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Apple’s first CEO speaks

Business Insider has an interview with Apple’s first CEO, Michael Scott. (Not the guy from the TV sitcom.) It’s interesting reading from a historical standpoint.

Apple competed very successfully with this Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. And for some reason Apple’s first CEO doesn’t remember it. The TI-99/4A was a disaster but some of its chips went on to power other successful machines.

It also illustrates the difficulty with history, even recent history. Scott recalls that, early on, the company thought its primary competitor would be Texas Instruments. Then he observes, “And for some reason, they never got into the PC business.”

And that’s not true. TI had the TI-99/4 and the TI-99/4A home computers, which they sold from 1979 to 1983. It sold 2.9 million units, which was a lot of machines in the early 1980s. But the machines weren’t profitable, so they exited the market. Then TI tried its hand at making business PCs. I certainly remember them advertising their desktop PCs, but I don’t remember ever seeing one. They had a successful laptop line in the mid-1990s though.

And that’s the problem with talking to people about things that happened 30 years ago. They flub a little detail like that, and some people want to pile on and say they can’t believe a word the guy says, because, after all, everyone knows Texas Instruments competed with Apple.

But I see it even when memories aren’t that old. Three people at the same event, and they saw the same thing, but the stories are different. And sometimes the difference is focus. Some people see a wide perspective and some people see small details. Both can miss things.

To me, it’s interesting that the former Apple CEO doesn’t remember the Texas Instruments computer that his product competed with. And that leads to a couple of other questions. Did Apple not consider TI’s computer powerful enough to be a competitor? Or was TI’s marketing ineffective? Because even though TI’s efforts didn’t last long on the market, TI was influential. TI’s vertical integration let it dominate the handheld calculator market, and that influenced Commodore to apply the same model to the computer market. Commodore is long gone, but their low-price model remains. Whether they know it or not, the discount PCs that rely on outsourced Intel engineering and vertically integrated production are using a modernized version of the TI model.

And although TI’s computers didn’t survive long on the market, other companies used TI’s graphics and sound chips, with good success. Well, IBM wasn’t successful but Tandy sure was.

Both Apple and Commodore licensed Microsoft’s 6502 Basic interpreter for a flat rate of $25,000. It ended up being a pretty bad deal for Microsoft in both cases.
The other interesting thing is Scott’s revelation that Microsoft licensed its BASIC to Apple for a flat fee of $25,000. Commodore got the same deal, though Microsoft initially wanted $3 per machine. I know Bill Gates didn’t like dealing with the 6502 CPU that powered Apple and Commodore computers (among others).

Microsoft appeared bitter with Commodore, and less so with Apple. Is the difference the number of units shipped? Apple sold a total of 6 million Apple II machines from 1977 to 1993, but Commodore may have sold that many machines in 1984-85 alone. I’m sure Microsoft saw both as a missed opportunity, but a $1.5 million annual missed opportunity from Apple must have stung less than the $9 million annual missed opportunity from Commodore.

But I agree with Michael Scott that 6502-based computers with Microsoft BASIC built in really set the course of history. When you powered the computer on, the language was right there, staring you in the face. People learned how to program with it. Magazines sprung up, full of type-in programs written in Microsoft BASIC. People would type them in, and over the course of typing in those programs and finding and fixing mistakes to get them to run, they learned about programming. It was a lot more haphazard than learning programming in an academic environment and it showed sometimes, but they learned. It’s probably not possible to know how many of today’s computer scientists got their start by messing around with a 6502 computer running the BASIC that Microsoft never wanted to produce.

I care about that a whole lot more than I care about how Steve Jobs used to stink up meeting rooms in the 70s. Priorities….

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