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According to Hoyle...


Top 10 All-Time Mac Fiascos


December 2008

by Jonathan Hoyle



This month, we take a trip down memory lane, across the history of the Macintosh industry, to point out the Top 10 Fiascos from the perspective of a Macintosh developer.  Although the history of the Macintosh is littered with blunders and boneheaded mistakes, we are going to look at outright fiascos.  And as this is a software development column, I have chosen those which are from the perspective of a Mac developer.


So what counts as a fiasco?  Well, one thing I do NOT count as a fiasco (at least for the purposes of this article) a single failed Apple product within a successful line.  Common examples of such non-fiascos include the Apple III, Lisa, or even the Mac G4 Cube.  Sure, each of these products gave Apple some bad press, but ultimately they were just blips on the radar scope.  Many companies have had blips, that are largely forgotten today.  Let's consider IBM as an example.  Almost any book chronicling the historical embarrassments of IBM will point out the IBM PC jr as a major one in the tech industry.  But in the end, the PC industry as a whole was not hurt by it.  PC users stayed PC users, they bought different products, and IBM endured a couple of less profitable quarters.  No big deal.  A true example of an IBM fiasco might more properly be OS/2.  OS/2 was not simply a failed offering to a community that could simply choose another product.  IBM's failure here destroyed an entire platform, with an installed base of users preferring to stay with OS/2, but cannot due to IBM's bungling.


For me, a Mac fiasco is one which has the potential of crippling an entire user base (even if that user base is a minor one).  Alternatively, a fiasco could be a corporate decision to do something that even their most loyal customers disavow and mock.  They are the New Taste Coke of the industry, openly ridiculed by both pro-Mac and anti-Mac people alike.


Some of the fiascos I mention will make you laugh (like #5), some will make you angry (like #4).  They include those from Apple, 3rd party collaborators, and even its competitors.  #5 is actually a Windows fiasco that was indirectly caused by Apple (and thus a positive fiasco from the Mac standpoint).  Some fiascos actually create new demand (such as #6).  Many are specific to software developers (#7), while others are fiascos to the general Mac user (such as #3).  In the end, I wanted to pick the most eventful ones in the eyes of Macintosh programmers.


The Missing 10th?


Although this column's title suggests 10 fiascos, I list only 9 of them here.  I will let you the reader to decide upon a 10th.  Email me at  a description of the fiasco you feel belongs in the Top 10, and I will devote an entire column on the readers' picks.  For now, here are my 9 of the Top 10:






9. Copland (1996)


By the spring of 1996, Apple was running a bit nervous.  Microsoft had just introduced Windows 95 the previous August, and for the first time Windows now had the technological upper hand over Mac OS.  Before this point, the Mac operating system had always been superior to its rivals.  However, Microsoft's new Windows 95 was the first consumer operating system which was preemptive multitasking and memory protected, while the Mac's System 7.5 OS still lacked these features.  For two years, Apple was struggling to release their next generation OS, codenamed Copland, to get back on top in the operating system game.  At Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in May 1996, this new OS, now given the official name Mac OS 8, was the focus.  At this conference, Apple said that Copland was very nearly ready to go beta, and a pre-release had narrowly missed being released to WWDC attendees.  Just a few months later, this was all revealed to be a lie.


Copland wasn't anywhere near beta-worthy.  It was a bloated, bug-infested mess.  It was so bad, Apple would eventually drop the entire venture to start over again from scratch.  Why Apple would knowingly mislead their developers about the state of Copland is hard to say.  Certainly Apple engineers knew how bad things were.  Could it be that Apple marketing was just blinded to the realities?  Perhaps, but whatever the reason was, it caused Macintosh developers to lose faith for the first time.  Apple was not only behind Windows in technology now, but this would be the case for the foreseeable future.  Over the next year, a number of Apple employees lost their jobs, including CEO Gil Amelio.


Epilog:  Many Mac developers felt betrayed by the false promises made at WWDC '96.  1996 would represent the last of the "fun" WWDC conferences, as future conferences would be forced to focus specifically on content (rather than as a pep rally).  The Copland fiasco left Apple's future in serious question.  Scrambling to recover, Apple began searching for ready-made solutions for a next-Gen operating system, with BeOS looking like the likely candidate.  In the end, it was Steve Jobs and NeXT that Apple turned to for a solution.


Visit this Wikipedia entry for more information on Copland.





8. The Microsoft "Marriage" (1997)


At the 1997 MacWorld Expo in Boston, Steve Jobs shocked the Mac faithful by announcing a deal between Apple and Microsoft.  In this deal, various patents would be cross-licensed, Microsoft will invest $150 million in Apple, and in return: the Mac version of Office 97 will not be canceled and Apple will make Internet Explorer its default web browser.  At one point, Big Brother Gates loomed large in a screen over Steve Jobs, leaving an ominous impression as to what this relationship meant.  Jobs described the deal as a "marriage".  In reality, Steve Jobs was simply Bill Gates' bitch.


What was desperately marketed as a "deal" was nothing more than a poorly veiled blackmail threat made against Apple.  Microsoft was in a browser war with Netscape, and wanted Internet Explorer to be the dominant product.  Before this time, Apple remained browser neutral, allowing people to choose for themselves between Netscape and Explorer.  In 1997, Apple was still on the ropes financially with sales down and people still recovering from Fiasco #9.  If Microsoft killed Mac Office at this stage, Apple might not have ever had a chance to recover.  Gates, knowing this, took this opportunity to extort Apple to do its bidding.  One can view a scan of the Microsoft memo outlining the corporate blackmail, made public as court documents from a later lawsuit.  In particular, the smoking gun found in the memo:

"The threat to cancel Mac Office 97 is certainly the strongest bargaining point we have, as doing so will do a great deal of harm to Apple immediately.  I also believe Apple is taking this threat very seriously."

In the end, Steve Jobs caved.  (Nor did he really have much of a choice in the matter.)  Apple was forced to make Internet Explorer the default browser on the Mac, and in return Microsoft will deliver Office 98 for the Mac and invest $150 Million in Apple.  As for the patent sharing, you can guess who got the upper hand there.


Epilog:  Several years later after Apple had been truly revitalized, Steve Jobs no longer needed Microsoft's help to remain successful and the "marriage" was annulled.  Apple's default web browser became its own Safari, and Microsoft continued support for Office for its own financial reasons, not Apple's.


For on the blackmail, read this MacWorld article.





7. Rhapsody (1997)


On the heels of Fiasco #9, Apple was in desperate need of a modern OS to compete with Microsoft's Windows 95.  Apple eventually decided to purchase Steve Jobs' NeXT and use its operating system, NeXTStep as the path for the future OS.  At the 1997 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple outlined what the future looked like in its port of NeXTStep to the Mac platform, called Rhapsody.


However, applications which wished to run natively on Rhapsody had to be completely rewritten from scratch in the Objective-C programming language, in a completely new API called YellowBoxYellowBox was completely incompatible with the existing Mac ToolBox API's, and there was no transitionary mechanism for developers upon which to rely.  Existing software could continue to run in what was called BlueBox, a primitive version of ClassicBlueBox lived inside its own window and had its own desktop and Finder, much like the old Virtual PC or today's SheepShaver emulator.


Developers were pissed, and WWDC '97 went down as one of the most depressing conferences Apple has ever held.  As the development community had no intention of rewriting everything from scratch, Apple found that the Rhapsody initiative was completely untenable.


Epilog:  The following year, Apple came back with a winning strategy at WWDC '98: merging NeXTStep and Mac OS into a hybrid operating system called Mac OS X.  In addition to the Objective-C based NeXTStep APIs (now renamed Cocoa), Apple also provided the Carbon API, a cleaned up version of the old Mac ToolBox, which allowed users to transition their applications without having to do a complete rewrite.  With Carbon in place for current projects, Cocoa remained available for new development, and this dual strategy became enormously successful.





6. The Round "Hockey Puck" Mouse (1998)


Anyone who was a Mac owner knows about this little fiasco.  Yeah, the friggin' round mouse (also called the hockeypuck mouse).  Sure, we can laugh about it now, but back then it was as annoying as fingernails down a chalkboard.  When Steve Jobs introduced it with the iMac, he said, "I think this is the best mouse we ever made."  It's hard to imagine the future genius behind the iPod, iPhone and the Mac's revival could have slippped up like this so badly.  But he sure as hell did.


For those who missed out on the fun ten years ago, this mouse was perfectly round, not oval-shaped like most.  What's wrong with that, you may ask?  Well try using it.  You find that you couldn't orient it correctly (since the shape is perfectly symmetrical), and your pointer will go off in a different direction than you had expected.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, hated it.  But stubborn Steve wouldn't let go.  He perhaps thought that with time people would come to his way of thinking.


Didn't happen.


This fiasco actually caused a boon in 3rd party mouse products.  Most people just bought another mouse when they bought a Mac, and threw the Apple mouse in the closet.  Vendors started making money selling mouse accessories to fill in the gap Apple created.  Some vendors even created enclosures to give this mouse a real shape.  In any case, even Steve Jobs stubbornly refused to accept what was obvious to all alike: this round mouse was a fiasco.


Epilog:  In 2000, Steve Jobs replaced the round mouse with a normally shaped optical mouse.  This new mouse was happily embraced by Mac users.  Although he never admitted failure on this product, Steve doesn't really bring the topic up either.


For more info on the round mouse, read this article.





5. The Gates / Seinfeld Ad Campaign (2008)


After two straight years of getting beaten up by the I'm a Mac / I'm a PC ads, Microsoft was ready to strike back.  The Apple ads remained overwhelmingly popular, even by Windows users.  Microsoft needed combat this marketing threat with an ad campaign of its own.  They decided to pay off long time Mac aficionado Jerry Seinfeld $10 million to ditch his Powerbook and go on television with Bill Gates to promote Windows.


What came out was a rather bizarre and very unusual television ad.


Unless you've been living in a closet for the past few months, you probably already know how bad they were.  The press and bloggers were brutal.  Ridicule and derision was heaped upon Microsoft, far worse than the Apple ads could do so.  Two weeks and $300 million later, these dismaying ads were finally (and mercifully) put out of their (and everyone else's) collective misery.  In their place, a somewhat risky approach was taken: turn the "I'm a PC" declaration around and fire back at Apple.  Make it a positive again by showing people who use a PC, and have them say "I'm a PC".  It was actually quite a clever move for Microsoft.  And the "I'm a PC" ads certainly performed better, as Microsoft started to finally feel good about their expensive ad campaign.


That is until...


...until it was leaked that these new ads were made ... (you guess it) ... using a Macintosh.


I have friends who had tears coming down their eyes laughing so hard when this news broke.  With egg still showing on their face, Microsoft attempted to dismiss this in a rushed press release, stating: "productions houses use a wide variety of software and hardware...including both Macs and PCs".  Hey, now Microsoft's press releases are advertising Macs!  Woo-hoo!  The embarrassments continued further when it was discovered that some of the paid spokespeople displayed in these ads were actually Apple users.


Epilog:  As of this writing, these ads continue to play, so it's too early to say how the "I'm a PC" campaign will be viewed in the future, but you can read further about it in its Wikipedia entry.





4. MacBasic (1985)


When Apple engineers were designing the Macintosh, they wanted an implementation of the Basic programming language which was powerful yet easy to use.  They wanted to truly empower the Mac user, not just give him the same old console-like Basic, such as Microsoft's implementation on the Apple II.  The company's guru of Basic programming at the time, Donn Denman, poured his heart and soul into the project, creating MacBasic, an advanced, object oriented version of the language, one which could even control many aspects of the Macintosh GUI.  It was a revolutionary feat of engineering and received rave reviews from all who saw the demos or tested early versions.  (Click for technical details on the product.)  By the spring of 1985, beta testers were using it heavily, and it was highly anticipated by all for a full commercial release that summer.  Unfortunately for Apple, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates happened to witness one of these demos.


By this point in time, Microsoft had already ported their mediocre console-like Basic interpreter to the Macintosh.  As a product, MS BASIC couldn't hold a candle to MacBasic, and Gates knew it.  Since tests continually showed Mac Basic outperforming MS Basic for the Mac, Gates was determined to stop MacBasic from shipping.  As it happened, the Apple II's Basic (built into the computer's ROM) was written by Microsoft and its license agreement with Apple was up for renewal that coming September.  So Gates blackmailed Apple: If Apple doesn't kill the MacBasic project, Microsoft would refuse to renew its MS BASIC license for the Apple II.


In 1985, the Macintosh was still a very young product, and the vast majority of Apple's revenue was still coming from Apple II sales.  Although everyone pretty much knew that the Mac would eventually overtake the Apple II in sales, the company in 1985 still relied very heavily on the health of its older Apple II line.  Then-Apple President John Sculley, knowing that he could ill afford to jeopardize the Apple II community, capitulated to the demands.  In exchange for Microsoft renewing the Apple II Basic lease, Sculley was forced to sell MacBasic to Microsoft for...(get this)...$1.


That day, Denman was told by Apple management that the MacBasic project was being terminated immediately, and that he had to destroy all existing copies, including the source code and documentation.  Apple refused to give Donn an explanation, despite his desperate pleas to know why.  The stunned Denman watched as several years of his painstaking work got deleted.  Heart-broken, he left the building on an emotional and ill-advised motorcycle ride.  On his way home, he was involved in a terrible accident which totaled his bike (fortunately, Denman survived with only minor injuries).


Epilog:  Apple attempted to retrieve all the remaining copies of MacBasic it had distributed to beta testers, but when word got out what was happening, the beta testers refused to turn in their disks.  The MacBasic beta became widely pirated and circulated amongst developers and remained in underground use for some time.  Surprisingly (and attesting to its continued popularity), two planned books on MacBasic continued into publication (eg: Introduction to Macintosh BASIC and Using Macintosh BASIC, amongst others).  Surprisingly, these books sold well, despite the cancellation of the product they were written for.


As for Microsoft, the unimpeded MS BASIC became the dominant seller of Basic on the Macintosh for the next several years.  With MacBasic now the legal property of Microsoft, many of its ideas and unique features were cannibalized and reused for the creation of Microsoft Visual Basic years later.  But that is a story for another time.


For a more on the story of MacBasic, check out this article.




File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0


3. The Death of Mac Clones (1998)


In 1995, Apple took a close hard look at their rich rivals over in Redmond and wonder how it was that they could be making so much money, whilst Apple was constantly broke.  They quickly concluded that Microsoft's advantage was based upon the fact they had no expensive low-margin hardware to deal with, only software licenses.  While Apple, IBM and others had to manage expensive hardware, Microsoft had only disks and manuals to worry about.  So then CEO Michael Spindler came up with a plan to follow the same path: license its OS (then System 7) to hardware vendors.  After defining a standardized hardware platform called CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform), Apple began attracting hardware vendors to join the Mac platform.


Mac users were extremely excited by the prospect of new hardware vendors joining the Mac community.  Most believed that the reason for PC dominance had less to due with Windows' strength and more to do with the openness of hardware vendors to jump on board.  In 1996, the first Mac clones hit the marketplace, all with rave reviews.  Such names as Motorola, Power Computing, UMax, and even IBM itself, all jumped into the market to sell Mac clones.  Mac OS marketshare began to spike, reaching an astounding 13%.  Many of these companies, however, were just breaking even still paying for the startup cost, hoping to build a customer base so that they could realize profits the following years.


Although overall Mac OS marketshare was rising high, Apple's own share of the pie was by necessity shrinking.  After the Copland disaster was revealed (see Fiasco #9), Steve Jobs was brought back in, and shortly thereafter bumped out CEO Gil Amelio to take command.  Sadly, one of his first acts was to kill off the clone market.


To no one's surprise, Steve Jobs would rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.  He didn't want to grow the Mac market unless that meant growing Apple as well.  So very quickly, he cancelled all future internal development in CHRP, and beginning with Mac OS 8.5, clone support would be dropped in the OS.


Mac clone hardware vendors felt betrayed by Apple.  After all of the pushing to get them to join the platform, Apple pulls the rug out from under them.  Mac users themselves were also upset, seeing the loss of hardware vendors as a serious downturn to the platform.


Epilog:  As clone manufacturers discontinued their products, Mac OS marketshare plummeted.  Though Apple's bottom line improved (as it once again owned 100% of the Mac pie, the pie continued to shrink).  Free falling below 10%, then 8%, then 5%, eventually the Mac OS marketshare hit an all-time low of 3%.  Eventually though, Jobs found a way to bring Mac marketshare back up (without licensing Mac OS).  Despite Apple's current good fortune and record sales, Mac OS marketshare in 2008 still pales to that of the heyday of the clones.


For an interesting look back at Mac clones, you might enjoy watching this half hour program.




2. Mobile Me (2008)


The most recent of all fiascos is one we are dealing with now: the living purgatory of MobileMeMobileMe is Apple's unfortunate replacement to its popular .Mac (pronounced dot mac) service.  .Mac gave you email, hosting area for posting web pages and a number of other goodies.  MobileMe does essentially the same thing, except more sluggishly and more poorly implemented.  The intention behind moving to MobileMe is to better support iPhone users.  Sadly, Mac users were forgotten in this move.


Prior to WWDC '08, Apple's .Mac program had been fairly successful.  Huge numbers of Macintosh users embraced their address (including your's truly) and take great advantage of its iDisk and the web features available.  Although most of these features remain in place under the new name, it has become quite painful to use.


Users attempting to access email over the web interface are stuck with painfully long delays, tragically common outages, and unwelcome bugs, such as lost and undelivered mail.  Hundreds of formerly devoted .Mac are fleeing to Google's Gmail or other alternatives, as they feel cheated by Apple.  Even Steve Jobs himself realizes that this has become an unbearable situation and would not have made this move had he known how bad things were, and even today it remains in very poor shape.  Apple has extended users' terms of service to stave off this potential mass defection.


Epilog:  It's too early to tell yet how this fiasco will end.  Most users, including myself, just simply wish they could have their old .Mac accounts back.





1. Metrowerks CodeWarrior (2005)


Fiasco #1 for Mac developers, with no close second, was the riches-to-rags story of Metrowerks CodeWarrior, which overnight went from universal use to product cancellation.  Any Mac software engineer who has been in the field for more than a year or two still feels the pain of this fiasco.


Back in the days of 68K Macs, Metrowerks was a small education market compiler developer, known principally for its Pascal and Modula-2 products on the Macintosh and MIPs.  With the advent of the Power Macintosh, all of that changed.  Metrowerks introduced CodeWarrior at the end of 1993, the only user-accessible development environment that could create native PowerPC applications.  CodeWarrior offered three front end languages: Pascal, C and C++, and had two back-ends that could be compiled for: 68K and PowerPC.  Later versions of CodeWarrior would offer additional language and processor support, such as for Java and Win32 development.  Metrowerks also introduced the PowerPlant C++ class framework.  In less than two years, Metrowerks went from niche to market dominance, completely changing the face of Macintosh software development.  For the next decade, no other tools developer (including Apple) could touch Metrowerks.


Metrowerks grew, adding support for a number of new platforms, went public and was eventually purchased by Motorola for its innovative compiler technologies.  CodeWarrior became the overwhelming marketshare leader in Macintosh C/C++ development.  Over 90% of shipping Mac applications during this period were built using CodeWarrior.  Considered both easier and more powerful than the freeware Xcode from Apple, CodeWarrior was the IDE of choice for the Mac community.  In addition to the PowerPC compiler inside CodeWarrior, Metrowerks also had an x86 compiler to build Windows applications.  Its x86 compiler had been tested and grown for over 10 years, just as its Mac compiler had.


However, in 2003, the face of Metrowerks began to change.  Motorola was in its initial stages of spinning off portions of Metrowerks to Freescale, a company which had no respect or understanding of Metrowerks.  Freescale's mismanagement and blunderings were seen immediately.  In 2003, for the first time in 10 years, Metrowerks failed to even make an appearance at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, the single most important conference for Macintosh software development.  Things went from bad to worse in 2004.  Not only was Metrowerks absent again from WWDC, but for the first time in the company's history, it failed to deliver its annual Macintosh release of CodeWarrior.  With corporate apathy ruling the day at Freescale, developers egan to rightly suspect that doom was on the horizon.


However, it would be in 2005 that the final nail would be placed into CodeWarrior's coffin.  In an amazing combination of stupidity and bad timing, Metrowerks sold off its Intel compiler technology just weeks prior to Steve Jobs' announcement that the Macintosh would transition its processors from PowerPC and to Intel.  Bad decisions have killed businesses in the past, but it is a rare case when a single bad decision turns a business from monopoly to cancellation virtually overnight.  The trickle became a flood as Macintosh developers abandoned CodeWarrior to switch to Xcode.


By effectively shooting itself in the head, Freescale drove an overwhelming popular development environment, a near monopoly in fact, into insolvency in just two years.  Metrowerks was left with no choice but to abandon the Macintosh market, which is what it announced at the 2005 MacHack conference.  A final version 10 of CodeWarrior for the Macintosh was released in late autumn as a download only and at a slashed price of $99.  In the spring of 2006, all support and sales of CodeWarrior for the Macintosh was officially terminated.


This sad end to a great product speaks volumes of how an incompetent CEO can destroy a truly great product.


Epilog:  For over a decade, CodeWarrior was the Mac developer's best friend.  Far superior to Microsoft's offerings for Windows, Metrowerks' product line represented the cream of the crop in the least for a time.  Toward the end of its life, it began to atrophe, and with its exit, Xcode is now the primary development environment for Mac OS X.





If you have any feedback, or would like to offer your own suggestion, please email me mailto: with your thoughts, and I will devote a column to your responses.




Coming Up Next Month:  SheepShaver Update for 2009!  See you in 30!


To see a list of all the According to Hoyle columns, visit: