The Apple III: The End of Forever
Softalk July 1984
It was probably the best personal computer ever made, but it could never
overcome its disastrous beginning. In the end, it succumbed to poor
marketing and neglect in the face of those big blue letters.
Apple Computer has announced that it's stopped development efforts on the
Apple III. That's one step short of announcing that it will stop
manufacturing the machine, but that announcement is almost a foregone
conclusion, with tuning being the only remaining question. If you're a
stockholder in Apple, or a hater of Apple computers, you'll probably think
that it's about time. The Apple III has never been much more than a cash
and psychological drain. But if you're a dedicated user of an Apple III, the
announcement couldn't help but tug a little at your heartstrings.
Seldom has a company so misconceived a product, or struggled so hard to
undo its mistakes. What makes the recent announcement so sadly ironic is
that the Apple III Plus upgrade had finally remedied the last remaining
deficiencies in the machine. It's now a solid, reliable performer.
Unfortunately, the marketplace has made its judgment. The Apple III is the
unwanted stepchild. Apple's decision reflects what has been conventional
wisdom outside Cupertino for years.
It's fruitless now to harp on all of Apple's mistakes with the III. One
image that will always remain is the sight of a large gentleman walking on
his Apple III motherboard in order to reseat chips that had popped out of
their sockets. Approximately the first fourteen thousand IIIs suffered from
the malady of chips coming unseated during use. The aforementioned cure,
like a bottle of Dr. Whiffenpoof's Snake Oil and Toothache Remedy, was
effective for about an hour.
Perhaps the largest single drawback of the III is its operating system.
Pronounced like sauce, it really should be pronounced like the distress
signal. SOS is about as user-friendly as a hungry wolverine. It has all the
charm of a corporate president making an unfriendly tender offer for a
rival company. It's about as intuitive as the operation of a nuclear power
plant. But SOS was also a breakthrough, inasmuch as it does several things
for the user that no previous operating system had ever done. Those hidden
accomplishments went unappreciated by the unwashed, who were having trouble
coping with its human interface.
The Apple III is not a great computer. Like the IBM PC, it's an okay
computer. That means that it'll do most of what you want it to, reliably
and reasonably efficiently. But it doesn't qualify as great. Maybe there
are no great microcomputers being sold in quantity today. Or maybe Mac is
the only one. It depends on what you mean by great. If you're trying to
imply cutting edge of the state of the art in all areas of manufacture and
use, no microcomputer qualifies and only Mac comes close. The Apple II was
a great computer when it was first introduced; now it's only an ordinary
one. If all you mean by great is that the computer makes easy what was once
difficult, then many micros qualify.
Microsoft is the hub around which great computers come and go. Because they
supply the Basic language for almost everything in chips, they get to see
prototypes long before anyone else. They've seen great computers. Most
never saw the light of day. If you know any Microsoft employees, ask them.
They're constrained not to talk about manufacturers, machines, or
performance details, but most Microsoft personnel can confirm that they've
seen some great computers.
Perhaps great and commercial are mutually exclusive. Perhaps commercial
implies enough manufacturing and performance compromises to preclude great.
Even if the Apple III is not a great computer, Apple's decision is to be
mourned. The Apple III is kind of like that old easy chair in the front
room at home. It clashes with the rest of the furniture and it needs
reupholstering, but it's so doggone comfortable that you can't bear to part
What made the Apple III so comfortable was not Apple Computer but the few
software geniuses who adopted the III and worked around its barriers to
developing good software.
It may come as a surprise to many to find out that there is good software
available for the III.Such folks will be doubly surprised to find out that
some of it is great software.
VisiCalc: Advanced Version, as implemented on the III, is great software.
Bill Gates and Mitch Kapor can legitimately disagree with the opinion that
the Apple III version is the best spreadsheet implementation extant, but
that's how we see it. Tim Gill's Word Juggler III is great software. Quark
has provided III users with perhaps the most complete word processing
program this side of a multiuser, $50,000 dedicated system.
Rupert Lissner's III E-Z Pieces is great software. Haba Systems won't agree
with the opinion that /// E-Z Pieces isn't up to the standard of 1-2-3 on
the IBM PC, but that isn't the point. Whether it's as good as, better than,
or slightly behind 1-2-3, Pieces is still a sound integrated program that
provides Apple III users with excellent functionality.
Oddly enough, the very best piece of software on the ni isn't even an
applications program. As voted by Softalk readers last year, the best
program is Catalyst, another of Tim Gill'sbrainstorms. Catalyst allows III
users to put all their copy-protected applications software on a ProFile
hard disk. Because most in applications require swapping program segments
in memory, having the applications on a hard disk significantly improves
All the III really lacks is a superb database. Keystroke is a good start in
that direction, but it's too little, too late.
It may seem surprising to many that some damned fool would cite software as
a reason to regret Apple's announcement. After all, Apple crows about the
sixteen thousand programs that run on the Apple II. IBM is claiming an
estimated eleven thousand on the PC. The III has only a comparative
handful, excluding those that run-and run is definitely a euphemism in this
context-in the Apple II emulation mode.
Most serious computer users use only five or six programs on a regular
basis. When was the last time you saw an Apple II owner with sixteen
thousand programs at his beck and call, asserting that he was expert in
every one of them and using them on a regular basis? Ridiculous? Of course!
What the Apple III lacks in quantity of programs, it makes up for in
quality of the few programs that exist.
The Apple III has an unexpected versatility about it that Softalk had
occasion to test in various ways. From its inception, the Softalk
subscriber list was maintained on Apple IIs. Plural is the correct usage,
in that the database grew to 155,000 records, which is at least a couple
more than is prudent and efficient to maintain on any micro.
When a new subscription database was readied on a Hewlett-Packard 3000, the
problem was to convert the Apple II data to the HP format and to
efficiently transmit the data to the HP. The Apple II was a whiz at
converting the data but could not transmit the changed records with any
The solution was to reformat the converted data to an Apple III file, using
Apple Writer 111 Utilities. The Apple III file was then transmitted to the
HP 3000 at 9600 baud in terminal mode, using Access III. The process added
a step but cut hours off the overall effort.
It's a tribute to both the Apple n and the Apple III that the process had a
reliability statistically approximating 100 percent-two records of 155,000
were garbaged. Think of the datahandling that was going on. The Apple II
would read a record, reformat it, and write it to a second disk. Then the
Apple III would read the Apple II record, convert it to Apple III format,
and write it to an Apple III disk. Finally, the Apple III would read the
reformatted record and transmit it at 9600 baud to the HP. For only two
records to be damaged during all that handling on floppy disks borders on
The Apple III also played an integral role in supplying data to the post
office during the time when the Apple IIs were handling subscriptions. Each
month as the mailing labels were being generated, the Apple II would create
text files of the number of magazines being sent to each zip code. The
files were so large that no Apple II could retrieve the data.
Using Apple Writer III Utilities, the Apple II files were converted to the
Apple III. The Apple III would then read the files and spew forth data that
reported the number of magazines sent into each postal zone; the number of
copies, city and state of each zip code, exclusive of multiple zip code
cities, into which Softalk was mailed; and the number of copies, city,
state, and range of zip codes for each city that encompassed more than one
Think of the amount of data the Apple III had to process. It had to
assimilate delivery files created on the Apple n that were often as large
as 120K, it had to know the city and state for each zip code, it had to
know whether a zip code was the single zip code for a given city or part of
a range of zip codes for that city, and it had to know in which postal zone
each zip code was contained. It had to take the delivery data and apply it
to at least two different tables. It had to print out three different
reports. It did all this in less than an hour. Is it any wonder that me
loss of the III will be mourned at Softalk?
It's to Apple's everlasting credit that they didn't abandon the III when it
was first apparent that they had a disaster on their hands. It would have
been easy enough to do. Ford had its Edsel. RCA had its laser disc. Why
shouldn't Apple have its own debacle? Why not burn those original fourteen
thousand buyers and leave the disaster behind as rapidly as possible?
Apple didn't do that. Apple made it right. They replaced every one of those
defective motherboards for free. They stayed with the machine long after
the conventional wisdom said it was futile and long after the investing
community said it was stupid. They stayed with the Apple III until they got
it right. That's a reason to regret Apple's action. The Apple III is okay
now. Even if Apple doesn't pursue more improvements to the III, its
continued presence is symbolic of some very positive things: Apple has a
corporate conscience. Apple does not place earnings ahead of its installed
user base. Apple has the will to create an excellent product from a morass
These statements say good things about Apple. They also say good things
about not quitting in the face of adversity. The Apple III may never have
made a positive contribution to the bottom line, but the struggle to turn
it around added something positive to the corporate psyche. Apple is poorer
but stronger for having done the Apple III. Apple and many Apple III
boosters have insisted all along that the III is every bit as good a
business machine as the IBM PC. The problem is that there seems to be no
economic means of convincing a skeptical marketplace of that. So it's just
as well that Apple cuts its losses and discontinues development of the III.
It's not as if Apple has nowhere else to put the resources. The streamlined
Lisa, dynamic Mac, and raft of Apple II products will all benefit from
additional development and marketing dollars. And Apple is rumored to be
doing some extraordinary things in advance projects. Perhaps the damnedest
thing of all, prior comments notwithstanding, is that the Apple III is a
relative failure as much as it is a real one. The vast majority of the
three hundred microcomputer manufacturing companies would be delighted to
have sales at the level normally achieved by the Apple III.
But the III's sales, in either units or dollars, were insignificant when
charted against the II. Apple's decision to allocate its dollars in more
promising arenas is sound business. But those of us who will continue to
use the III in the task of making our living can't help paraphrasing the
cry of a young boy upon seeing Shoeless Joe Jackson emerge from a courtroom
after being found guilty of fixing the 1919 World Series:
"Say it ain't so, Steve!