Mac Musings

3 Survivors from the 1970s: Microsoft, Intel, and Apple

Daniel Knight - 2005.11.21

The field of personal computing is littered with failure - Commodore, Atari, Tandy, CP/M, WordPerfect, dBase II, Lotus 1-2-3, Zilog. The list goes on.

How have Apple, Intel, and Microsoft survived when even big and long established companies like IBM and Radio Shack have given up on the PC industry?

The Microsoft Way

Microsoft got its start when Bill Gates wrote a BASIC interpreter for some of the earliest personal computers. Soon Microsoft BASIC became the de facto programming language on personal computers.

Commodore and Radio Shack computers included a version of MS BASIC, and it was available for CP/M machines as well. Apple switched from their own Integer BASIC to Applesoft BASIC, developed by Microsoft, when the Apple II+ was released. And having their own nonstandard BASIC was a reason to avoid Atari and TI computers.

Seeing MS BASIC as the standard, IBM made sure to include it in their Personal Computer, and negotiations for that gave Microsoft the opportunity to present their plans for an operating system as well. In a stroke of genius, PC DOS had "PC" in its name and was much more affordable than CP/M-86 and the UCSD p-System, so it became the next de facto industry standard.

Since IBM wasn't convinced that personal computers were more than a fad, they didn't require an exclusive contract for PC DOS, and when the first IBM clones came on the market, Microsoft was able to sell MS-DOS to Compaq, Columbia, and others.

In the transition from CP/M to DOS, WordPerfect replaced WordStar as the dominant word processor, dBase held on to its spot as the leading database program, and Lotus 1-2-3 decimated VisiCalc in the spreadsheet realm. With all the extra RAM IBM PCs supported, they became the dominant platform for big spreadsheets.

Microsoft Word was just another word processor that couldn't really make a dent in WordPerfect's market share - until it became the first word processor to fully integrate with Microsoft Windows.

Speaking of Microsoft Windows, it was a third-rate graphical shell for DOS at first, and alternatives such as Geos and Digital Research GEM were far more Mac-like. In fact, Microsoft had agreements with Apple to use certain elements of the Mac OS.

With Windows and Word, Microsoft knew they could bide their time, keep improving things, keep announcing future features that would match and exceed those of competitive products, and grow to dominate the PC world.

As Windows grew more popular, Microsoft Multiplan began to displace Lotus 1-2-3, and Excel replaced Multiplan with even more power.

Then, in another stroke of marketing genius, Microsoft created office. People could buy Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access for about the same price as Word and Excel separately. Overnight, PowerPoint became the de facto standard for presentation graphics, and Access remains one of the most popular databases on Windows computers.

Throughout its history, Microsoft has managed to leverage market dominance in one field to dominate the next one. The company was so committed to owning as many markets as it could that it created a free Web browser to destroy the commercial Netscape browser.

The Intel Way

Intel had one really good idea: Build on success. If their 8080 and 8085 CPUs were popular, a 16-bit 8088/86 that was very similar should make it easy for hardware designers and programmers to make the transition to the new technology.

Generation after generation, Intel kept building on that mid-1970s architecture. The 80286 could address even more memory. The 80386 could run virtual machines and supported even more memory. The 486 pretty much doubled efficiency at the same CPU speed.

Then came the fifth generation, Pentium. Every generation more powerful than the one before. Every generation adding new features. And every generation backwards compatible.

The Apple Way

Microsoft took BASIC, which they didn't invent, and leveraged it into an empire. Intel invented the CPU and build an empire on that architecture. None of their non-x86 CPUs have ever had real success. The more innovative and different the design, the less likely they were to succeed.

Apple's lifeblood is innovation. The original Apple I computer was a clever hack. The way Apple added color support with the Apple II was another innovation. Wozniak's floppy drive controller was a stroke of genius.

Apple kept changing. When MS BASIC became standard, they negotiated for Microsoft to build Applesoft BASIC. When the saw the end in sight for the Apple II, they created the ill-fated Apple III, the forward looking Lisa, and Macintosh, which they envisioned as the computer for the rest of us.

In a world of command prompts, having to memorize a host of commands, and needing the keyboard skills to type those commands correctly, the Mac's point-and-click interface was a breakthrough. It brought the ideas of Xerox PARC and Lisa to the masses. (Despite myths to the contrary, the original Mac was not overpriced by the standards of 1984.)

The Mac was full of innovations, such as the timing mechanism it used to draw the screen, manage sound, and do normal CPU tasks. In addition to 128 KB of RAM, the Mac had 64 KB of optimized routines any Mac program could tap into.

The Mac progressed, gaining SCSI with the Mac Plus, NuBus expansion slots and color support with the Mac II, I/O coprocessors with the Mac IIfx, and AV technology with the Quadra 840av. Apple changed to a whole different CPU architecture with PowerPC in 1994.

Starting in 1994, Apple began to incorporate some technologies typically found in Windows PCs. The PowerBook 150 and Quadra 630 were the first Macs to use IDE hard drives. In 1996, Power Mac started using PCI slots. In 1999 the Power Mac G4 was Apple's first model to use AGP for video.

Apple had continued its innovation. They built the first personal computers with CD-ROM as a standard feature. The blue & white Power Mac G3 was the first computer to include FireWire, and the iMac was the first computer to dispense with traditional ports, eliminate the floppy drive, and standardize on USB, a technology that simply hadn't taken off on the Windows side although it began there.

Apple is the only company that has been consistently successful with all-in-one computers, such as the original Macintosh, the G3 iMac, and today's slim iMac G5. Oh, and that was probably the world's first desktop computer to include a webcam.

Over the years, Apple has made networking easy, made networkable laser printers popular, created the desktop publishing industry (thanks to PageMaker, originally a Mac-only program), and invented laptops with trackballs (and later trackpads) in front of the keyboard.

After transitioning from one hardware architecture to another in 1994, Apple moved to a whole new operating system in 2001. The transition was almost as seamless. Just as the PowerPC Macs had emulated 680x0 Macs and run their programs, Mac OS X had a classic mode that allowed most software designed for the older Mac OS to run.

Unlike Microsoft and Intel, which seem locked into one way of doing things - build on what you know, limit your risks, leverage your dominance - Apple isn't afraid of change. They invented the Newton and put the most successful digital music player ever on the market, the iPod, Their iTunes Music Store dominates the online music industry, and their .mac services offer some very useful Internet services such as synching your address book, calendar, Safari bookmarks, and even the contents of your keychain.

Apple has tried to lead the industry, but they haven't been afraid to adopt a technology from "the other side", such as IDE drives and PCI cards. It took a while, but they even adopted USB 2.0 when it became evident that the Windows world wasn't going to embrace FireWire.

2006 and Beyond

Innovation is Apple's lifeblood. Change entails risk, and Apple has had its share of failures. Still, Apple continues to survive in an industry where even IBM gave up on the personal computer market, and Apple just completed its most profitable year ever.

The transition to Intel CPUs is just another step in Apple's evolution, and it's bound to be every bit as successful as the Macintosh, the PowerPC, Mac OS X, and the iPod. Everyone who has worked with OS X on Intel hardware has been very impressed. If anything, we're hearing that it's even nicer than OS X on PowerPC computers.

As with every transition, there will be some drawbacks. Apple's Rosetta technology will allow a lot of PowerPC software to run, but not quite all of it. Worse yet for longtime Mac users, Apple tells us there will be no support for classic mode. As someone who still uses a couple of classic mode programs daily, I hope some third party will step up to the plate on this one. If not, there will be a solid market for PowerPC hardware for some time to come.

I've been having fun playing with Mini vMac on my eMac over the past week. With this hardware, I'm emulating a Mac Plus and playing Wizardry, one of the most fun D&D type games made for the old compact Macs. (Another great one is Bard's Tale.) It's very cool and somewhat weird running these old b&w games and a modern 1.25 GHz computer, but it does show how good emulation can be.

I'm hoping someone will take Mac emulation to the PowerPC level, allowing us to run classic Mac software on Intel Macs.

Whether that happens or not, I'm looking forward to Apple's new Intel-based hardware. On the one hand, according to everything I've read this is really going to unleash OS X. On the other, it's going to show the Windows world what good Intel-based hardware and a good reliable operating system are all about.

Whether longtime Mac users get classic mode or not, the Intel transition opens up a whole new market to Apple, since the new hardware will also be able to run Microsoft Windows without having to use an emulator.

And it's that kind of innovation that keeps Apple from becoming another casualty of the personal computing revolution.