'lostdecade' Episodes

Apple's Lost Decade

     2/12/2021

I often think of companies in relation to their contribution to the next evolution in the forking and merging of disciplines in computing that brought us to where we are today. Many companies have multiple contributions. Few have as many such contributions as Apple. But there was a time when they didn’t seem so innovative. 

This lost decade began about half way through the tenure of John Sculley and can be seen through the lens of the CEOs. There was Sculley, CEO from 1983 to 1993. Co-founders and spiritual centers of Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, left Apple in 1985. Jobs to create NeXT and Wozniak to jump into a variety of companies like making universal remotes, wireless GPS trackers, and and other adventures. 

This meant Sculley was finally in a position to be fully in charge of Apple. His era would see sales 10x from $800 million to $8 billion. Operationally, he was one of the more adept at cash management, putting $2 billion in the bank by 1993. Suddenly the vision of Steve Jobs was paying off. That original Mac started to sell and grow markets. But during this time, first the IBM PC and then the clones, all powered by the Microsoft operating system, completely took the operating system market for personal computers. Apple had high margins yet struggled for relevance. 

Under Sculley, Apple released HyperCard, funded a skunkworks team in General Magic, arguably the beginning of ubiquitous computing, and using many of those same ideas he backed the Newton, coining the term personal digital assistant. Under his leadership, Apple marketing sent 200,000 people home with a Mac to try it out. Put the device in the hands of the people is probably one of the more important lessons they still teach newcomers that work in Apple Stores. 

Looking at the big financial picture it seems like Sculley did alright. But in Apple’s fourth-quarter earnings call in 1993, they announced a 97 drop from the same time in 1992. This was also when a serious technical debt problem began to manifest itself. 

The Mac operating system grew from the system those early pioneers built in 1984 to Macintosh System Software going from version 1 to version 7. But after annual releases leading to version 6, it took 3 years to develop system 7 and the direction to take with the operating system caused a schism in Apple engineering around what would happen once 7 shipped. Seems like most companies go through almost the exact same schism. Microsoft quietly grew NT to resolve their issues with Windows 3 and 95 until it finally became the thing in 2000. IBM had invested heavily into that same code, basically, with Warp - but wanted something new. 

Something happened while Apple was building macOS 7. They lost Jean Lois Gasseé who had been head of development since Steve Jobs left. When Sculley gave everyone a copy of his memoir, Gasseé provided a copy of The Mythical Man-Month, from Fred Brooks’ experience with the IBM System 360. It’s unclear today if anyone read it. To me this is really the first big sign of trouble. Gassée left to build another OS, BeOS. 

By the time macOS 7 was released, it was clear that the operating system was bloated, needed a massive object-oriented overhaul, and under Sculley the teams were split, with one team eventually getting spun off into its own company and then became a part of IBM to help with their OS woes. The team at Apple took 6 years to release the next operating system. Meanwhile, one of Sculley’s most defining decisions was to avoid licensing the Macintosh operating system. Probably because it was just too big a mess to do so. And yet everyday users didn’t notice all that much and most loved it. 

But third party developers left. And that was at one of the most critical times in the history of personal computers because Microsoft was gaining a lot of developers for Windows 3.1 and released the wildly popular Windows 95. 

The Mac accounted for most of the revenue of the company, but under Sculley the company dumped a lot of R&D money into the Newton. As with other big projects, the device took too long to ship and when it did, the early PDA market was a red ocean with inexpensive competitors. The Palm Pilot effectively ended up owning that pen computing market. 

Sculley was a solid executive. And he played the part of visionary from time to time. But under his tenure Apple found operating system problems, rumors about Windows 95, developers leaving Apple behind for the Windows ecosystem, and whether those technical issues are on his lieutenants or him, the buck stocks there. The Windows clone industry led to PC price wars that caused Apple revenues to plummet. And so Markkula was off to find a new CEO. 

Michael Spindler became the CEO from 1993 to 1996. The failure of the Newton and Copland operating systems are placed at his feet, even though they began in the previous regime. Markkula hired Digital Equipment and Intel veteran Spindler to assist in European operations and he rose to President of Apple Europe and then ran all international. He would become the only CEO to have no new Mac operating systems released in his tenure. Missed deadlines abound with Copland and then Tempo, which would become Mac OS 8. 

And those aren’t the only products that came out at the time. We also got the PowerCD, the Apple QuickTake digital camera, and the Apple Pippin. Bandai had begun trying to develop a video game system with a scaled down version of the Mac. The Apple Pippin realized Markkula’s idea from when the Mac was first conceived as an Apple video game system. 

There were a few important things that happened under Spindler though. First, Apple moved to the PowerPC architecture. Second, he decided to license the Macintosh operating system to companies wanting to clone the Macintosh. And he had discussions with IBM, Sun, and Philips to acquire Apple. Dwindling reserves, increasing debt. Something had to change and within three years, Spindler was gone.

Gil Amelio was CEO from 1996 to 1997. He moved from the board while the CEO at National Semiconductor to CEO of Apple. He inherited a company short on cash and high on expenses. He quickly began pushing forward OS 8, cut a third of the staff, streamline operations, dumping some poor quality products, and releasing new products Apple needed to be competitive like the Apple Network Server. 

He also tried to acquire BeOS for $200 million, which would have Brough Gassée back but instead acquired NeXT for $429 million. But despite the good trajectory he had the company on, the stock was still dropping, Apple continued to lose money, and an immovable force was back - now with another decade of experience launching two successful companies: NeXT and Pixar. 

The end of the lost decade can be seen as the return of Steve Jobs. Apple didn’t have an operating system. They were in a lurch soy-to-speak. I’ve seen or read it portrayed that Steve Jobs intended to take control of Apple. And I’ve seen it portrayed that he was happy digging up carrots in the back yard but came back because he was inspired by Johnny Ive. But I remember the feel around Apple changed when he showed back up on campus. As with other companies that dug themselves out of a lost decade, there was a renewed purpose. There was inspiration. 

By 1997, one of the heroes of the personal computing revolution, Steve Jobs, was back. But not quite… He became interim CEO in 1997 and immediately turned his eye to making Apple profitable again. Over the past decade, the product line expanded to include a dozen models of the Mac. Anyone who’s read Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, Inside the Tornado, and Zone To Win knows this story all too well. We grow, we release new products, and then we eventually need to take a look at the portfolio and make some hard cuts. 

Apple released the Macintosh II in 1987 then the Macintosh Portable in 1989 then the Iicx and II ci in 89 along with the Apple IIgs, the last of that series. By facing competition in different markets, we saw the LC line come along in 1990 and the Quadra in 1991, the same year three models of the PowerBook were released. Different printers, scanners, CD-Roms had come along by then and in 1993, we got a Macintosh TV, the Apple Newton, more models of the LC and by 1994 even more of those plus the QuickTake, Workgroup Server, the Pippin and by 1995 there were a dozen Performas, half a dozen Power Macintosh 6400s, the Apple Network Server and yet another versions of the Performa 6200 and we added the eMade and beige G3 in 1997. The SKU list was a mess. Cleaning that up took time but helped prepare Apple for a simpler sales process. Today we have a good, better, best with each device, with many a computer being build-to-order. 

Jobs restructured the board, ending the long tenure of Mike Markkula, who’d been so impactful at each stage of the company so far. One of the forces behind the rise of the Apple computer and the Macintosh was about to change the world again, this time as the CEO. 


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020