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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 with it.

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 performance.

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 speed.

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 miraculous.

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 zip code.

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 of mediocrity.

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!

Al Tommervik