The 1990s – A Tumultuous Decade For Macs

The Powerbook wasn’t perfect, but if you look at the evolution of laptops, it was pretty close.

Photo by Klaus with K // CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1980s, Apple was way ahead of the industry in terms of the products it was producing. Everything it delivered seemed new and exciting, from the Apple III business computer to the legendary Macintosh 128k and Macintosh 512k in 1984. The 512k is considered an absolute landmark product, which truly put Apple on the map as the dominant force in computing.

However, the 1990s tell a different story for Apple, one that they would probably rather forget in a commercial sense, but which still holds relevance in terms of the evolution of the computers that are still used today, especially within the low-end mac community. The 90s were an experimental and tumultuous time, and Apple didn’t always get it right.

The mid 1990s

By the early to mid-1990s, Mac products had typically become overpriced and uncompetitive in the mainstream market. Many releases were little more than rehashes of the 1984 512k, and this had been going on for quite a while. Meanwhile, DOS PCs, and later, Windows 95, were more affordable and were gaining a larger share of the market.

It’s almost impossible to conceive right now but Apple, like the vast majority of businesses, was close to going bust. The company lost money in 1994, 95, 96, and 97. This crisis reached its peak in 1997 when Apple reported a $708 million loss in the first quarter. Were it not for funding, they may not have made it.

What Happened?

As mentioned, Apple couldn’t keep up with the competition in a commercial sense during the time. They had internal issues and pressure from market forces, but largely they couldn’t deliver on their promises. For all of their fantastic innovation and development, they were failing to bring machines to the market at a price that incentivized buyers.

Apple would regularly demonstrate the outer limits of computing technology with applications such as Quicktime, V-Twin, and Quickdraw. They would partner with companies like Motorola and IBM to design power chips and a cross-platform OS, yet very little was coming to fruition in terms of sales and profits. As such, they amassed a frightening amount of debt.

During this time, there were notable machines and memorable moments. The Macintosh LC of October 1990 brought with it a 12’ color screen and user-friendly feel and was engineered to be affordable for schools. The Powerbook 100, 140 and 170 may have been lacking in floppy disk compatibility and power, but these machines were very similar in design to the laptops we still use today.

Late 1990s

The original iMac was the saving grace of the 1990s Apple.

Photo by Marcin Wichary // CC BY 2.0

By August 1997, Apple was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and looked destined for failure. It was Microsoft who bailed them out, and they likely had their motives for doing so. Part of the deal cemented Internet Explorer as the default browser on all Macs released.

In May 1998, Apple released the all-in-one iMac, possibly the machine that saved the company, and now known as a legendary model. The original iMac was a masterpiece in design, and although the price tag was still a hefty $1,299, the machine proved to be a commercial success, especially within the education sector.

Aside from many redesigns and re-releases of the iMac, such as the G3, G4, and G5, Apple also had success with the Powerbook in the late 90s, revitalizing it as a light and compact professional laptop that could compete and outperform rivals from IBM. It finally looked like Apple was back on the map.

By the 2000s, Apple was grinding out a profit once more and finally looked like it was set to become one of the world’s biggest companies. It’s an exciting history. Many people expect that the company’s journey was easy and that they have always been a dominant force in computing. In terms of innovation, that is probably true, but the commercial journey has had its ups and downs. Apple is now one of the most valuable companies in the world.