tl;dr: We’re doing an Apple /// podcast. Yes, really.
Sarasaurs, ///’ers – call us what you will. Apple /// users are a diverse and loyal lot. We’re also greatly outnumbered by our II-loving pals (heck, there are even some /// users who secretly enjoy an Apple II now and then), but this should come as no surprise. The ///, in all its various forms, wasn’t on the market long, at least not in comparison to the II line – and Apple did little to support it even during that brief time in the sun.
Management’s inability to decide what they wanted their new business computer to be left it without a real place in the market. Software was late to be released – if it ever appeared at all – and when it did, it was bloated and buggy. Development tools and technical information in the form of reference manuals, blueprints, program listings – the sweet river of life that enabled the Apple II ecology to blossom into a lush paradise for user and developer alike – were in short supply for the Apple /// market.
“Business users don’t need that stuff!” the logic went.
This left would-be hackers on their own to explore and learn what skills they would need to build useful products they could sell. Companies wanting to get in on the ground floor of an industry that was exploding seemingly overnight into a multi-billion dollar business felt they couldn’t waste their time butting up against Apple’s reticence, especially when it was so easy – and lucrative – to design products in Woz’s open-design sandbox that begged engineers to come play with it.
As a result, partners who agreed to have product ready for the /// when it came to market – Quark, PFS and a few others – quickly scaled back their expectations, or discontinued their efforts entirely. Smaller companies, who bet the farm on Apple’s new business computer and couldn’t afford to cut their losses and move on, did their best to soldier on, releasing products in limited runs in the face of shrinking demand. One- and two-man garage operations, for the most part, never became more than that and the Apple /// user group newsletters are filled with ads for software products you’ve never heard of, where you would send your check not to a business address but to the house where the developer lived.
Those middle-ground users – the bulk of the Apple II market to that point – who hungered for something more than running an advanced version of VisiCalc, but didn’t have the patience or interest to try to wheedle arcane documents out of Cupertino, or didn’t want to to become full-time developers, found themselves in an uneasy middle ground, a digital purgatory where everything was too easy or far too difficult.
Business users, on the other hand – that pinstriped group with expense accounts and purchase orders Apple hoped would be the /// market’s bread, butter and income – struggled to learn the complexities of SOS and to understand why they should have to. The new “Sophisticated Operating System”, a retroactively-fashioned acronym that originally stood for “Sara’s Operating System” was powerful… and confusing, a frustrating combination for the accountant just wanting to load VisiCalc on his new ProFile hard drive and get back to crunching numbers. Apple went out of their way to always pronounce the acronym as “sauce” – get it? Apple sauce? Because it’s delicious, or something. Irritated end users reacted by adopting their own pronunciation, deliberately spelling it out as “S.O.S.”, the universal distress signal for ships at sea in need of rescue – an apt metaphor no doubt, for users struggling against Apple’s intransigence, as well as the understanding of the new concepts required by SOS.
And the Apple /// was expensive, priced well beyond the means of most home users looking for something to help them with their taxes, and their kids do their homework. Apple expected these to be used in a business environment, and a well-appointed prepackaged system could approach a five-figure sales tab in 1981.
Don’t get me wrong – that $10,000 or $12,000 bought you a lot of power. The Apple /// easily outperformed IBM’s similarly-priced offerings, but when further crippled by a technical bug and a raft of manufacturing issues that cropped up when production ramped up, and endless delays getting usable software and reliable hardware into the waiting hands of customers; first the tech press, then consumers and finally Apple itself, turned on the ///, sealing its fate as Apple’s first lemon.
And that’s usually the story you get in those C|NET, PCWorld and Tom’s Hardware “Worst of Apple” lists that pop up every time the Cupertino company fails to fail at everything the blogosphere thinks it should. But of course, there’s more to the story than that. Much more.
Apple initiated a huge – and extremely successful – recall to fix the lone technical problem, replacing 14,000 Apple ///’s for free and rapidly correcting the manufacturing glitches. Reliable machines finally reached users and while it never approached the Apple II in terms of sheer numbers of units shipped, Apple /// was by all accounts, selling well. When the end came, just months after the ///+ was announced, its massive per-unit profit margin meant the /// was making Apple more money than the Apple II, even though the II was outselling the /// by a wide margin.
Apple managed to woo new partners to develop software and hardware, even convincing Microsoft to make a version of its popular Z-80 CPU based SoftCard specifically to take advantage of the ///’s extended capabilities, and opening up the huge library of pre-existing CP/M business software to users. MicroPro and other developers, already established as big players in the PC software market, were quick to promise ///-compatible versions of popular business packages, redesigned to take advantage of all the benefits of the machine’s superior hardware features.
Apple put together a new marketing team and their PR efforts were working, and working well – David Fradin, the Apple ///’s final product manager and the man who was tasked with pulling the trigger that finally killed the ///, reports that the ///+ sales were increasing at a brisk pace by the time Del Yocam signed the order of execution. You see, by 1984, Steve Jobs had already decided the Macintosh represented the future of Apple. The Lisa wasn’t much more expensive than the /// and management hoped its fancy new graphics-driven interface would entice businesses into dropping the $10,000 Apple was asking. When the ///+ was released in December of 1983, no money or effort were spent promoting it for fear of the impact it might have on the unveiling of Job’s vaunted Macintosh less than a month later.
The Apple II meanwhile, had defied everyone’s predictions by continuing to be a huge hit with home users. Its open, expandable nature meant users had a nearly endless selection of hardware and software upgrades and add-ons, and customers were happy to reconfigure their machines as they needed.
To complement Lisa, Apple introduced the fancy new Apple IIe which not only incorporated many of the ///’s best features at a more attractive price but more importantly, wasn’t saddled with the stigma that seemed to still hang over the ///. In fact, Apple was about to reaffirm their faith in the II line, releasing a new, portable version called the Apple IIc to much fanfare and rave reviews on March 24th, 1984, the same day the /// line was quietly euthanized and swept under the nearest carpet.
Apple would continue to sell off its /// inventory until well into 1985, when it quietly removed the line from its price lists and handed off the remaining units to discount reseller Sun Remarketing, Inc. and to ON THREE.
And that should have been the end of the story – an interesting and perhaps somewhat melancholy diversion down a dead-end back alley in Apple’s history.
“Hey, what’s this Apple /// thing they’re talking about in this old Softalk magazine I found?”
“Hmm… I think I heard of it once. Never saw one in person, though. I hear the Smithsonian has one, but no one knows how to use it. Seems Apple never released any technical documents on the thing, so they can’t fix it. Not like they could use it if they could…”
“What little software that was written for it has mostly disappeared.”
Except it wasn’t the end. Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated “first generation” users to save the ///s future by preserving its past, those of us who today are discovering (or rediscovering in many cases) this fascinating, but little-known cul-de-sac in Apple’s history and the incredible machine that lies at the end of it, are benefiting from their far-sighted work.
The story of the ///, at Apple and beyond, is rich and diverse and much of it now lies forgotten or obscured, buried under the trash of misinformation and repeated, distorted exaggerations in the press and we think that’s a shame. Drop /// Inches was started as a resource for /// fans and users to learn and share and enjoy their beloved machines with other ///’ers but an interesting thing happened.
As we began to put this all together and started airing shows, a secondary goal became clear to us: we found ourselves in a unique position to shed some light on the truth of the development of the Apple /// and the stories of the people behind it: the hardware and software developers who worked long hours and poured their hearts and souls into making a new, powerful computer, only to see it sink in the marketplace, mishandled by a management team that didn’t understand what to do with it, and a charismatic co-founder who couldn’t care less. It is little wonder then that Apple’s first (and possibly best) business computer was unable to find its place in the product line.
Think you know everything about the Apple ///? You might be surprised. We’re having a terrific time making these shows and we hope you’ll join us in our adventure and listen along.