25 Unanswerable Questions About Apple

Apple's history has had more moments of truth than that of any other tech company. Maybe any other company, period. Discuss.

By  |  Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 1:10 pm

unanswerableEverybody has two businesses, the old saying goes: their own business, and show business. It’s the same with technology, except everybody’s two business are their own business…and Apple’s. No other tech company on the planet is followed as avidly, nor is any so routinely second-guessed. And if anything, controversy over Apple’s decisions and dramas intensifies with time: I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if someone, somewhere, still contends that Jobs and Wozniak should have slashed the $666.66 pricetag of 1976’s Apple I to better compete with the $495 Altair.

Apple’s long history is rife with defining moments…and, therefore, with roads not traveled that might have led to radically different places. I call the twenty-five items in this story “unanswerable questions” because none of them have right answers: Nobody knows what would have happened if things had turned out differently. All you can do is speculate. Which is what I do, briefly, for all of the questions below. But mostly, I’m curious what you think. These questions may be unanswerable, but it’s still a blast to try and answer them anyhow, as I hope you’ll do in the comments…

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? After the jump, that is…

1. What if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had never met?

jobswozToday’s Apple may be a company dominated by a single mind, but at the start, there were two geniuses behind it. Steve Wozniak gave the Apple II sexy color graphics, slots for future expansion, and other impressive features;  Steve Jobs put it in a case that was anything but clunky, and marketed it like a master. The skills of the two founders were astoundingly complimentary, but they might never have partnered up at all if their mutual buddy Bill Fernandez hadn’t introduced them to each other in 1971.

Harry’s guess: It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Steve Jobs never became a big deal doing something, or in which Steve Wozniak wasn’t a major figure of early personal computing history.  But if Apple had lacked either Jobs’s packaging and marketing gifts or Woz’s technical chops, it might not have made it into the 1980s, let along lived on into the next century.

2. What if Steve Jobs hadn’t visited Apple PARC?

xeroxIn 1979, way before Apple released the Mac or the proto-Mac known as the Lisa, Steve Jobs talked his way into a guided tour of Xerox’s PARC, the fabled research facility that spawned graphical user interfaces, the laser printer, Ethernet, and other breakthroughs that just about everyone except Xerox went on to turn into successful products. Jobs and other Apple staffers visited PARC twice, and came away dazzled by its Alto user interface. And who wouldn’t be? In the days of command-line interfaces, its icons, menus, fancy fonts, and mouse-driven design were literally a preview of computing’s future. Apple cheerfully borrowed Xerox’s concepts for the pricey and unsuccessful Lisa, then reused them for the Macintosh, the first computer to bring a rich graphical interface to the masses.

Harry’s guess: The Jobs visit to PARC is the stuff of legend; it’s tempting to riff on the idea that if it hadn’t happened, we’d all be banging out DOS commands on our keyboards today. Or, alternatively, that Xerox would have released a Mac-like computer that changed the computing world forever. Um, no: GUIs were such a good idea that they would have dominated no matter what. And Steve Jobs was so persistent that he would have turned Xerox’s good ideas (as well as numerous ones not seen in Alto) into Apple products one way or another. As for Xerox, it did commercialize the Alto interface in its Star workstation. Used one lately?

3. What if Woz hadn’t crashed his plane?

wozSteve Wozniak’s brilliant engineering was just as important to Apple’s early success as Steve Jobs’ marketing wizardry. But in 1981, Woz totalled his Beechwood Bonanza, doing severe damage to his memory. He recovered from his bout of amnesia, and did some engineering work for Apple thereafter. But only a little work, and mostly on the Apple II, which was in the process of being eclipsed by the Mac. Otherwise, he filled out the 1980s by returning to school, becoming a teacher, bankrolling the US Festivals, and founding an unsuccessful universal remote control company called CL 9. He also continued on the Apple payroll, but the two-Steve era was over.

Harry’s guess:
Woz was a virtuoso, which made him the most important figure of the first period of personal computer design. But it also makes it less likely that he would have continued to thrive in the more corporate, team-oriented era that followed. My guess is that he would have put aside engineering in favor of all his other pursuits, from educating kids to Segway polo, no matter what. And I can’t blame him.

4, What if the Lisa had been a hit?

applelisaIn January 1983, Apple released the Lisa. The innovative and well-equipped machine sported a revolutionary user interface, a mouse, 5.25″ inch floppy drives, and a whopping 1MB of RAM–and a $9,995 pricetag that made it an unsuccessful, out-of-reach oddity in an era when many businesses weren’t sure they wanted computers at any price. By April 1985, the Lisa line was dead. That wasn’t a tragedy for anyone concerned, since the similar and far more affordable (if underpowered) Mac had debuted more than a year earlier.

Harry’s guess: This one’s easy. The only scenario in which the Lisa would have wound up a success would have involved it keeping all its good stuff but getting a lot cheaper–evolving, in other words, into something almost exactly like the Macs of the later 1980s. That didn’t happen in part because the Mac itself came along. But if the Lisa had gotten affordable and flourished, it might have been the Apple computer that continued on to the present day. The biggest real difference might have been the nameplate on the case. Oh, and Apple would have presumably had to hire someone other than Justin Long for its “I’m a Lisa” ads.

5. What if Apple had licensed the Mac OS in the mid-1980s?

systemfolderFrom almost the moment that the Mac arrived in 1984, folks were telling Apple that its strategy–selling its own software on its own boxes–was all wrong. Among the naysayers was a guy who knew a thing or two about selling software on other companies’ boxes: Bill Gates. In a famous memo from July 1985, he recommended that Apple license the Mac OS to other manufacturers, and suggested three in particular: Northern Telecom, Motorola, and AT&T.

Apple gave Bill’s advice serious consideration, then declined to pursue it.  (unless you count a different Apple administration’s brief licensing of clones a decade later). For the most part, it’s stuck with its initial software-and-hardware strategy through good times and bad, and taken it into new realms such as music players and phones. The idea is core–pun unavoidable–to what makes Apple Apple. But when Gates wrote his memo, it wasn’t clear that the Mac was going to make it, Steve Jobs had lost his power struggle with Apple CEO John Sculley (although he hadn’t quite resigned yet), and Windows hadn’t shipped. More than most times in its history, 1985 was a time when the company might have decided to license its OS.

Harry’s guess: It’s always a mistake to claim that Apple would have essentially been Microsoft if only it had deigned to license the Mac OS–the move would have been so contrary to its instincts that it probably would have screwed it up. And Windows, unlike the Mac OS, had the advantage of being an extension of DOS, the dominant computing platform of its time. I think it’s possible that a licensed Mac OS might have been quite successful; I also think it’s just as likely that Windows would have come to dominate the market from a sales standpoint anyhow.

6. What if Steve Jobs hadn’t left Apple in 1985?

businessweekIn 1983, Steve Jobs hired Pepsi president John Sculley to help him run Apple. In 1985, Sculley forced Jobs to resign on the grounds, basically, that he was impossible to deal with.Thus began twelve years of Apple history that were nowhere near as exciting as Jobs’ first reign at the company or his current one.

Harry’s guess: It’s beyond debate that an Apple that had kept Jobs on the payroll would have had a different history than the one that limped along for more than a decade without him. How it would have been different is tough to say, though. Almost anyone would come to the conclusion that being fired was good for Steve Jobs: He went away and founded NeXT (which built the operating system that serves as the Mac OS to this day) and Pixar (one of the most influential and profitable entertainment companies ever). And he eventually returned to Apple as a vastly more seasoned, disciplined person. If he hadn’t spent the years in exile, it’s possible that Apple would have boomed in the 1990s and the iMac, iPod, and iPhone would have come along just as they did. But I think it’s just as likely that Jobs would have been a different, less successful sort of entrepreneur, and Apple a different, less successful sort of company.

7. What if NeXT had succeeded?

nextlogoJobs’ second computer startup made an extremely cool workstation that was a decade or more ahead of its time. It just turned out that there wasn’t much of a market for it. The company drifted from business model to business model and received infusions of cash from outsiders such as Ross Perot and Canon for a decade; its life as an independent venture ended when Apple bought it in 1996, acquiring its Unix-based OS and bringing Steve Jobs back into the fold.

Harry’s guess. It’s not hard to come up with alternate scenarios in which NeXT would have been more viable. But they all involve it making products for use by big enterprises, programmers, and/or scientific and academic types–not friendly little computers, music players, and cell phones for consumers. If NeXT had thrived, Steve Jobs might well have been prosperous, respected, and happy; nobody, however, would have regarded him as a god, or even a household name. And I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing this article.

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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Len Cole Says:

    Hey, cool! You gave us a bonus question: the second question 5. 🙂

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    I messed up the numbering…fixed!


  3. marty_k Says:

    Great piece, Harry. Enjoyed it a lot!


  4. Louis Says:

    The fact is, if Steve jobs had been easier to deal with (he threw a pile of contract prepared by IBM, saying he wants a one page contract and that is all) today all PCs would be running mac os.(remember this is long before windows and at the time it is so ahead of it’s time)

  5. Brant Says:

    Louis: You’re thinking of something that happened at NeXT. IBM wanted to license the NeXT OS for the IBM PC as an alternative to WIndows, not MacOS (although maybe you’re sort making the case that NeXT Step is the same as MacOS X).

    Here’s some what ifs:

    – What if Apple had decided to focus its engineering efforts on improvements to the Apple II and build a GUI on top of the Apple II rather than create the Apple ///, Lisa, and Mac?

    – What if the Apple /// had a fan (and didn’t have the overheating problem which lead to its failure)?

    – What if Apple had allowed the spin-off of Newton, Inc. to occur?

    – What if Claris had been allowed to run as a separate independent software company?

    – What if Metrowerks hadn’t existed and the transition to PowerPC had been fumbled due to lack of native applications?

  6. SubGothius Says:

    To the list, I would add the following (arguably answerable) question:

    Q: What if Steve Jobs had been willing to wait just one more year for the Motorola 68010 chip to become available for mass production?

    A: The Mac could have debuted with hardware support (allowing OS support) for virtual and protected memory in 1985! Instead, the Macintosh System Software was compromised at its very foundations from the start with a shared-memory scheme that allowed apps to crash the OS (also a weak point of pre-NT Windows), and which remained a legacy weakness of the “classic” Mac OS all the way up through Mac OS 9.

  7. nikki Says:

    great article thanks…its made me think..:-)

  8. Gregg Says:

    Harry, this was as well-thought-out and reasoned as any retrospective-slash-look-forward as I’ve read.

    Excellent, balanced, and “sluethful,” if you will.


  9. Video Games Says:

    You guys are definitely true nerds.

  10. drbunsen Says:

    What if Apple bought Sun today?

    @Brant: Apple did build a GUI onto an improved Apple ][ compatible – the 16-bit IIGS, which came out after the first Macs.

    Nevertheless you pose a very interesting question. If resources of the /// and Lisa projects had gone into building the Mac system software on improved ][-compatible hardware, they could conceivably have ended up with a cheaper box, backwards hardware- and software- compatibility, and a much easier transition for the thousands of homes, businesses – and significantly, schools – with existing investment in the ][ series architecture.

    At the time, they were the number one personal computer brand, and first year Mac sales were disappointing. If they had managed to keep and build on the lead they had developed with the ][s, well …

  11. Lun Esex Says:


    Don’t forget that sales of Apple IIs funded ALL of Apple’s development on the Apple ///, the Lisa, and the Macintosh through at least the end of the 80’s.

    Additionally there was always resentment within Apple between the teams: Non-Aple II teams resented that the Apple II was still the more popular computer and cash cow of the company; the Apple II team resented that not only were the other teams getting all the attention, but that the Apple II was first relegated to schools and home use only (at the introduction of the Apple ///) and then it was supposed to fade away entirely after the introduction of the Mac. In the meantime the Apple II kept many business, scientific, and other professional users happy and productive (see Visicalc, the first “killer app,” and later AppleWorks).

    In hindsight, the two things I think Apple should have done differently about the Apple II vs. other Apple computers conflict are:

    1) Adopted the third-party Apple II tricks by companies like Applied Engineering that allowed 80-columns, lowercase, expanded memory, etc. and incorporated them into the Apple /// so that it was more fully software/hardware compatible with existing Apple II software. At its release the Apple ///’s emulation of the Apple II was considered intentionally crippled. The truth is that it emulated a stock Apple ][+ just fine, but almost no one was running only a stock Apple ][+. The upgrades they’d made to their Apple ][+s weren’t compatible with the Apple ///, though, so the software they had that required the upgrades wouldn’t work.

    2) Used better IC sockets on the Apple /// motherboard, or no sockets at all. The cheap sockets they initially used are what caused its reliability problems and doomed the machine. Alternately a fan would have also worked, but given Steve Jobs’ penchant for fan-less computers better sockets would have been the only realistic solution.

    Given the two of the above, one more step would have ensured futher success: Not forcing their products lines into distinct “home and school” and “business” niches. People turned away when they tried to buy an Apple II for their business and were told that it wasn’t a suitable machine and they were steered towards the Apple /// for $1000 more. Thankfully Apple will now cheerfully sell businesses iMacs and Mac Minis and MacBooks even though they aren’t “Pro” machines.

    The user interface of the Lisa was actually initially developed on Apple IIs and ///s, with prototype mice. Years later there were many GUI apps that ran on the Apple IIe (before the IIgs) like MouseWrite, MouseDesk (a Finder-like program), MouseCalc, StyleWrite, and GraphicWriter (desktop publishing, on an 8-bit Apple II!). That’s proof that the hardware was up to the task. If the Apple /// had been a success, AND a true successor to the Apple II, it would have been a unified platform that the Lisa/Mac GUI software could have been released on. It already had a fairly robust O/S, with a hierarchical filing system, hard drive support, standardized device drivers, expanded memory support up to at least 256K, etc. It took a LOT of additional work for the Mac to get these things after its initial release.

    FWIW, Apple also worked on a 68000 co-processor card, which could have allowed for a graceful transition from 8-bit processors to 16-bit, with full backwards-compatibility (much like their later 680×0 to PowerPC to Intel transitions, which learned lessons from the poor Apple II to post-Apple II transition).

  12. ol' 6502 Says:

    2. You have a strange definition of “borrowed”: “Xerox was given Apple stock in exchange for engineer visits and an understanding that Apple would create a GUI product” [Wikipedia, Xerox PARC] It’s even arguable that Xerox earned more from the Apple stock than they ever did from the Alto or the Lisa-priced Star hardware despite PARC’s unquestionable innovations. See “Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer”, Smith and Alexander, 1988.

    Furthermore, to judge by the recollections of the team members of the Lisa and Macintosh, available at folklore.org, their GUI development was well along before Jobs ever visited PARC. It certainly was different: The Alto, like early DOS GUIs and the original Windows, didn’t have overlapping windows, while the Lisa OS did. And LisaGraf/QuickDraw, the assembler-based graphics routines (which could be considered a simpler precursor to PostScript) were Bill Atkinson’s baby, all right.

    6. Steve Jobs didn’t found Pixar, he bought it from George Lucas (and quite the investment it turns out to have been).

    …Not sure if I want to read the rest, just pulling this together took much longer than reading the first page (no single-page version?) and I don’t want to lose more time reading it.

  13. Lawrence Velázquez Says:

    A smaller but still-interesting question:

    What if Apple had stuck with PowerPC instead of migrating to Intel?

  14. English speaking reader Says:

    ‘Let alone’, dammit, not let along. Does that make sense? Did someone disable spell-check?

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