The Problems of Design by a Marketing Committee

(p. 226) So why did the Apple Ill have so many problems, despite the fact that all of our other products had worked so great? I can answer that. It’s because the Apple III was not developed by a single engineer or a couple of engineers working together. It was developed by committee, by the marketing department. These (p. 227) were executives in the company who could take a lot of their power and decide to put all their money and resources in the direction of their own ideas. Their own ideas as to what a computer should be.

Marketing saw that the business community would be the bigger market. They saw that the typical small businessman went into a computer store, bought an Apple II, a printer, the VisiCalc spreadsheet program, and two plug-in cards. One was a memory card, which allowed them to run larger spreadsheets. And the other was an eighty-column card, which allowed them to present eighty columns of characters across the video display, instead of the normal forty. Forty columns was the limit of American TVs.
So they came up with the idea that this should all be built into a single machine: the Apple III. And it was built.
Initially there was virtually no software designed for the Apple III. Yet there were hundreds of software programs you could buy for the Apple II. So to have a lot of software right away, Apple built the Apple III as a dual computer–there was a switch that let you select whether the computer started up as an Apple II or as an Apple III. (The Apple III hardware was designed to be extremely compatible with the Apple II, which was hard to improve on.) It couldn’t be both at. once.
And it was here they did something very wrong. They wanted to set the public perception of the Apple III as a business computer and position the Apple II as the so-called home hobby machine. The little brother of the family. But get this. Marketing had us add chips–and therefore expense and complexity–to the Apple III in order to disable the extra memory and eighty column triodes if you booted it up as an Apple II.
This is what killed the Apple Ill’s chances from the get-go. Here’s why. A businessman buying an Apple II for his work could easily say, “I’ll buy an Apple III, and use it in the Apple II mode since I’m used to it, but I’ll still have the more modern machine.” (p. 228) But Apple killed the product that businessman would want by disabling the very Apple II features (extra memory and eighty- column mode) he was buying the computer for.
Out of the chute, the Apple Ill got a lot of publicity, but there was almost nothing you could run on it. As I said, it wasn’t reliable. And in Apple II mode, it was crippled.
To this day, it boggles my mind. It’s just not the way an engineer–or any rational person, for that matter–would think. It disillusioned me that big companies could work this way.

Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.

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