The Apple / IBM Difference: A Tribute to Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs had the perfect visual for his marketing vision that the Macintosh would be easy to learn and easy to use—a comparison of instruction manuals vs. the IBM PC. Unfortunately this frustrated Apple's technical writers who, try as they might, could not fully explain how to use a Mac in Jobs's target page count. Ultimately, Jobs won out; this print ad appeared in 1984 in a Newsweek spread, and a TV commercial soon followed. Photo credit: macmothership.com.

I never knew Steve Jobs, but I almost worked for him twice. I interviewed for a technical writer position at Apple in 1980, and for the director of documentation role at NeXT in 1993.

In truth, I was both sorry and thankful that I didn’t end up with those jobs. Jobs was a true visionary, and he inspired great loyalty, but he also had a fearsome reputation as a manager. As two early Apple employees told me years ago, “I don’t know anyone who worked for Jobs who didn’t have a strong love/hate relationship with him.”

Still, I had many friends at Apple, and got to observe the company closely as a freelance computer journalist, notably as a contributing editor and regular columnist for InfoWorld in 1981–83 and for A+ Magazine in 1984–85. A+ was an independent Ziff-Davis publication devoted to covering Apple news, products, and culture. My bimonthly column was called “Electronic Brainstorming.”

Although there have been many tributes and eulogies published in the week since Steve Jobs’s death, most have focused on his transformation of Apple after returning to the company in 1997. I thought it might be illuminating to revisit the Apple of the mid-eighties, when Jobs was a brash, young C.E.O. whose early meteoric success was threatened by the market entry of the industry’s most fearsome competitor, IBM, and the concurrent rise of Microsoft. I republish this essay from 1984—a few months after the first Macintosh shipped—as a tribute to a man who, in the end, turned out to be both brilliant and smart.

Readers who weren’t around at the time will find references to inexplicable concepts like computer stores, typewriters, secretaries, MS-DOS (this was even before Windows), CP/M, 1-2-3, floppy disks, Apple computers before Macintosh (Apple II, III, and Lisa), and a raft of prominent computer and software companies that ceased to exist long ago. These were the days when 256K—K, not M—was a lot of memory. If you’re curious … ask your parents.

The Apple / IBM Difference
By John Unger Zussman
from A+ Magazine, May 1984

A war’s going on between Apple and IBM, and it’s not just a war of competing products. It’s a war of competing approaches, styles, and philosophies. The outcome may well determine the type of computers we’ll be using ten years from now—and how we’ll buy them and how much they’ll cost.

The differences between the two companies are apparent as soon as you enter their respective corporate offices. At Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, there’s an Apple—sometimes two—on every desk. In addition, all employees get an Apple to take home on indefinite loan. Once employees have been with the company for a year, the Apple is theirs to keep.

Conditions are different at IBM’s Entry Systems division in Boca Raton, Florida, where the Personal Computer is made. As InfoWorld columnist Doug Clapp recently observed, Apple managers have computers; IBM managers have secretaries. The secretaries, in turn, have Selectric typewriters, not PCs. “I don’t believe that small computers are as pervasive, or as effective, at IBM as they are at Apple,” commented Clapp.

It’s a long-standing tradition in the microcomputer industry for the cobbler’s kids to go barefoot. Since start-up companies typically have little money, any equipment generally goes to the technical staff. Managers and clerks make do with manual systems—an arrangement that often continues, through sheer inertia, well past the early financial crises.

Still, IBM is hardly a start-up. It’s difficult to believe the company couldn’t put a PC on every employee’s desk if it wanted to. The fact is, even at Entry Systems, IBMers seem more oriented toward selling personal computers than toward using them. They work on micros; Apple people work with them. To IBM, personal computing is a business. To Apple, it’s a passion; the business aspect is almost a sideline.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

Both companies entered the personal-computer business reluctantly, although they came from vastly different directions. Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first computer, in that legendary garage, for their own amusement. They were surprised when their friends and fellow tinkerers also wanted computers; but, finally convinced, they set out to build a computer that others could use. The result, the venerable Apple II, still sells strongly going into its eighth year, in an industry where a five-year product life span is enviable.

IBM initially spurned the micro market, clinging to its mainframe and minicomputer product lines until it could no longer deny the reality of the personal-computer revolution. Ironically, the success of products like the Apple II compelled IBM to take notice. Once persuaded, IBM devoted its efficient, methodical, calculated approach—and its abundant resources—to developing a personal computer.

The result, the IBM PC, is a masterpiece of market and industry positioning, more than of technological sophistication. In fact, its engineering is notably conservative. The PC used mature, tried-and-true technology that other companies had already surpassed. But the PC matches precisely the needs of its intended market—corporate managers and operators of small businesses.

Moreover, for the first time in IBM’s history, the engineering was open. IBM included five expansion slots in the PC and published detailed technical specifications. Independent companies had no trouble developing PC-compatible hardware and software.

It’s significant that IBM’s technology has consistently lagged behind that of these third-party vendors. For example, the independents offered double-sided disk drives, hard disks, and color monitors for the PC long before they were available from IBM. Similarly, within three weeks of IBM’s announcement of the PCjr, two companies announced enhanced PCjr keyboards.

What IBM has built is less a computer than a bandwagon. It has made up for its late entry to actively fostering a market movement. In other words, IBM engineers have developed products that others want to use.

Apple engineers, in contrast, have developed products they want to use. They’ve relied on being brilliant—which is both Apple’s great strength and its great weakness. Apple’s major products to date—the Apple II, and Lisa, and the Macintosh—are bold, innovative, and technically advanced, almost experimental.

Apple’s engineers, trusting their own instincts, have occasionally guessed wrong. For example, Apple made several efforts to develop its own disk drives for the Lisa and Macintosh. It finally abandoned the project and customized a Sony drive instead.

Most often, Apple’s instincts have been right on target, though. That’s why the Apple II has lasted so long and why the Lisa and the Macintosh have received so much acclaim. It’s instructive that the Apple III—the only product Apple designed for others—is its least successful product.

Apple, designing for itself, tries to find its own engineering solutions to all foreseeable problems. For example, it has actively developed its own proprietary operating systems, starting with Apple DOS for the Apple II. Even when Apple supported industry-standard system options, such as UNIX on Lisa, it published a long list of suggested programming rules for interaction between programmers and users.

Brilliant vs. Smart

While Apple was busy being brilliant, IBM was busy being smart. IBM initially offered three standard operating systems (MS-DOS, CP/M, and the p-System) and recently announced a fourth (UNIX). IBM lets the market make the choices and the improvements.

Here is another example. Apple has tried to maintain absolute control over its computers. It has curtailed mail-order distribution channels, patented its technology, and actively prosecuted manufacturers of Apple-compatible machines. So far, IBM has taken no action against the PC-compatibles. In fact, by registering no patents and publishing its specifications, IBM has encouraged imitation.

These actions have made Apple somewhat of an innovative loner, an image the company is promoting in its recent advertising campaigns. In one TV commercial, an Apple user is working alone in a cavernous room ahead of (but also isolated from) a crowded roomful of other computer users. In another ad, a manager has clearly spent all night at the office, working alone with his Lisa computer. He calls home with an exhausted smile to report he’ll be back for breakfast.

Apple obviously wants to appeal to people who fit its corporate image—young (baby-boom generation), innovative, and independent. Apple users, the ads suggest, are loners too—they demand brilliance and aren’t content to use technology that isn’t thoroughly up to date.

But brilliance isn’t always smart. Consultants Barbara and John McMullen recently observed computer stores that carried both the Lisa and the PC. “Invariably there is a much larger crowd around Lisas that around PCs,” they reported, “yet the stores always sell more PCs than Lisas.”

Apple has recently shown encouraging signs that it is conscious of industry standards. It has dropped the price of the Lisa dramatically, increased its emphasis of UNIX on the Lisa, and announced support for Rana Systems’ innovative new 8086/2, which gives IBM PC compatibility to the Apple. These decisions may not be brilliant, but they are smart.

Take the Rana expansion option, for example. It contains an Intel 8086 co-processor, 256K bytes of memory, and two floppy-disk drives. All together, they allow an Apple II or IIe to run MS-DOS, the most popular PC operating system. Shortly after Apple blessed the 8086/2, Lotus Development Corporation announced a version of its integrated application program, 1-2-3—by far the best-selling PC software package—to run on Apples equipped with the Rana option. Score one for Apple.

The Macintosh, on the other hand, is unabashedly brilliant, even revolutionary. It’s also built from the ground up and ignores virtually every established standard in the business: no color, no cursor keys, no expansion slots, small disk drive, yet another proprietary operating system. “Who cares?” asks Apple. “These are the standards that have alienated millions of potential computer users.” A good point.

Apple means to set a whole new standard, to steal the standard-setting business away from the IBM PC (which stole it, in turn, from the Apple II). Is this brilliant? Of course. Is it smart? I don’t know. It’s risky. If it works, it’s smart.

Last year, every software company I know of had boarded the IBM bandwagon. All my programmer friends were working feverishly at their PCs, leaving their dusty Apples in the corner. Even software developers such as Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Dan Bricklin (Software Arts), and Fred Gibbons (Software Publishing), who’d made their first million on the Apple, seemed intent on making their second on the IBM PC.

Now they’re writing for the Macintosh. But they’ve still got one hand on the PC.

In the mainframe world, a long-standing joke had it that the market consisted of Snow White (IBM) and the seven dwarfs (Burroughs, Honeywell, NCR, Univac, RCA, General Electric, and Control Data). (This was an old joke—way before Apple, even before DEC.) If Apple abandons its brilliance and becomes merely smart, it will surely be destined for dwarfdom.

Conversely, should Apple continue to be brilliant but not smart, it might not survive at all. That would be a shame. We need an Apple that’s both brilliant and smart to keep IBM from dominating the industry and slowing the pace.

Copyright © 2011, John Unger Zussman, and copyright © 1984, Ziff-Davis Publishing. All rights reserved.

About John Unger Zussman

John Unger Zussman is an award-winning screenwriter, creative writer, and technical writer from Portola Valley, California. His essays have been published in The Sun Magazine. He has won a Grammy Award (as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus), but there’s room on the shelf for an Oscar and a Pulitzer. John also works as a corporate storyteller in info and biotech and holds a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University.
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