Whatever happened to…
by John C. Dvorak
(published circa 1992)
There are “insanely great” products that never see the light of day. There are others that are barely usable, but make the best seller lists because they have no real competition. Then there are those products that, regardless of merit, die as soon as they’re released. The Apple III is perhaps the most famous example of this last group.
Success is often a mixed blessing. Entrepreneurs usually have expertise in either the technical or the sales side of their business. Rarely do they have experience in managing a large enterprise. This is especially true of Silicon Valley and its various spin-offs in Texas, Southern California, and along Boston’s technology beltway. Apple was no exception to this rule, especially in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Steve Wozniak has attributed the Apple II’s tremendous popularity to two things: the Apple II’s floppy disk drive and VisiCalc, the first microcomputer spreadsheet. (Wozniak’s floppy disk drive controller was a brilliant hardware hack in the true sense of the word.) Together, those two features propelled Apple Computer from a garage to hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and manufacturing space in a few short years.
By 1980 Apple’s executives believed that they couldn’t rely solely on the Apple II for their future. Something new was needed.
In 1979 and 1980, small businesses accounted for the vast majority of both VisiCalc and Apple II sales. Apple decided, in 1979, to target this new market with a machine that would meet the needs of small-business users. The code name for the new machine was “Sara.” It would be faster than the Apple II and have more memory. It would also support an 80 column display, and both upper and lower case characters. (The early Apple II had a 40 column display and only supported upper case characters.) From that point on, a large part of Apple’s hiring was based on producing this new business machine, the Apple III. (Although the Macintosh and Lisa projects were started in roughly the same time frame, they both changed significantly in the development phase and neither was seen as key to Apple’s immediate success in the way the Apple III was.)
Next it was decided that Apple needed to clearly segment the market. The Apple II would retain its original market as an educational and home computer. The Apple III would pick up the growth market: business users. It was actually believed that the Apple II would slide quietly into oblivion within six months of the Apple III’s release. So all the attention was focused on the Apple III as the Apple II was left to languish.
The Apple III was also to receive a new, advanced operating system: the Sophisticated Operating System. While SOS (pronounced “sauce”) which itself was incompatible with the Apple II’s operating system, a limited Apple II emulation mode was provided with the machine. The emphasis here was on limited.
SOS was actually closer to a DOS shell than an operating system. It was written in Apple Pascal, the Apple version of UCSD Pascal, and executed within the Apple Pascal operating system environment. Since SOS was written in Apple Pascal’s pseudo-code, or p-code, it was inherently slower than an operating system written in assembly code.
SOS also used a menu system that was supposed to make the operating system simple to use. This plan backfired because exiting a program didn’t necessarily return the user to SOS. Some programs would dump the user off at the Apple Pascal operating system prompt. The Apple III’s manuals never mentioned what the user should do when that happened.
The Apple III was officially announced at the National Computer Conference in May of 1980. However it was the very end of the year before the first production models were shipped. At the time, volume production wasn’t expected until the middle of 1981. And it wasn’t until late 1981 that applications programs were available from anyone other than VisiCorp.
The delays lead some to question the $4,740 Apple III’s viability. What really killed the Apple III, though, was that each of the first 14,000 units were defective. Its chips had the nasty habit of popping out of their sockets. The enduring image of the Apple III, and the one everyone had by late 1981, was of a hefty gentleman walking on his Apple III motherboard to reseat its chips. This is not to mention the rumors about certain chips “melting” inside the machine.
Apple recalled the defective computers and halted production when the problem became apparent. Apple executives were not about to give up on the machines because of a production bug. The production problems were corrected and the III was re-released with a 5 MB hard drive for $3,495 in the second half of 1981. By now other problems including the introduction of the IBM PC were apparent. These were marketing problems. The most noticeable was the design of the machine. The Apple III was a modified two-piece machine with separate monitor and a non-detachable keyboard. The world was already heavily into a trend towards detachable keyboards. Sales were tepid.
The Apple III+, released in early 1984, as a last gasp attempt to correct the Apple III’s few remaining deficiencies. The $2,695 III+ had more memory, a long promised clock/calendar chip, higher resolution text and graphics modes, an improved operating system, and its Apple II emulation mode was expanded to include Apple IIe software. No matter, within months it was announced that all development efforts on the Apple III line had been discontinued. The company was going to focus itself on the Macintosh and re-promote the old Apple II line.
In spite of its shortcomings, the Apple III had several innovative features. SOS was the first operating system to implement flexible software device drivers making it easy for third parties to create peripherals. The Apple III+ gave its users access to as much as 512K of RAM, which was unprecedented on an 8-bit machine. Apple was also the first major microcomputer manufacturer to offer a hard disk drive.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong machine at the wrong time and flawed at that.