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Apple, Where Did the Magic Go?

April 16, 2015
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I first fell in love with Apple in 1978. I was 23. So was Steve Jobs. Woz was about 5 years older. Apple had the look and feel of a counter-culture renegade company that was on an almost subversive plan that would allow people to own powerful computers that were previously only available to corporations… power to the people!

I do understand brand value, as well as valuable brands, and I’ll admit I hold Apple to a higher standard. I felt Apple used to meet that standard, and the higher prices still delivered tremendous value because of their innovation, functionality and comparable value.

I sold my car (Volvo station wagon) to buy an Apple II in 1978… it had 16K of RAM, you had to save your programs and data on an audio cassette tape, you had to use a TV with an RF-modulator as the display… and it cost over $2,000! That was a lot in 1978… adjusting for inflation, that would be around $7,500 in today’s dollars. Yikes! Everyone thought I had gone totally crazy. My wife at the time was against it, but I did it anyway (I made it up to her, largely from stuff I did with the Apple II).

I gambled my life on that ugly beige box. But to me, it was beautiful, sublime, and magical. I had learned programming in the 60’s as a young kid… the popular computer back then was the IBM 360, which came with 16K memory, and would set you back about $250,000. The price I paid for my Apple II was about 1% of the cost of an IBM 360. So in that respect, it was a tremendous value!

An individual never had the opportunity to own a computer of any kind… so this was a huge innovation. Microsoft started as a third-party Apple II developer. Apple was creating a new industry thanks to the two Steve’s incredible innovation.

Then Woz designed the 5 1/4 Apple II floppy disk, another huge innovation. Game changing. Insanely great. The market was disrupted once again, with Apple’s innovation offering a previously unavailable technology at a price that someone could actually afford. Apple became the world’s largest manufacturer of floppy disk drives overnight.

Then along came a long line of Apple II’s, and the flops, like the Apple /// and the Lisa. Even though the Lisa flopped, it was still hugely innovative… it’s where the Mac came from.

And then they did it again. 1984. The Macintosh. Still expensive at $2,000… about $4,500 in today’s dollars. But again, what a value! The only thing like it was the Xerox Star, a corporate computer that cost $75,000 dollars! So a Mac cost only 2.5% of what a Xerox Star cost. Another tremendous value.

I was so excited and when I manage to smuggle a Mac out of Apple before the release in a black plastic trash bag. I knew I was holding the future in that trash bag. I’m so thankful to my friends at Apple who helped me get ahold of the Mac early. I knew they were risking their careers to help our Apple magazine, A+, be the only other magazine to have an issue out about the Mac when it launched.

Back then getting out of Apple was almost impossible, let alone the hugely secret ground-breaking, revolutionary Macintosh. It was high drama with a smattering of corporate espionage… my A+ team felt like rebel fighters on a mission to bring the truth to the public. We were the like the Blues Brothers… we were on a mission from God. That’s how big a freaking deal the Macintosh was to each of us personally and to our team as a whole.

And again! This time, it was the LaserWriter a year later. Another product that changed my life… I wrote one of the first books on desktop publishing and was the first one to use it to produce a national magazine (MacUser).

How much was a LaserWriter? A whopping $6,995. But what an amazing value! You’d have to buy a printing press to get similar results, not to mention the typesetting, page layout that involved cutting and pasting with real scissors… talk about labor intensive! I know, because we printed a lot of magazines back then.

When I told the production guys at Ziff Davis that I was going to use desktop publishing to produce MacUser they damned the idea insisting it was impossible. I told them that if they didn’t save at least $1 million dollars in color separation layout charges alone, I would be glad to resign. Thankfully Bill Ziff backed me up and overruled them. And it worked. A few years later I got to see the whole company switch over… loved seeing them haul out the old Atex system from PC Week (the last to go DTP).

Yet again, despite being the most expensive product Apple had ever sold, it was a game changer that caused a huge disruption in the printing and publishing industries. Another product with outstanding innovation that was insanely great. Magical. And a tiny fraction of the cost of what it replaced.

iPod. Boom! Another major innovation that destroys Walkman, cassette players, and portable CD players market. And the beginning of Apple’s locking people into their ecosystem by making switching costs high (investment in iTunes purchases).

Next, the biggest bang of all, the iPhone! It screamed innovation. I got it the first day it came out. It was magical. It was insanely great. It was like something from the future. It could do what no other phone could ever do. The innovation was so great that it completely disrupted and changed the telecommunications industry forever. Another game changer. I felt like it delivered a ton more value than the top-of-the-line Motorola cell phone I had been using.

Steve died. It did make a big difference to Apple. No-one else could ever fill his shoes and drive the company as a united force focused exclusively on innovation. He was unique. Apple will never be the same.

I haven’t seen anything insanely great since Steve died. The Apple watch? This is not a game-changing, magical, insanely great product. No way. And today’s iPhone is still pretty much Steve’s original iPhone with a bunch of iterations.

Without the maniacal drive toward innovation that Steve didn’t just bring to Apple, but demanded from Apple. And got from Apple.

Show me another insanely great product from Apple. Something magical. A game-changer. Immediately recognizable as massively innovative. The kind of thing that Steve did over and over again. Show me that, and I’ll be a believer again. I dare you.

I miss that magic. I want Apple to blow me away like they used to do again and again. The reason I switched to the Moto X from an iPhone 5 last year is because the Moto X was more magical with its voice control and context processor. Apple, I want technology leadership, not a luxury brand (the former CEO of Burberry is now in charge of Apple stores). And I certainly don’t want Beats headphones… yuk. Apple, I want magic again! Please, Apple, please!

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