By Charles Cooper
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 28, 2006 4:00 AM PT
Several years ago a Microsoft honcho fired off a 2,000-word e-mail to let me know I was a blockhead.
In my column I had suggested that Microsoft owed its amazing success more to persistence than to technical prowess. That really got under my interlocutor's skin. I wasn't looking to hurt anyone's feelings, but the history of flubs and duds was there in black and white. Over the years, Microsoft proved that it eventually gets it right by incorporating customer feedback and repairing mistakes. But how many times has it simply dazzled users the first time out with a new product? The best that one could say was that the company succeeded despite the mediocrity of its products.
Had I opted to pursue the debate, I would have drawn the obvious comparison with Apple Computer. Founded within a year of each other, Microsoft and Apple are forever going to be twinned--the Bird and Magic of the tech industry. But in terms of sizzle, it's a comparison in which Microsoft has nearly always come up short.
Sizzle obviously is a subjective notion.Personally, the guidepost I'd use would be Judge Potter Stewart's famous dictum about defining pornography: You know it when you see it. By that measure, Apple--click here to read CNET News.com's full report on the company's 30th anniversary--has had sizzle for most of its three-decades-long history.
To be sure, there were dry spells, but under Steve Jobs there were many more good times than bad. Though a company is undeniably bigger than any single individual, Apple's product pipeline has flowed best when its co-founder was in control.
Well before IBM legitimized the idea of personal computers for business, in 1981, the Apple II was the coolest of the early crop of PCs. Apple similarly broke ground with the Macintosh in 1984. That original Mac was flawed in certain ways--like the absence of a color screen. Still, it was a "wow" product. In his Stanford University commencement address last year, Jobs described that original Mac as "the first computer with beautiful typography." He wasn't exaggerating.
Just how much of Apple's success was due to its famously egotistical leader? That's grist for a good bar debate, but consider what happened after Apple sent Jobs packing in 1985. Replacement CEO John Sculley enjoyed early but only temporary success. Though a decent man, Sculley was a marketer masquerading as a technology visionary. In time, he got dumped, a victim of corporate intrigue and poorly executed products like the Newton handheld.
In the lean years that followed, Apple learned the hard way what it had lost as a result of Jobs' exile from Cupertino. Mismanaged by a series of increasingly feckless CEOs, Apple began slouching toward mediocrity. You would be hard-pressed to date the decline, but the company lost its wow factor. There wasn't much of a future in being a ho-hum computer maker with an increasingly small share of the market. Soon, the smart money was betting that Apple wouldn't even survive.
Apple's revival began only after Jobs was brought back with the early 1997 acquisition of Next. It wasn't an overnight turnaround, but Jobs exploited his rock star notoriety to the maximum. It helped turn the trick. In time, the product pipeline got replenished with a flow of eMacs, iMacs, Mac Minis and iPods. Apple had regained its groove.
Jobs also boldly challenged convention when he opened retail stores in high-rent downtown locations. Pundits said that was a sure kiss of death. After all, IBM, Gateway and other PC makers tried that strategy in the 1980s and 1990s and utterly flopped. Who was Jobs kidding? Turns out his instincts were better than those of the experts, and the stores have since proved to be a big success. He also threw the dice when he began recasting Apple into a consumer entertainment company. But again, the company's push into digital music proved to the rest of the entertainment industry that there was a legitimate way to sell music--and now videos--on the Internet.
There's no mystery here. The Apple stores and the online digital music stores embody the sense of style and attention the company traditionally lavishes on product design. They just look right. It's not only a question of aesthetics--it's been the secret sauce that has sustained the company through quite a turbulent history.
Time line: Three decades of Apple innovation The products, people and events that shaped the Mac maker.
Gallery 1: Early fonts, graphics Historic Polaroids chart evolution of the user interface.
Gallery 2: Radical shift Soft-key based UI becomes mouse/windows-based.
Gallery 3: Lisa desktop Creating double-click, menu bars and more.
Gallery 4: Sketching out the Mac Before MacPaint there was LisaGraf.
Postcards from the faithful What Apple products mean to CNET News.com readers.
Cult of Mac Apple devotees have a style all their own.
Do you use a Mac? How about an iPod?
Wozniak on early Apples Company co-founder talks about building computers with cheap parts.
'It was like working at Disneyland' Former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki on the company's early days.
Sizzle may be subjective, but Apple's definitely got it, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper.
Editors: Leslie Katz, Scott Ard
Copy editors: Edward Moyer, Jennifer Guevin
Production: Bernie McGinn, Andrew Lottmann
Design: Michelle White, Ellen Ng
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