting the stock, waiting for Apple to become acquired by some stronger company, like Sony or AT&T. Articles appeared in the mainstream computer press that dissected the Apple corpse and wondered which parts of it would end up where. Even though Apple licensed the Mac OS to cloners—as so many had urged it to do earlier—the move was seen as a desperate maneuver to generate some badly needed revenue.

At Apple’s lowest point, the board of directors held a small, quiet, and deadly revolt. They all ganged up on Mike Markulla—who had been there from the Apple II days—and made him walk the plank. Maybe he left on his own two feet. Who cared? He had been Spindler’s champion and was now paying the price. And then, when Markulla was gone, the board sent a message to Steve Jobs: Want to come back?

At first blush, it seemed that Jobs didn’t need to come back. He had purchased Pixar, an animation company, with the proceeds from his first Apple divorce. Pixar had managed to score some major work with Disney to produce what would come to be known as “Toy Story.” His company was making money—but in the end, ego won out. Jobs wanted to be a savior again. He wanted the respect of the industry and a shot at showing that he was right, after all. He wanted to be The Man again. So, he came back as the “interim” CEO.

Jobs began by simplifying the product line—no more multiple models that were basically the same thing. He saw four unique products as the cornerstones of the Apple revival. The first was a “low-cost” Mac. This one needed to have all of the Mac attributes of ease of use and performance at a price point that would lend itself to an easy buy decision. And Steve being Steve, it had to look good while it performed.

Jobs’ machine was called the iMac—short for Internet Mac. In many technical ways, it resembled the NeXT machine that Steve had produced after leaving Apple. It had a CD drive, a hard disk, fast Ethernet, and no floppy (though you could add one by connecting through the newly designed 12 MHz USB ports). It was designed—obviously—to be a Web-centric machine. The USB ports finally achieved what Appletalk and the RS-232 ports couldn’t—fast I/O through the serial ports. The “virtual ports” that Apple PR had promised for the 128K Macs were finally here…but 15 years late.

And it looked cool. It was a non-boxy machine, with a shape that wrapped itself around the components it didn’t really hide. It looked like something that the Jetsons would have used at home. It stood out from all the PCs (and Spindler-era Apple boxes), but it delivered real computing power in its pretty package. Steve came through, big-time.

People bought them like hotcakes, too. There was a pent-up demand for an all-in-one solution machine that spanned customer demographics. The Internet startup guy with the buzz cut, black heavy glasses, and soul patch might be considered the “typical” iMac customer, but it turned out that his dad was buying it, as well. It became the best-selling individual model of the year. It also turned out that one in three iMac buyers were people who had never owned a computer before. Apple began to appeal once more to “the rest of them.”

But there was more to the Jobs plan than the iMac. The “one-step-up-from-iMac” machine had to have slots for expandability and had to be faster than the iMac. There had to be persuasive performance reasons to buy this machine, which would be targeted at the professional and graphics crowds. These people were the buyers who stuck with Apple through the Crazy Years, remaining a loyal base. But they were (and are) no fools, and they wouldn’t buy a machine just for the sake of coolness. It had to do something for them.

What it did was give them the best available processor at the fastest clock speeds inside a case that was the easiest to use and service that Apple had ever designed. If the iMac ran at 200 MHz with a 604 processor, the “top of the line” used a G3 (750) at 400 MHz. It was reminiscent of the old hot-rod maxim: Same chassis plus bigger engine gives better elapsed times.

The chassis was very nice by itself. The mini-tower configuration disassembled with one easy-to-use latch. The side then laid itself out on the bench for servicing or for the addition of a card or peripheral. There was space inside the case for two hard drives, as well as an internal ZIP drive and a CD/DVD drive. Reassembly meant closing up the side and fastening the latch—no tools required. The internal geometry of the machine was more user-accessible than any past design, while the rounded pillow shape set it apart in looks from the clones. It was the sort of classic engineering that could be used for multiple products and that didn’t need to change just for fashion. If you wanted fashion, Apple would sell you snap-in panels.

The introduction of the portable iBook this year rounded out the product line of the NeuApple that Jobs envisioned. The iBook would be the low-end portable that filled the gaps, while the “professional” portable machine would have the current high-end processor in it and would have a base cost of about $1,000 more than the low end. Thus, Apple now has in place a computer for every main market segment. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Jobs resigned at the upcoming board meeting and installed some handpicked CEO to carry on the work. His overall business plan has been put into place, and Apple’s stock is higher than ever. He may want to leave in a blaze of glory, ascending to CEO heaven. We’ll see.

Larry Loeb has 20 years of computer journalism experience. He was Consulting Editor at the late, lamented BYTE magazine, he launched WebWeek, he ran the online Macintosh section of BIX (the BYTE Information eXchange), and he wrote numerous articles for many major computer magazines. Recently, he also wrote a book on Secure Electronic Transactions, the protocol endorsed by MasterCard and Visa that allows merchants, cardholders, and banks to work together over the Internet. For banter, tips, and general screaming, send Larry an e-mail .

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