Why I Gave up on Apple

A tale of unrequited love

SE/20

I bought my first Macintosh in 1987. I had been working in a Mac shop, I was leaving for a PC shop, and I wanted a Mac of my own. It was an SE/20, with I paid $3200 for it, which was a lot of money. I had a friend who actually knew what it cost to build this kind of hardware, and he assured me that not only was it a lot of money, but that you could get substantially equivalent hardware in the the PC world for a lot less.

I didn't care. I didn't want a PC. I didn't want to spend my life programming the 8086 and fighting with DOS. I wanted a Mac. I had a Mac. I was happy.

Power Mac

I bought my second Macintosh in 1994. I wanted It was a Power Mac 6100 with I paid $2250 for it, which was still a lot of money. By then, even I had figured out that PCs were cheaper, but I didn't want a PC. I didn't want an 80386, or Windows 3.1. I wanted a Mac. I had a Mac. I was happy.

Decline and Fall

Sometime in the late '90s, it started to go downhill for me. For example But most depressingly—crushingly—the Wintel world caught up. I was working in a Windows shop, running NT on Pentiums. WindowsNT is a protected operating system with preemptive multitasking. The Pentium has a flat address space. The Mac still had a more elegant user interface, but NT surpassed it on raw functionality.

In 1984, the Mac was a fundamentally superior technology. For 15 years, I had waited and hoped for the Macintosh to gain market share—to take over the world. Instead, it became irrelevant. Neal Stephenson's words from In The Beginning Was The Command Line rang in my head

If Microsoft sells goods that are aesthetically unappealing, or that don't work very well, it does not mean that they are (respectively) philistines or half-wits. It is because Microsoft's excellent management has figured out that they can make more money for their stockholders by releasing stuff with obvious, known imperfections than they can by making it beautiful or bug-free. This is annoying, but (in the end) not half so annoying as watching Apple inscrutably and relentlessly destroy itself.
Finally, I gave up. It was taking too much out of me to keep hoping. I dropped my subscription to TidBITS. I stopped caring.

Sales Call

Sometime after the iMac shipped, I got a telephone call from an Apple sale rep. She said she was calling because I had bought Macs in the past, and thought I might be interested in a new iMac.

I'll admit, I was flattered. Apple knew who I was! They wanted my custom. They were willing to invest a phone call in the relationship. But the fact is, I wasn't going to buy an iMac. I sighed, and explained to the sales rep that I had made a considered decision to never again pay money for Apple hardware or software. She was disappointed, of course, and asked why.

And...I couldn't tell her. The thing is, I really had stopped caring. I had stopped thinking about Apple. Apple spent 15 years squandering the Mac's technological and market lead, but at the instant, I couldn't bring to mind any simple, compelling example of that. I couldn't explain to this sales rep why I wasn't buying her product.

I mumbled something about how expensive Macs were, and she came right back, telling me that the iMacs were down to $1000. In the end, I was reduced to asking, "Do you read your own trade press?" The point of the question is that the trade press is full of articles about the Macintosh, mourning lost opportunities, decrying current problems, and hoping against hope for a better future. Anyone who follows this press would have a pretty good idea why people give up on the Macintosh. But I couldn't explain any of this on the phone, and I don't know what the sales rep made of my question.

Why?

Afterwards, I tried to remember why I had given up on the Macintosh. What could I tell someone who wanted to know why I did this? After 15 years, what finally pushed me over the edge? I settled on two examples as quintessential.

The clone vendors

In 1997, Apple paid $100 million to buy out the clone vendors. That money could have gone into product development: it could have built better products for me to buy. Instead, it went to protect Apple's hardware monopoly: to ensure higher prices for me to pay.

Apple is a business; like all businesses, it serves its shareholders, not its customers, and like all businesses, it is entitled to spend its money to advance the interests of its shareholders over its customers. But as a customer, I get to decide if I am getting enough out of the deal to keep doing business with them. And I decided I wasn't.

The round mouse

Apple redesigned the mouse for the iMac: they made it round. Earlier designs were oval or rectangular. Apple didn't do this because the older designs were wanting, or because the new one worked better. It was strictly an aesthetic change: they thought it looked stylish.

In fact, the round mouse works worse. It works terribly. When you set your hand on the round mouse, there is no tactile indication of which way is up. If the mouse isn't oriented the way you think it is, then the cursor doesn't move in the direction that you intend: it goes slewing off at an angle.

This problem is both subtle and profound. Subtle, because sometimes the mouse is pointing the way you think, and most of the time it's pretty close. The mouse isn't obviously broken—it just doesn't always go quite where you want.

And profound, because this isn't a cognitive problem, it is a kinesthetic problem: it breaks your eye-hand coordination. Moving the mouse in one direction and seeing the cursor drift off in another is both frustrating and disturbing.

As soon as Apple shipped the round mouse, users howled. The problem was discussed and analyzed. After-market workarounds appeared. Apple was unmoved. Rather than admit their mistake, they continued to ship the round mouse for over two years.

Who cares?

In 1984, the Macintosh brought a new, innovative, and superior technology to computer users. It wasn't the hardware, which was over-priced and under-powered. It wasn't the software, which was limited and unstable. It was the human interface. It was the idea that you could leverage the power of the human perceptual system to make computers accessible to people in a natural and intuitive way.

By shipping a round mouse, Apple demonstrated that they no longer understand this, and by continuing to ship a round mouse in the face of user protests, Apple demonstrated that they no longer care.

Without the commitment to human interface and usability, there isn't anything left of the Macintosh but some stylish hardware and some unfinished software. And if Apple doesn't care, then neither do I.


NOTES

two weeks
There was some kind of glitch in the dealer's order-inventory system, so that they though the part had been ordered when it hadn't. I wrote to Apple complaining of this, and they replied that Apple dealers were independent businesses, and that if I was unhappy with their customer service, I should take it up directly with the dealer.
cost $292
I estimate the manufacturing cost of this part at less than $30.
replace
Meaning that Apple keeps the old one. If I had kept the old board, it would have cost me an additional $150.
marginal hardware
unfinished OS
My experience over many years is that the first step in writing a Mac application is to finish writing the Mac OS. The Thread Manager is a good example of this.
round
like a hockey puck
frustrating and disturbing
I often found the cursor arcing around the target as I tried to compensate for the misalignment between my hand and the mouse. The effect is somewhat like the way the space ship in the arcade game Asteroids orbits when you press both "turn" and "thrust" at the same time.

Steven W. McDougall / resume / swmcd@world.std.com / 2002 Mar 15