Before Apple Could Win the Internet, Macs Had to Stop Sucking

Michael Arrington writes that the old arguments about Apple and Microsoft are missing the obvious: that as the Web became the thing we used computers for, the OS that ran Office the best no longer really mattered:

Suddenly computers weren’t entirely about Office, they were now about Office and the Internet. Mac had only a slightly hobbled version of Office, and they had a peachy Internet experience. . .

The rise of the Internet and the fall of Office is why Apple won. Or rather it gave them the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, and all the wonderful things about Apple were able to finally influence people into actually buying them. The world went from “I’d much rather have a Mac, but Office is too important” to “I’d much rather have a Mac but the damned things are too expensive.”

Post-Office but pre-Internet Apple struggled. Post-Internet, Apple won… It’s so obvious everyone forgets.

I’m not so sure, though I’m certainly no scholar on the matter. But I remember Macs of the late 90s. While I was still a Windows user, I’d used Macs here and there at my acting school and at the theater where I eventually worked. And let me tell you, there was very little that was peachy about that Internet experience.

Running Internet Explorer on Mac OS 9 was, in my usage, ugly and awkward. UI elements were, as I remember, an awkward mishmash of Mac and Windows. Lots of pages and Web elements wouldn’t work, and, tying it all together, System 9 was, to my mind, junk, looking like a 1980s relic next to something like Windows 98 or what have you.

If Apple “won” (and I have to assume we’re talking in the grand scheme, not just about PCs), I think it started with iPod, easing people into the far superior (to Windows) OS X (along with what became obviously superior hardware), which served as the foundation for the iPhone/iPad juggernaut. The Web absolutely allowed the playing field to level so that Apple had a fighting chance in the desktop space. But the real match played on that field would have to wait, I think, until Apple started naming its operating systems after cats, and using a Mac stopped sucking so hard. After the 90s.

9 thoughts on “Before Apple Could Win the Internet, Macs Had to Stop Sucking”

  1. Well, Windows 95 and Windows NT weren’t exact;y peachy keen either. Actually, I stopped using Internet Explorer on both platforms a long time ago and have happily used Firefox ever since. Explorer sucks and always did.


  2. Who ever used IE on a mac? There were several other browsers even in the early 90s. And who would expect MS tp provide even half-decent software for a rival platform? Not that they could even for their own. And since Windows was basically nothing more than a badly integrated interface to MS-DOS and a bad copy of Mac OS to boot, I’m not buying your argument.


  3. My two objections to Macs were that certain software I wanted wasn’t available and a Mac box was noticeably more expensive than a Windows box with similar specs. While the software situation has improved, the cost of Macs is still greater than a similar Windows box. So my next computer will probably be a Windoze box.


  4. My web experience in Mac OS 9.x was very similar, it wasn’t what I’d call good. Missing scripts, errors, etc. I tried every browser that I could find anywhere and MACs did not just simply work with the net in those days. The only good thing about running a mac on the net in those days were all the auto-downloading viruses and bots didn’t work, you’d get a sudden error about a file you didn’t download not downloading correctly.
    iMACS were also not too great and for a machine that supposed to have been designed specifically for the net, had a laughable online experience.
    I also have to take issue with the contention that “Mac had only a slightly hobbled version of Office.” In those days, Office for mac was a huge piece of s**t. Constant crashes, formatting problems, printing issues, read errors on saved files; slightly hobbled my arse. Do you remember what it was like trying to insert a graphic that wasn’t clipart into office for mac back then?


  5. I couldn’t agree more with the basic thesis here. Back in undergrad (late 90s, early oughts), I used Macs at school and absolutely despised them. There wasn’t a single thing I found to like about them, they were just plain inferior to their Windows counterparts in every way. I didn’t like the crummy hardware, the babysitting from the OS, or the interface. I thought the goofy colors and plastic were hideous and gimmicky. It was bad enough that I simply wrote them off for a decade, not willing to do much other than occasionally look at the hardware specs and scoff at how much cheaper I could build a PC.
    Now? I just bought my first Apple computer a couple weekends ago. It’s a fairly loaded up iMac, and I love absolutely everything about it at this point. It’s still true that I could have matched the tech specs with a PC for a couple hundred dollars less, but I’m not terribly concerned about that, and I’m finding the user experience to be better as a whole. The biggest things for me are the aesthetics, the dead quiet of the system operating, and other factors that are hard to quantify.
    So, yeah, before Apple could win (for me), Macs had to stop sucking.


  6. I believe the levelling factor in the web wars was third party, cross platform web browsers. Prior to Internet Explorer there was Netscape Navigator. I don’t know what preceded Safari on the Mac, but found Safari for OS X Tiger underwhelming. A big moment came when Netscape open-sourced its web browser software, ultimately leading to Firefox, a particularly popular browser that earned mention on television news broadcasts. Personally, I install Firefox onto whatever operating system I am using: Windows, OS X, or Gnu/Linux. And, of course, there are other good third party browsers such as Opera and Google Chrome. Along with other cross platform internet software such as the Thunderbird e-mail client–and more recently on-line e-mail interfaces–the internet tools provided by Microsoft and Apple are less important. Instead the operating systems can be judged on other merits, such as stability, consistency, and pretty desktops.


  7. Prior to Jobs 2.0, Apple’s product lineup was a joke. Even Apple employees couldn’t explain why you should buy a Centra or Quadris or Performa or a 9500. They couldn’t even tell consumers what the relevant differences were. At one time, Apple had produced a helpful flowchart for consumers which actually exacerbated the problem since it looked like a circuit schematic.
    They were also getting their asses kicked by the clone makers, particularly Power Computing who had implemented the Dell build-to-order model. When Jobs returned, he simplified the product line with two binary choices: consumer/pro and desktop/laptop. The second important development was that Apple bought Power Computing and their BTO infrastructure.
    Jobs redux Apple also them bring desktop video editing to the consumer with the iMac DV models and iMovie. The also were the first to really grasp the importance of the portable music player and integrated it with desktop management of the music library.
    Jobs also had Apple buy the NeXT computer company, which had developed an OS, NextStep which was way ahead of its time, and peers. Apple then produced OS X from it.
    It’s fair to say that Steve Jobs’ return is the primary reason that Apple stopped sucking in the late 90s.


  8. Agree with TGAP Dad. I’ve used Macs almost exclusively since the SE/30, and they started out awesome, went slowly downhill, and then became awesome again.
    Sure, System 9 was buggy, but no more than the Windows of the time. Price was certainly an issue, although total cost of ownership was less for Macs, due to fewer viruses and registry-type issues. But there were a huge number of applications only available for Windows. So what did Apple do? They decided to encourage app development by making Developer Services a profit center. No more free developer tools for you! This is what happens when you put a soft drink CEO in charge of a tech company.
    They only recovered when NeXT bought them for negative 500 million dollars.


  9. I think Jobs’ biggest vision was bucking the industry’s vision of the “Post PC” world. In the late 90’s the big buzzword was “Convergence”; the idea that the traditional PC would be replaced as all the other devices we used would become internet-connected smart devices. Apple bucked that with the idea of the PC as the “Digital hub”, the device which added value to all your other components. Rather than have a camcorder capable of editing and uploading, it would allow any camcorder to edit and upload with a big screen and an easy interface, or a digital camera to save, sort and edit photos easily.
    That concept is what lead from iTunes to the iPod, and then the iTunes Music store and ultimately, the iPhone and iPad.
    But yeah, Macs in the 90’s were in big trouble. I’ve been using Macs since 1986, and nearly switched to Windows then. I’d actually say that Gil Amelio was already starting to make fundimental moves towards fixing apple’s product complexity and pricing before Jobs ever showed up. The first G3 computers Apple released were already using more PC standard components, and had simplified the desktop lineup dramatically. It was also a hell of a lot cheaper than the prior generation of PowerMac towers. Apple had already tried and failed to modernize (i.e. less DOS, more UNIX) the Mac as far back as MacOS 8. MacOS 9 can probably be compared with Windows ME: a system forced into service well past retirement age.


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