Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm.

Apple’s future, as predicted 15 years ago

Twentieth Anniversary MacTrying to make predictions about the technology industry more than a few years out is a crapshoot. Things change, things stay the same, design breakthroughs mess up everyone’s plans, good products fail, and seemingly lame ideas prosper.

Five years ago, for example, there was no such thing as an iPhone, Kindle, MacBook Air, or Android. And most people thought the smartphone of the future looked like a skinny BlackBerry or Palm thing. Never mind a decade ago, or longer.

The wacky-looking Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, for example — released in 1997 for $7,499 — actually isn’t that far off from today’s iMac in general design, if you squint your eyes. But it took about ten years to get there, especially the making-it-affordable part.

I’ve always been fascinated with checking up on predictions about the future, because inevitably some will seem prescient several years later, and others will seem silly.

So imagine my delight when, rummaging around my childhood home in Chicago a few years ago, I found a very old MacUser magazine with the cover story, “Apple’s Future,” written by Henry Bortman and the MacUser staff. Featuring a dramatic, shadowy photo of a spaceship-looking Mac, it promised, “Exclusive report: Hot technologies that will make the Mac better than ever.” I decided to save it until October, 2011 — the 15-year anniversary of its October, 1996 cover date. And today, I finally cracked it open.

MacUser October 1996Now, I’d love to link to the full story, but MacUser disappeared long ago, after merging with Macworld. (Where former MacUser online editor Jason Snell now runs the show.) And Macworld doesn’t have the old MacUser archive online, at least where I can find it. So my excerpts will have to do. But, to thank Macworld for this bit of history, please visit their website, consider subscribing to their magazine, attending their events, or using their iPad apps. (I will.)

The impetus for the article, “Looking into Apple’s future,” was a “hunting expedition throughout Apple, trying to discover what the company has in store for you.” This included now-unfathomable access to Apple’s design lab, where MacUser took a bunch of photos of prototype Macs and other Apple devices, including a large Newton tablet and a leather-trimmed PowerBook. (Remember, this is still a few months before Apple bought Next, bringing Steve Jobs and his obsession with secrecy back into the fold.) And, obviously, a lot of reporting and analysis went into this.

Here are some of the highlights, plus my commentary, now 15 years later.

On hardware:

“The most exciting news on Apple’s Mac-hardware front is the evolution of the PowerPC.” “The PowerPC has clearly taken the lead in the race against the Pentium.”

The PowerPC may have been faster at the time, but that wasn’t enough. As Apple shifted its focus toward mobile computing, power efficiency became more important, and the PowerPC platform wasn’t cutting it. In 2005, Steve Jobs announced that the Mac lineup would transition to Intel chips. Today, the entire Mac business relies on Intel, while Apple has started designing its own chips for the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, and Apple TV. The PowerPC is long gone in PCs.

On ports:

“Two new serial ports — the USB (universal serial bus) port and IEEE-1394 (also known as FireWire) port — will also soon appear. The result will be that the back of your next Mac may very well be honeycombed with ports: SCSI, modem, printer, sound-in, sound-out, parallel, ADB, PS/2, USB, FireWire, Ethernet — maybe even a PC-compatible joystick port.”

There were a few Macs with an amazing array of ports on the back, if I recall. But Steve Jobs cleaned that up, starting with the iMac, which was Apple’s first computer to support USB. This replaced the printer, serial, and ADB ports, and most SCSI functions. FireWire was indeed the Mac’s high-performance port for many years, but didn’t really catch on in the PC world. There was no joystick port. Today, Apple still uses USB, but has upgraded to a new port called Thunderbolt for displays and fast data. Ethernet is still around on most Macs.

On clones:

There was also excitement about two acronyms, CHRP and PPCP.

“In short, the PPCP will give you more and different models to choose from than are available today, from an expanded set of vendors.” “When the chip sets specified by the PPCP become widely available, the number of clone vendors is likely to grow (count Motorola and IBM among them).”

The Mac clones actually disappeared when Apple pulled the plug on that program. Apple acquired Power Computing, the leading Mac clone maker, in 1997. I can’t find any evidence online to support this, but my memory is that Apple was particularly interested in Power Computing’s expertise in building custom Macs to order, a service that Apple still offers today.

On tablets:

“A slate-sized Newton could do everything a portable computer does today. Future Newtons could also get smaller — a lot smaller — and may even introduce new materials, such as removable see-through plastic panels.”

Steve Jobs wound up zapping the Newton program. But last year, he introduced the iPad — a Newton x 1,000 — which does do many things a portable computer does today. And in only about a year, Apple’s iPad business had already grown to the point where it was bigger than the Mac, both in quarterly shipments and revenue. It is arguably the future of computing and a huge part of Apple’s future, along with the iPhone.

On gaming:

Pippin, “the Mac OS computer that comes in game-console clothing.” “Doesn’t seem to have found its niche just yet.” “As a game platform, pretty much a washout.” “Bandai’s @World, the first Pippin-based device to be announced, will likely cost three times as much as a Sony PlayStation in the U.S. and yet won’t hold a candle to it in terms of pure pixel-pushing performance.”

MacUser was right to be skeptical — this was another product that never made it. And really, for years, anything involving Apple and gaming was embarrassing. Despite the Mac’s powerful graphics capabilities, most games never made it to the Mac, or were late.

But now, perhaps even by accident, Apple is in control of the world’s fastest growing gaming platform, iOS. The iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad are incredible gaming devices that offer an entirely different experience than PC or console games. And as Apple moves into the living room with Apple TV, AirPlay, and potentially another App Store, Apple might finally have a gaming console hit on its hands.

On the Internet:

“As for fuller integration of end-user Internet services, Apple has put most of its energy to date into Cyberdog … a collection of independent software modules called parts that provide Web browsing, e-mail, news, FTP, and other Internet services.”

Lots of talk — and skepticism — about OpenDoc and Cyberdog in the article, neither of which ended up mattering. Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer became the dominant web browsers. And Apple eventually made the Safari browser for Mac and Windows.

But perhaps Apple’s most successful web software ever made is the open source WebKit browsing engine, which is the basis for Safari and Google Chrome, but more importantly, all popular mobile web browsers, including Apple’s Mobile Safari, Google’s Android browser, and those used by RIM, Palm, and basically everyone but Microsoft.

On QuickTime:

“Apple’s Internet ace in the hole, however, comes from another quarter entirely: its lead in multimedia. Content providers are looking for ways to deliver a richer Web experience to users, and such capabilities as QuickDraw 3D, QuickTime, and QuickTime VR offer precisely what they need.”

This was a good assumption at the time — I remember hearing a lot of people talk about how QuickTime would keep Apple relevant in the Internet age. But I don’t ever remember using QuickTime on many sites outside of Apple’s movie trailers page.

Apple’s QuickTime components were crucial for the development of the Mac, and later the iPod and iOS, but QuickTime was never a dominant Internet video player. RealPlayer and Windows Media led for a while, but it was cross-platform Adobe Flash video that really helped sites like YouTube and Hulu take off.

“Apple has also said that the venerable, but long neglected, HyperCard will be reborn as an Interactive QuickTime authoring and playback tool.”

HyperCard!

On DVDs:

“DVD: The Next Big Thing (Really!)” delayed by “standards squabbling.” “In a couple of years, write-once DVD-R systems will make CD-R obsolete; erasable DVD-RAM systems are also on the drawing board, but don’t hold your breath.”

Excellent prediction. DVD really was the next big thing, especially for Hollywood. The DVD-R drive really did made our CD-R drive obsolete. And DVD-RAM — or the other format, DVD-RW — never really caught on, in part because most standalone DVD players couldn’t read them.

On software:

“Apple should seriously reconsider the spirit of the original Mac software bundle — breakthrough, best-of-class software in key productivity categories.”

Good advice. Steve Jobs did this, and Apple’s iLife suite — iMovie, iPhoto, etc. — was especially helpful in attracting people to the Mac. The iWork suite — Pages, Numbers, and Keynote — doesn’t have the mindshare that Microsoft’s Office still does, but it’s very popular on both the iPad and Mac App Stores.

Lastly, at the time, Apple was scrambling to release the much-delayed Mac OS 8.

“As for what the future beyond OS 8 holds, the picture is a bit hazy.”

Indeed!

What wound up happening, of course, was that Apple went on to acquire Next, whose operating system became the basis for Mac OS X. And Next’s leader — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs — came back to famously save the company, fix the Mac, and eventually launch the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

That part, of course, is what’s missing from MacUser‘s story, and represents the sort of huge shift that few could have predicted. All the Mac stuff is now a fraction of Apple’s business, and Apple has gone from a market loser to the most valuable technology company in the world. And that — the unknown — is why articles like this are so fun in hindsight.

By the way, for a 90s Apple nerd like myself, there is nothing like reading one of these old Mac magazines. These were my bibles in middle school and high school, and looking at the goofy product reviews — SyQuest drives! Claris HomePage! — and articles now is a real trip.

There is even a back-page column in this issue by Andy Ihnatko — still a very prominent tech writer — called “http://www.zdnet.com/macuser/summer-reading.html”. The page consisted of nothing but printed URLs, including a reference to this 1995 Dave Winer post featuring a long personal email from Steve Wozniak. Very cool.

The best part, of course, is the ads, for products like the Apple Newton, RAM Doubler, SoftWindows, CU-SeeMe, and Power Computing — headline: “With prices like these, Intel better be inside (hiding).” How things change!

Anyway, this was fun. And it may serve as inspiration to do one of these myself, eventually.

Related: The amazing Steve Jobs effect: Apple’s performance before and after Steve’s comeback