30 years in Apple products: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Has it really been 30 years since two buddies named Steve sold off their prized possessions (Woz's HP calculator and Jobs' VW van) to raise money and launch a company? Has it really been 30 years since the two Steves, tired of selling blue boxes, built the Apple I and began selling it for $666.66? Yes, it has, and if you don't believe it, just compare Jobs' hairlines from '76 and today. And while the company has become known for many things, from its groundbreaking GUI to the iTunes Music Store, we know Apple has always been a hardware company at heart. So here's to you, Apple: the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly from the past 30 years. Happy Birthday.

The good
We're not going to go on about the contributions Apple's made to consumer electronics and personal computing. We don't really actually think they're all that innovative a lot of the time, they just have a knack for taking what's out there, what's a little higher end or out of reach to the average user, and bringing it to the mainstream at just the right time. Apple is Apple because they bring that technology home, and then package it with a friendly user experience and with an eye for style. High tech, good user experience, stylish presentation, it's not like those aren't things being done elsewhere, just usually not all together at the same time. Perhaps that's the essence of the Apple mystique. We've gathered some of the more groundbreaking devices of Apple's career; oh sure, we could have rounded up more, but we had to be fair to the bad and the ugly, too.

1976 - Apple I

Where it all began. It took a Palo Alto man with a flair for showmanship and a curious love of turtlenecks (and bowties) to convince his garage-dwelling, technologically-gifted friend with a love of facial hair to take the simple computer that he was building for personal use and distribute it to the "masses." Unlike other computers of the day, which came in kits and required an engineering degree to assemble, the 200 original Apples shipped as complete circuit boards (although users still had to add their own cases, keyboards, and monitors -- kinda like a Mac mini, actually). Sure, the specs of the Apple I seem humorous today -- 1MHz processor (even back then they were "thinking differently" and eschewed the popular Intel chip of the day), 4KB RAM (expandable to 32KB), 1KB of video memory, and a maximum resolution of 40 x 24 characters -- but the $666.66 price tag of the machine was vital in crafting the company's philosophy: providing consumers with the easiest PC on the market to use and maintain (and also to look at, if not to afford).

1977 - Apple ][

While the Apple I may have been a great toy for computer hobbyists, the Apple ][ was something entirely different: it was the first successful mass-market personal computer. First released in 1977 with just 12K of ROM and a maximum 6-color screen resolution of 280 x 192, the Apple ][ took the computing world by storm. The computer remained a mainstay of Apple's product line even after the first Macs were released; the last version, the ||gs, was released in 1986, and looked a lot like the first Mac II (which was released the following year -- by then, Apple had also developed a Mac-like GUI for the earlier computer). With its bundled software, relatively affordable storage via cassettes and floppies, the original ][ and its offspring became popular with corporate users and students alike (you'll still find some of them deployed in schools around the country). By 1981, when IBM launched its first PC, Apple was the undisputed leader of the PC market, with an income of about $300 million, all fueled by the ][. Within a few years, of course, IBM (and, more importantly, cloners such as Compaq) dominated the market, and the ][ became known mainly as a tool for students. But the ][ proved that there could be a mass market for computers, and helped spur the entire computer revolution of the 1980s.

1984 - Macintosh

The original Mac, hyped in the classic "1984" commercial and formally introduced by a bow-tied Steve Jobs at Apple's 1984 shareholders' meeting (where the computer quipped about how glad it was to be taken out of Steve's bag), really did change the world of personal computing. Though GUI-based computers had been available earlier (including on Apple's own Lisa), the first Mac brought the concept to the masses. And while the original Mac was underpowered (no hard drive, just 128K RAM) and overpriced ($2,500), it was cheaper than competing GUI-driven computers (uh, that would be Apple's Lisa, again) and more intuitive and user-friendly than most other PCs, which were still using MS-DOS. Though the Mac never garnered a level of market share comparable to DOS (and later Windows) based computers, its influence on the industry was indelible.

1989 - Macintosh SE/30

While the original Mac may have been underpowered but inspired, the SE/30 showed that the platform had staying power. The first compact Mac based on Motorola's 68030 processor, the SE/30 was also capable of using up to 32MB of RAM, compared to just 4MB in its predecessor, the SE. Introduced in 1989, the SE/30 essentially marked the high point for the original Mac form factor. Future models based loosely on this design, including the Classic and Classic II, used the same processor (but at 16MHz), but were less expandable than the SE/30. Which is why it's no surprise the SE/30 became a popular server platform, and was common in data centers throughout the 1990s (in fact, the image above shows an SE/30 currently in use as a web server -- we're not including a link, since we don't want to bring it down).

1991 - PowerBook 100

The PowerBook 100 gets its spot on our "good" list for being Apple's first real laptop -- and for being a lightweight, well-designed computer as well. But it almost didn't make it. When it was first introduced in 1991, the PowerBook 100 sold for $2,500 -- far too much for a machine with a 16 MHz processor, 2MB RAM and a 20MB hard drive. Price cuts the following year brought it to just $1,000 (though an external floppy drive was another $250). The PB100 proved that Apple could make a decent portable -- when they subcontracted out the design work to Sony's portable computing team, anyway -- and began a line that would continue until this year, when Apple began dismantling the brand in favor of the MacBook (Pro).

1994 - QuickTake

Before the iPod was even a glimmer in Apple's eye, the company made another push into mainstream consumer electronics that, although ahead of its time, helped create the framework that allowed the digital photography market to flourish. The first Apple camera, the QuickTake 100 (which was built by Kodak), hit stores in 1994 with a VGA resolution, 1MB of internal flash memory, and JPEG, TIFF, and BMP support -- and of course, only worked with Macintosh computers. Apple later released a Windows-compatible version of the camera called the 150, and gave the brand its last hurrah after only three years in the form of the media card-friendly QuickTake 200 built by Fuji (anyone remember the 5v card?). Ultimately, Kodak and fellow quick-take manufacturer Fuji went on to create their own successful digital camera businesses, and Apple stayed out of the CCD game until the 2003 introduction of the iSight.

1995 - Power Macintosh 9500

There isn't anything very hard to "get" about the Power Mac 9500. It just merely contained the most muscle and most expandability of any computer Apple had ever unleashed upon the public. Starting out at a whopping 120 or 132MHz, the machine eventually ramped up to a Photoshop-munching dual 180MHz PowerPC 604 processor before being replaced by the better looking but less ambitious 9600. The 9500 was the first Mac to toss those NuBus slots for the industry-standard PCI expandability, of which it had a whopping six slots. The computer also had a daughtercard architecture, which allowed easy processor upgrades and kept the box alive well into the G3 and G4 eras. The machine was coveted by graphic designers and musicians, and it shouldn't be much of a surprise to see one humming along somewhere crunching through some Pro Tools files or powering a legacy scanner.

1998 - iMac

When the iMac debuted in May of 1998, Apple wasn't doing so hot. They'd churned through their third CEO -- Gil Amelio -- since Jobs had been ousted in 1985, but recently acquired Stevie's NeXT Computer, and sat him down once more at the head of the Apple table. With Jobs back in the driver's seat it came time to clean house, and those beige box Power Macs and Performas needed a radical counterpoint. Enter the Jonathan Ive-led Bondi blue Internet Mac, the iMac -- a return to Apple all-in-one basics. No floppy, no weird plugs, no nothin'. Just some simple lines, some USB ports, and a low price (for an Apple, anyway) that sold an unreal amount of units -- well enough to lift them out of their financial funk and put them back on their way to shareholder happiness. But not without first starting a seemingly inescapable iTrend iCliché that permeates buzzwords and marketing naming conventions even today.

2000 - Apple flat panels

Like many of Apple's products, their displays weren't the first of their kind on the market, nor were they particularly affordable during their initial run. But the devices really came of age as Apple launched the first mass-market widescreen LCD head to consumers in July of 2000. They'd already marketed their own line of flatscreens for years, but your average user was still quite fresh to the idea of a 1600 x 1024 LCD monitor when they loosed the 22-inch Cinema Display on the world for $3,999. We'd like to think it unofficially ushered in the age of widescreen flat panel monitors, actually. Of course the Apple Display Connector didn't take hold -- and proved itself something of a gadfly standard for years to come -- but the impact of the first 22-incher was as clear as the acrylic: CRTs were dead, alright, and we've never looked back.

2001 - PowerBook G4

The PowerBook, in its many, many incarnations, had been a laptop trendsetter since its inception. One of the first consumer laptops available with 802.11b -- ever heard of it? -- even through the Sculley and Spindler years it managed to be Apple's competitive edge targeted at businessmen and stylish consumers alike. Which is why Jobs had something to prove when taking his first real stab at revamping their flagship portable line. What we wound up with was the first consumer widescreen laptop, a device unique for being thinner and lighter than almost any full-size consumer laptop of its day, constructed from exotic Titanium, featuring standard WiFi, and a slot-loading DVD. Sure the paint coating on the Titanium tended to rub off exposing the coppery-looking metal beneath, the hinges were prone to snapping, and the top of the line 500MHz / 256MB / 20GB model would set you back $3,499, but the brand was firmly cemented in the minds of consumers, and thin was officially in.

2001 - iPod

Besides the Walkman, one's hard pressed to think of a consumer electronics brand that's had such an impact on consumers' lives, lifestyles, media, and the way use and understand content. Love it or hate it, whether or not you use an iPod, have ever owned one, or were rabidly obsessed with the Rio PMP300 (which came out three years prior) like we were, the iPod line -- from its then overpriced $400 5GB player in 2001 to its still overpriced $400 60GB player now -- has captured the wallets and the imaginations of gadget lovers the world over, and set the tone for a new century of consumer electronics. With over a billion songs sold on the iTunes Music Store for playback on the 42 million iPods alive and kicking in the world in the last five years, it's pretty easy to see that this may be the definitive device for an entire generation.

2006 - MacBook Pro

In 2005 Jobs announced, to many an Apple users' chagrin, that they'd be transitioning their entire line of products to Intel's x86 processors. There were uproarious outbursts: consumers cried foul for yet another Apple platform change, and analysts and stockholders bemoaned expected lost sales due to the Osbourne Effect. But Apple finished their first Intel-based portable ahead of their expected schedule, and by the time the PowerBook had reached the end of the line in late 2005, its successor, the MacBook Pro was announced. Make no mistake about it, the PowerBook paved the way for elegant portable computing, and the MacBook, for what it's worth, more or less rode on its coattails. Besides losing 0.1-inch around the waist and FireWire 800, and gaining iSight, an Apple Remote sensor, Front Row, and, of course, Intel's new Core Duo processor, the MacBook Pro is essentially identical to its late predecessor. The real difference between the PowerBook and the MacBook Pro was less evident than subtly tweaked aesthetics or spec bumps; despite years of hemming and hawing about the superiority of the G4 chip over its x86 counterparts, the Intel-based MacBook Pro handily outperformed all previous Apple portables, and signaled yet another new beginning for the company (along with the Intel iMac and Intel Mac mini, of course).

The bad
We like a good Apple as much as the next guy, but if you think we're gonna let 'em off easy for their flubs, flops, or complete misjudgments of their consumer base, well, you might not realize we dislike a bad Apple as much as the next guy, too. Sure, they may have some regrets over the years (seems to us like most probably come from simply pricing themselves right out of the hands of potential buyers) but occasionally concept and forward thinking become high concept and too-forward thinking, and what you wind up with is a device that people just aren't ready for yet -- or devices that just aren't ready for people yet.

1980 - Apple III

Despite its commercial failure, the Apple III (or III, if you like) -- which was the first model designed after Apple's incorporation -- represented a number of significant advances in the personal computing industry at the time. Like the members of the II series before it, the 1.83MHz III and its successor the III were mass-produced MOS processor-based computer / monitor / keyboard packages with color video, audio support, and integrated BASIC. That's where the similarities end, though, as the III, with its $3,500 base price, was targeted specifically at business users and thus sported such niceties as the Sophisticated Operating System, built-in floppy drive, 256KB of RAM, and dedicated numeric keypad. Even with these innovative features and Apple II emulation, hardware problems with the III (which were addressed, but too late) along with the perceived "lack of software" that has dogged Apple throughout its history, doomed the III series to a paltry sell of 65,000 and eventual abandonment in 1985.

1983 - Lisa

Yes, we've included the Lisa in our "bad" category. But that doesn't make it a bad computer. On the contrary, the Lisa incorporated features that were unique at the time: an optional hard drive, a document-based graphical user interface, multitasking, bundled office suite, and consumer-upgradeable innards. It was a groundbreaking computer, far more advanced computer than the original Macintosh. However, with an initial price tag of about $10,000 (that's almost $20K in today's dollars), the Lisa was doomed from the start. Even slashing the price and rebranding it the "Macintosh XL" didn't help; so, Lisa ends up on the "bad" list. But if it had been positioned differently in the market and hadn't had to contend with competition from the Mac, it could have easily topped the "good" list, and we could all be running LisaDraw, LisaWrite (and presumably LisaWeb and LisaTunes) on our iLisas and Lisa minis right now.

1993 - MessagePad and Newton OS

While we're sure that several of you will take offense to the MessagePad series being categorized as "bad," we'd argue that the problematic OS, bulky design, relatively high price point, and difficulty in syncing with a PC rightfully resigned Apple's devices and others powered by the Newton OS to market failure. That's not to say that the MessagePads or the OS lacked good features or weren't ahead of their time; to the contrary, many staples of the modern PDA such as upgrade slots, flash storage for data integrity, data-sharing among PIM applications, and rotating screen orientation were standard on the platform. Unfortunately, even regular hardware and OS upgrades, which added more storage, speed, better screens, handwriting recognition could not overcome the perceived lack of value that the original Message Pad ($700), 100 series ($500 to $600), 2000 series ($800 to $1000) or even the QWERTY-sporting, clamshell eMate ($800), offered. While Apple stopped production of the hardware and support of the software in 1998 after Jobs 2.0 axed it, there is still a fervent community of developers who continue to write drivers, software, and emulators, who will likely keep the Newton alive indefinitely.

1997 - Twentieth Anniversary Mac

If you're waiting for Apple to unveil a media computer, maybe you should try looking back instead of forward. In 1997, the company released its 20th Anniversary Mac (despite the fact that the company's 20th birthday was actually a year earlier, in 1996). The flat-screen PowerPC-based computer included a Bose-designed integrated speaker system, radio and TV tuner -- along with a $10,000 price tag. While it was a sleek computer that foreshadowed future flat-screen models such as the iMac G5, it ended up being something of a bust -- even as a limited edition model -- and today you can pick one up on eBay for about $1,500 with upgrades including a faster processor, RAM, larger hard drive, USB, Ethernet and Firewire.

2000 - Power Mac G4 Cube

The Cube wasn't a bad computer. On the contrary, the 8 x 8 x 8-inch Mac suspended in clear acrylic was blissfully fan free, fairly full-featured, and sexy enough to earn a place in the Museum of Modern Art alongside the original Mac. The real problem with the Cube was two-fold: the $1,800 introductory price tag put the machine out of reach for most mere mortals, but the knockout punch came from the box's lack of upgradeability. The pros who could afford themselves a Cube ended up with G4 towers for the expandability or dual processor options. By the time Apple started slashing prices to $1500 and finally $1300, it was, as usual, too little too late, and the Cube was taken off assembly lines in 2001. Yet another in the long line of computers to be worshipped by Apple followers, but shunned by their pocket books.

The ugly
Let's face it, not every device in Apple's career has been lustrous, no matter how illustrious Apple may be. Now, we're not saying that Apple's continued success has been reliant strictly upon aesthetics, but there are a number of reasons why 1985 through 1997 were the lean years, and we don't think John Sculley's, Michael Spindler's, and Gil Amelio's sense of style exactly helped. Hey, even Jobs can't escape the fact that some serious fuglies made their way out the door under his watchful eye. We could make a gallery of Apple's egregiously uncomely, but we picked a few of our fav eyesores that we're no longer cursed by the gadget gods to gaze upon (at least not until we put together this piece, anyway).

1989 - Macintosh Portable

Apple's first attempt at a portable computer may not have been quite as bulky as early suitcase-sized Compaqs and Osbornes, but by the time it came out, those hulking behemoths had already been replaced by boxes closer in appearance to modern laptops. Into this market, Apple launched a 16-pound, non-backlit monster. Although Apple initially claimed that the machine's active matrix display meant it didn't need a backlight, the company later relented and added one. But by then it was too little, too late, and the machine was mothballed in 1991, as Apple prepared its first real laptop, the battery-powered, 5-pound, backlit, affordable (after a price cut) PowerBook 100.

1991 - Macintosh Quadra

The Quadra 700 kicked off the Quadra pro-line of Macs, and was Apple's first foray into tower computers. The Quadra line stayed at the top of the heap until 1994 when the Power Mac line came along with their too-cool-for-school PowerPC 601 processors, but for 68k computing the Quadra was hard to beat. The highlight of the line was easily the Quadra 840av, which was not only among the first Macs to best 33MHz, at a blazing 40, but included video in and out capabilities, along with real time editing capabilities thanks to a special Digital Signal Processor from AT&T. Unfortunately the first of the Quadras weren't so hot up in the face, which just goes to show that looks aren't everything, not even for Apple.

1992 - Macintosh Performa

The Performa series, Apple's foray into retail and family computing, wasn't quite as aesthetically challenged as the other members of this "ugly" list -- but it was definitely the awkward teenager of the 90s Mac family. The Performa series merely consisted of rebadged systems from their main line, starting with the Macintosh Classic (Performa 200) in 1992, and ending with the Power Macintosh 6400 (Performa 6360-6420) in 1997. The real "crime" committed by Apple with the Performa was merely the sluggish computers and beige box aesthetic typical for Apples at the time, making anything bearing the Performa badge easily snubbable by the Mac elite. The Performa was neglected by the sales staff due to relatively high prices, and suffered terribly in stores where it sat alone on the shelf, rarely making it home with shoppers who were just looking for something in the way of IBM-compatible.

1996 - Network Server

During the Michael Spindler years when Apple began losing consumer interest as they increasingly attempted to pander to corporate customers, a rogue Unix box made it out the (back) door. It was the Apple Network Server, a pudgy, bulbous box that ran a PowerPC chip at up to 200MHz, rook up to a gig of RAM, and had up to six 9GB hot swappable SCSI drives in RAID -- not your run of the mill Apple. Its purpose, however, wasn't entirely transparent, as its aim was to butt into the enterprise server market with a $11,000 - $19,000 price tag. But the fact that it was an Apple rendered this monstrous non-sequitur of box almost unsaleable: corporations surely didn't want an Apple server -- running AIX or not -- in their data centers, and Apple power users neither had the money to afford one, nor the desire to learn how to use AIX. Its sales were abysmal, and it was quickly nixed after only 14 months on the market.

2001 - Flower Power iMac

There was nothing technically wrong with the "Flower Power" iMac. The computer had plenty of power for a little bit of iMovie enjoyment, and the "SE" version even included a CD burner for enjoying Apple's new iTunes music player. Unfortunately, the computer was subject to one of the most hideous case designs of all time, thanks to special techniques developed by Apple that allowed them to apparently imprint drug-induced patterns onto molded plastic. We all know Jobs and the early Apple crew were hippies -- perhaps the idea for the Flower Power came to him in an acid flashback -- but to make matters worse, it was accompanied by the almost equally atrocious "Blue Dalmatian," and plain Jane blue iMac in the low end. All three were quickly replaced by the much classier "Indigo" and "Snow" iMacs, leaving Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian forever relegated to enjoyable Mac-centric cartoons and the desks of a few hippies who thought the color schemes were the best thing since "Freebird."

--By Marc Perton, Evan Blass, Paul Miller, and Ryan Block

[Includes info and images via Wikipedia, Newton Gallery, AppleFritter, MacMothership,, EveryMac, LowEndMac, & Apple History]