9 half-baked Apple products that went sour
10th Apr 2010 | 11:00
The stuff Apple released but would rather forget
1-5: the Pippin to the Lisa
When Steve Jobs speaks, the world listens. His fabled Reality Distortion Field makes even the shiniest piece of chrome and plastic glisten just that little bit more.
The phrase 'One more thing' moves every member of the audience to the very edge of their seats, knowing that whatever follows, they'll soon have one in their possession.
But it wasn't always like this, and even the all-powerful Apple of today sometimes stumbles in mid-stride.
We've gone in search of the biggest flops, missteps and bad ideas that found a half-chewed worm emerging from the apple of our eye.
Super Nintendo. Master System. Jaguar. Megadrive. Pippin. Can you spot the odd one out?
It sounded like a child's toy, but not many children ever had the chance to play on Apple's ill-fated games console, Pippin. Technologically speaking it was a Mac in a smaller box, intended to play hot CD-based gaming classics like Terror Trax, The Journeyman Project and Mr Potato Head Saves Veggie Valley.
But whereas most games manufacturers quickly learned the importance of controlling their ecosystem with a vice-like grip, Apple planned to sell the core technology to several different companies – which is ironic in light of the company's current modus operandi.
Unfortunately, like everyone who tried to take on gaming giants Sega and Nintendo, Pippin was a miserable failure. It was an underpowered, undersupported system that reportedly only sold around 5,000 units in the US.
Being a computer, Pippin did have some interesting technology on its side, including innovations like internet access, but without the games to back it up, it was all for nothing. Also, it was called Pippin.
After Pippin crashed and burned, Apple largely gave up on gaming – and most developers still avoid the Mac. However, times have changed. The iPhone's gaming library hasn't defeated the mighty Nintendo, but it's the first thing for a long, long time to pose a really genuine threat to it, if only among casual players.
2. Apple USB Mouse
The infamous 'Hockey Puck' is one of Apple's most mocked inventions, appearing with the launch of the iMac in 1998 and promptly hanging around homes and offices like a bad smell for years to come.
Not only was it ugly, it made pointing and clicking about as much fun as typing on a keyboard covered with needles, using a speech recognition system that insisted you neck a balloon full of helium before every instruction, or anything involving Microsoft Office's 'helpful' paperclip. Not only was its round shape clumsy and uncomfortable, it was far too imprecise when gripped and prone to turning instead of moving.
The cord was far too short if you plugged it into the machine rather than the USB ports on a Mac keyboard, and the buttons weren't very comfortable. Some good did come out of it, though – third-party manufacturers made a fortune selling alternatives and adaptors.
Apple had no excuse for MobileMe to flop. The idea was as obvious as it was brilliant – syncing mail, calendars, files and photos between your computer, your iPhone (you did buy one, right?) and the web. So what went wrong? Well, everything.
Not only was it overpriced – and at £50 for a year, remains so – but the original version barely worked. File sharing was missing in action, online storage was too slow and the calendar was a joke compared to Google's offering. As for email, it was fine if you actually wanted to use an Apple-branded address, but with more and more of us switching to personal domains, especially for professional purposes, MobileMe's lack of proper domain mapping really bit down hard.
Even the launch of the service was a big disaster – the pages were slow, the servers were constantly down, the push messaging promised didn't work, and worst of all, a number of trial users found their credit cards charged too early. Apple tried to patch up problems by extending the service's free trials, but there's no doubt that what most who tried it in those early days remember is a horrible experience from a company that makes its money providing the best. Not cool, Apple. Not cool at all.
4. Apple Lisa
Apple kit is too expensive. That's the most common criticism of the company, and it has been right from the start. The Lisa, launched in 1983, was an attempt to go after business customers by offering a more powerful system, higher resolution graphics and support for multitasking and protected memory.
It found a market, particularly in document creation, but the cheap availability of both IBM PCs and standard Macintosh systems worked against it. The Lisa did however offer expansion ports, and a snappy name – although one with no easy explanation. The official version is that it stands for Local Integrated Software Architecture, but nobody believes that.
The standard backronym is Lisa: Invented Stupid Acronym, but most believe it was simply named after Lisa Jobs, Steve's daughter. Jobs worked on the project for a while before jumping ship to work on the Macintosh project.
Pity the poor Newton. Probably Apple's least-deserved flop, this PDA platform (the actual devices were called MessagePad) was truly ahead of its time. It featured integrated handwriting recognition (which worked reasonably, if not completely reliably), was controlled by a touchscreen, and offered lots of applications to make early adopters' lives easier, including notes, contacts and dates.
That's nothing too special by today's standards, but it was an exceptionally powerful device in the early '90s. However, this was only intended to be the start of Newton's capabilities. Apple saw the devices as computers in their own right, and we've yet to truly see a successor that has actually pulled off that massive leap. Perhaps the iPad will be it…
6-9: ROKR to the 20th Anniversary Mac
6. Motorola ROKR
While the hardware was Motorola, the appeal of the ROKR was all down to Apple. This was the first phone built around syncing to iTunes, and one of the few third-party products to get the full Steve Jobs stage treatment. And… it wasn't good. At all.
Not only was it a tacky product, it was stuffed with infuriating limitations, like only being able to hold 100 songs no matter how much extra storage it was given, offering no way of buying music online and connecting to your Mac or PC via a slow USB 1.1 cable instead of the faster 2.0 standard.
Jobs's demo of the phone conveyed absolutely none of his usual enthusiasm, and for good reason. This was 2005. In 2007, Apple released the iPhone, and the failed first attempt at a Jobs-approved phone was consigned to history.
7. Apple TV
The Jobs seal of approval isn't always a guarantee of quality, then – and Apple TV is another example of a product that failed to make the grade.
Apple TV combined the worst of several worlds – reliance on the Apple ecosystem, lack of an optical drive and the state of internet-available entertainment in the UK back in 2007 – to produce a largely useless electronic paperweight.
In fairness, the Apple TV wasn't a terrible unit, but it hit too early and was too much a company player instead of focusing on what customers would actually be best served by. Nowadays there are so many other options available that the window of opportunity for it has well and truly closed.
Apple still makes the devices, but even it has largely moved on to focusing on new products. Apple TV may have introduced people to the idea of media streaming in their house, but it's products like the WD-TV Live and PlayOn that are finally making the humble computer a fundamental part of the TV watching experience.
8. QuickTake Camera
Much like the Newton, the QuickTake's failure had less to do with the product itself than the situation it found itself in. It was one of the first consumer-level digital cameras, so it was fairly rough and ready – no screen, no easy photo deletion – and it shot at a resolution of 640 x 480, with a pitiful 1MB of memory.
Three different versions were released from 1994 onwards, but like most of Apple's non-computing-focused products, Jobs axed the line after returning to power.
9. The Twentieth Anniversary Mac
$7,499. We shall repeat that: $7,499. No matter how much of an Apple obsessive you might be, no matter how much you think the user interface and style warrants high price tags, dropping $7,499 on a new machine to celebrate a company's milestone is on the wrong side of the Lala River in the valley of Areyoukidding.
This was 1997, when a regular Mac of the same specification would cost you just $3,000. Apple managed to sell a handful at this insane price, but it was quickly forced to back down. By 1998, when the unit was discontinued, the price was down to under $2,000.
It may have looked snazzy next to the resolutely ugly beige boxes of the time, but the Twentieth Anniversary was proof that you can in fact put a price on style, and it's one that most people aren't ultimately that willing to pay. It has become something of a collector's item, however; perhaps that counts as success of a kind.
First published in PC Plus Issue 293
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