Porky pies and Apple sauce

Infinite Loop
March 24, 2000

Michael Malone's mammoth tome on Apple is well timed and his credentials for writing it impeccable: he has been a high-tech industry watcher and journalist since the earliest days of PCs.

The timing is good because it coincides with a resurgence in Apple's fortunes after the return of its co-founder, the prodigal Steve Jobs. Interest in Apple products has recently been rekindled by a clever mixture of advertising and good design after a period in the wilderness.

The infinite loop of the title refers to the address Apple chose for its new campus - a strange choice as it derives from the error that prevents a program's terminating. Malone makes the point that Apple's Copeland operating system, which was intended to compete with Microsoft's Windows, metaphorically entered such a loop and, despite millions invested in it, had to be abandoned.

The book retells Apple's now familiar story from the earliest days of its founders, the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, collaborating on so-called blue boxes that let users make free telephone calls in the early 1970s. Woz built them and Jobs sold them, a pattern of roles that was to persist into Apple's early days. When Woz designed and built the Apple I computer, Jobs managed to convince venture capitalists such as Mike Markkula to stump up the cash for a start-up and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it? Malone explodes some of the myths that are trotted out about the company, which makes for refreshing reading. One of these is about the trip Jobs took to Xerox Parc, where he discovered the mouse, windows and so on and put them on the Apple Macintosh. The truth is that it was Jeff Raskin, the originator of the Mac project, who knew all about this long before Jobs ever did. Malone shows that Jobs claimed Raskin's ideas as his own when he took over the project from him.

Apple was very fortunate that the popularity of its ea rly model, the Apple II, attracted the attention of the creators of Visicalc, the first spreadsheet application. The Apple II captured a large share of the US education market and, in various guises, continued to be a money spinner for Apple into the 1990s.

Apple was not so fortunate in its attempt to capture the business market with the Apple III model, which was a flop. IBM had by this time established its foothold in that market and the Intel-Microsoft-IBM alliance was soon dominant, especially after it licensed its system to the clone makers. The Lisa that followed was an excellent forerunner of the Macintosh, but it was too expensive. When the magnificent Mac was finally introduced in 1984, it was low on memory and, despite all the hype, did not sell in huge volume. Its architecture was not licensed until much later, by which time it was too late to make much difference in the battle for market share.

Academics and researchers do not fare too well in this treatment and are seen as having ultimately contributed to Apple's disasters and near failure. For example, Alan Kay of Xerox Parc came to have a great influence on the non-technical John Sculley, Apple's second CEO, who had got rid of Jobs early in his tenure. Sculley appointed Kay an "Apple fellow" and was captivated by his idea of the Dynabook, a portable computer with the power of a minicomputer, but easy enough for a child to use. To general outcry, Kay was scathing about the Mac at first. Kay's surprised reply was that he had only criticised it because it was the first PC worthy of criticism.

This tale of lost opportunities, betrayals, stiff competition, strange alliances and disasters is well told. It is unclear whether Malone expected the company to have foundered or not by the time he finished his book, but missed deadlines meant he was able to cover the early part of Apple's green-shoots recovery.

There are some irritations - Malone can be repetitive and the book could have been shorter. This is more than counterbalanced by a plethora of quotable stories, including the one about Bill Gates and Jobs, playing Frisbee by a lake... Gates throws the frisbee into the lake and Jobs walks on the water to get it. According to reports the next day: "Gates' throw exceeds expectations, and Apple CEO unable to swim".

Tony Valsamidis lectures in information science at City University.

Infinite Loop: How Apple, the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane

Author - Michael S. Malone
ISBN - 1 85410 638 4
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £18.99
Pages - 598

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