1997: Beleaguered, Mac OS 7.6 and 8, Killing Clones, and the First G3s

Can you say beleaguered? That became the word most associated with Apple in 1997.

The other word was Jobs – Steve Jobs – who rejoined Apple after the NeXT acquisition, first as an advisor, and later as interim CEO. (He finally removed the word interim from his title in January 2000.)

Unbeknownst to the world at large, the day after Jobs became interim CEO (Sept. 16), he started the iMac project – but that’s a story for 1998.

Money

Apple bled red ink, losing hundreds of millions of dollars in 1997, and earning the title beleaguered. That remained the case until the fourth quarter.

Mac OS 7.6

Mac OS 7.6.1 install CDApple renamed its operating system software, which had used names such as System 6 and System 7.5.5. Beginning with version 7.6 in January, it was known as the Mac OS – and for the first time since 1986 Apple had an OS that didn’t support the Mac Plus. Minimum requirements for Mac OS 7.6 included a 68030 CPU, “32-bit clean” ROMs, 8 MB of RAM (12-16 MB recommended), and 70 MB of hard drive space. It no longer supported 24-bit addressing or classic Mac networking (it used Open Transport exclusively).

All 68000-based Macs, both 68020-based Macs, and three early 68030-based Macs (the Mac IIx, IIcx, and SE/30) were left behind. And because of legal Mac clones, the Apple menu item that used to be About This Macintosh became About This Computer.

Low End Mac

This website got its start in April 1997 with about two dozen profiles of early, still useful vintage Macs, from the Mac Plus through 68030-based desktops. It was posted on my personal web space. It was a fast loading page with minimal graphics, useful information and links, and no ads. It wasn’t until later in the year that we joined the MacTimes Network and began to display ads, slowly turning this hobby into a business.

Low End Mac home page, April 1997

Originally called the New Low End User Site, it soon became the New Low End Mac User Site – and we later simplified that, creating the Low End Mac identity we’ve used ever since.

20 Years of Apple

20th Anniversary MacApple celebrated its 20th anniversary by introducing the most expensive PowerPC Mac ever, the 20th Anniversary Macintosh (TAM).  This was the first desktop Mac to use notebook components – eight years before the first Mac mini (January 2005). It was also the first Mac desktop with a built-in flat panel display – five years before the G4 iMac (January 2002).

The TAM has a vertical CD-ROM drive – three years before the Power Mac G4 Cube (July 2000), an external subwoofer (a USB subwoofer would later become an iMac option), and a keyboard with a built-in trackpad. In many ways, the TAM anticipated the design of the G5 iMac with its built-in stereo speakers.

Only a limited number of TAMs were built (12,000), and they didn’t sell well due to their high price relative to specifications. As a relatively rare Mac, TAMs collect a premium price – recent (April 2009) eBay auctions have closed at $750 and up, with a new-in-box TAM selling for $1,350.

Good-bye, Gil

On Wednesday, July 9, 1997, Gil Amelio resigned as chairman and CEO of Apple. Steve Jobs took over as interim CEO and actively ran Apple until August 2011, when he resigned due to declining health.

Mac OS 8

Jobs had once said that if he ran Apple, he would milk the OS for all it was worth. After a ho hum System 7.6 release in January (and a patch update to 7.6.1 in April), Mac OS 8 was released in July and became one of the best selling software packages ever.

The key to its success was abandoning support for all 68030-based Macs (OS 8 was especially designed for the 68040 and PowerPC, although a few have managed to get it running on older Macs) while adding enough neat features to hook millions of Mac users. New features included:

  • Spring Loaded Folders (drag a file or folder over a folder, hold it there, and watch that folder open)
  • Contextual Menus (accessed with Ctrl-click)
  • Multithreaded Finder (you could do something else while copying files)

It worked. And we soon discovered that Mac OS 8.1 was very stable on both 68040-based Macs and Power Macs. It became the “must own” software of the Mac community in 1997.

Minimum system requirements are a 68LC040 CPU, 12 MB of RAM (24-32 recommended), and 120 MB of hard drive space.

Send Out the Clones

The most debated decision of 1997 was ending Macintosh clone licensing. Although Umax continued to sell its SuperMac line through mid-1998, the two year cloning experiment ended with Motorola, Umax, and DayStar losing money – and Power Computing owned by Apple.

Much as it pained us to watch both Apple and Mac OS market share decline, over time we came to realize that for the Mac to survive, Apple had to thrive. Buying Power Computing and refusing to renew license agreements with Motorola and others assured that Apple would sink or swim on its own merits. (Apple worked long and hard to keep Umax in the sub-$1,000 market, but Umax realized it couldn’t be profitable without high-end models.)

Apple also discontinued its consumer Performa brand in 1997.

Think Different

Apple launched a new add campaign in November, Think Different. The campaign celebrated innovators and nonconformists in TV ads and huge black and white store posters. Here’s the text:

Here's to the crazy ones...Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.

They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones,
we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The Third Generation

Kanga PowerBook G3On November 10, 1997, Apple introduced two new models that completely reshaped the Macintosh product line: the PowerBook G3 (Kanga) and the original Power Mac G3.

The G3 (a.k.a. PowerPC 750) CPU was designed as a replacement for the 603e, but benchmarks quickly demonstrated that it outperformed the 604e in most functions. Because of this, Apple would soon move its entire line to a single CPU. The entire Apple line would be G3-based until the Power Mac G4 was introduced in August 1999.

Beige Power Mac G3Although there were some initial teething pains – and some backlash from Mac professionals about putting an IDE drive in a Power Mac – the G3 course was set and would lead Apple from one profitable quarter to another. And it still had SCSI for those who demanded better drive performance than IDE could provide at the time.

For those with Power Macs or clones that used Apple’s CPU daughter card, there were now G3 upgrades. Newer Technology was the first to market with its MaxPower Pro, which had a 250 MHz CPU with 512 MB of level 2 cache running at 167 MHz. In coming years, G3 upgrades would get even faster (reaching 1.1 GHz!), and G4 upgrades eventually replaced them, allowing those pre-G3 Power Macs and clones to grow more powerful than anyone imagined when they were initially sold.

The Last Newtons

Apple eMate 300The Netwon MessagePad 2000 and eMate 300 were introduced in March. Both used a 480 x 320 16-shade display, up from 320 x 240 in earlier MessagePads. The MessagePad 2000 moved the Newton from a 20 MHz ARM CPU to a 162 MHz StrongARM chip, and the eMate 300 was the first and only Newton in a laptop configuration (it used the 20 MHz ARM technology).

The MessagePad 2100 was introduced in November; it would be the last model released before Apple discontinued the Newton division in 1998.

The Competition

Throwing confusion into the Wintel market, Intel released the Pentium II in May and the Pentium MMX in June. Which was more powerful? Well, it depended on what you wanted to do.

Personal Perspective

I disagreed with Apple on the clone decision. I appreciated the competition that Power Computing, Motorola, and Umax gave Apple, despite the fact that my earliest experience with a clone had not been good. (We bought a Power 120 at work during the period when they had problems with the glue holding the heatsink to the CPU.)

I think Apple acted in bad faith by arguing that it lost money on each clone sold. I think Apple abused its position as certifier of all new designs. I don’t think Apple played fair – but I also realize that Apple had a gaping wound that could have bled the company dry.

Apple had to do something about the clone market, although I don’t think it had to completely destroy it. I originally wrote this article on a Umax SuperMac J700/180, which I bought at a close-out price in June 1998. It was a great computer even though it had been completely abandoned by its manufacturer. Just like a real Mac, it kept running for years without any problem. (It was retired in early 2001 when I bought the first titanium PowerBook G4, and it remains in my collection.)

As for Steve Jobs, I think he has an ego to match Bill Gates – and I believe that’s a very good thing, as he also has a clear vision of what Apple should be. His decisions to kill cloning, discontinue the Performa line, build the iMac, release OS 8 instead of waiting for Rhapsody, and a host of other decisions turned Apple around and dispensed with the word beleaguered.

Next – 1998: Good-bye Newton; Hello OS 8, WallStreet, and iMac

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