Updated February 6, 1997

How Did This Mess Happen?

The Untold Story of Apple's Demise

Three years ago, BugNet editor Bruce Brown was one of the first to publicly observe that Apple Computer is dying. Last summer, he raised the deeper question, does Apple deserve its fate? Now he returns to the scene of the crime, exploring "The Golden Age of Apple."

I'D LIKE TO TELL you a story about Apple Computer in its glory days.

Over a decade ago, a friend of mine -- a talented writer I'll call Grant -- got a contract from Apple that seemed like an easy money dream.

His assignment was to travel the world and interview all sorts of Apple management honchos and heavy thinkers. Then he was supposed to write a employee manual that would put these pearls of wisdom in a form that the Apple masses could digest

For a couple years, whenever I called Grant there was a message on his tape saying that he was traveling for Apple in Italy or Japan or some other far flung locale. Eventually, he wrote a lengthy tome on the state-of-the-art Mac that Apple gave him (this was the first PC I ever saw that could play music CDs).

I read two drafts of this New Age corporate manual before Grant's angel at Apple departed, and the whole project was ditched without a second glance. It appeared Grant's gravy train had finally come to an end, but like Al Stump (whose biography of Ty Cobb was recently made into the movie Cobb) Grant knew there was a story here. It just wasn't the one that Apple wanted told.

SO A FEW YEARS later Grant rewrapped the Apple material and sent it to Richard Curtis, his well-known New York literary agent. Curtis looked at it and came up with a masterstroke of spin control. Presented with a pile of out-dated Apple material, he proposed calling the book, The Golden Age of Apple.

The reason you never saw The Golden Age of Apple advertised on Book of the Month is that it never was published. Although the book was potentially a very lucrative product, Grant was leery of Apple's well-deserved reputation for suing anyone who crossed it.

He felt that the contract he signed with Apple might limit his use of the material, but probably did not. The problem was, he already had three credit cards maxed out, and he couldn't afford to risk it. So in the end he buried the book.

Although small and insignificant in the big picture of Apple's Icarus-like fall, this story highlights all the elements that produced that fall -- beginning with self-infatuation and lack of accountability in management, which fundamentally affected Apple's position in the marketplace.

To support its wastefulness, Apple charged more for its products, which led to one of the most bizarre situations in the annals of modern marketing. Apple has always given inferior value for the dollar by conscious management decision.

This makes it hard to compete, of course, and by in large Apple hasn't been able to compete, except in niche markets where it offered deep discounts (education) or special capabilities (high-end graphics).

One reason Apple has been able to get away with this routine for so long is that its reputation for being legally aggressive has tended to stifle much-needed critiques, like The Golden Age of Apple.

So if you ever wondered what exactly Apple was doing all those years it DIDN'T get color monitors, laptops, Copeland, etc. to market on time, The Golden Age of Apple offers a glimpse. And the funniest part is that the mass media was busy the whole time celebrating Apple's "corporate culture."

"Brick wall," as my twelve year old daughter likes to say.

Now that the Apple Macintosh is disappearing as a mass market product (it did not even make the top five in US sales during the last quarter of 1996), this soap opera will mercifully fade from the headlines.

But the lessons remain, and bare heading: inept, amateurish management can ruin the best product and brightest company.

-- Bruce Brown

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* Here's Bruce Brown's BugNet Memoir...
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