The failure last year of its Copland project was a terrible disaster. Copland was to be the company's answer to Microsoft's Windows 95, a new operating system to form the basis of its next generation of Macintosh computers. When Copland went down the drain, Apple's plans for the future went with it.
It's ironic, then, that to safeguard its future, Apple has turned to an ex-employee who was once forced to leave because he was thought to be holding the company back.
After Microsoft's Bill Gates, Steven P Jobs, the chairman and CEO of NeXT Software, is the best-known figure in the entire computer industry, a founder of Apple Computer who left the company to form NeXT following a boardroom coup in 1988.
Widely regarded as a visionary, Jobs, along with Apple colleagues such as Steve Wozniak, is credited with having revolutionised the personal computer industry by developing the graphical user interface that made the early Macintosh computers such a success. That interface was in fact developed by Xerox, at its Xerox PARC research facility. But it was Jobs who saw the software and recognised its potential during a visit there in the late Seventies.
"When I went to Xerox PARC in 1979, I saw a rudimentary graphical user interface," Jobs said in a recent interview. "It wasn't complete. It wasn't quite right. But within 10 minutes it was obvious that every computer in the world would work this way some day."
Jobs's guess was correct, and although Apple failed to exploit it properly, that technology continues to shape the computer industry to this day. At the announcement of NeXT's deal with Apple, Jobs said that "the industry has lived off the Macintosh for over 10 years now, slowly copying the Mac's revolutionary user interface". That may sound like a boast, but it is true.
Everything that Microsoft has done with its Windows software in the past 10 years has been an attempt to catch up with the original Macintosh design. (Jobs once described Windows as "a dog", so it's unlikely that Microsoft will welcome his return to Apple.)
Steve Jobs's departure from Apple was a turning point for the company. In fact, some industry observers have gone so far as to suggest that the company's current problems can all be traced back to that single event.
That's a gross oversimplification, of course, but to many of Apple's followers Steve Jobs did represent the "soul" of Apple. That's why his return has generated so much positive reaction, even though he will be working for the company only in an advisory position. He will not be holding a place on the board, as was initially rumoured.
The elegant, cube-shaped NeXT computer that Jobs developed after leaving Apple was a further development of that original vision. But instead of being purely a "personal" computer, the NeXT computer was designed with networking in mind - years before the rise of the Internet.
Although its design was widely admired, the NeXT computer and the NeXTSTEP operating system that the company now sells were not a success. Having been credited with the success of the Mac, Jobs was blamed for the failure of NeXT. His critics argued that his business ability did not match his visionary gift.
However, in 1986 Jobs bought out part of George Lucas's LucasFilm organisation and set up Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar was the company that produced Toy Story and had thousands queuing for Buzz Lightyear toys this Christmas. NeXT may not have been a success, but the Mac and Buzz Lightyear are pretty good credentials for any businessman.
And when Gil Amelio, Apple's CEO, was asked why he was buying an operating system that is nearly a decade old, he argued that NeXT was ahead of its time and that the rest of the industry was only now catching up.
There's some truth in this. The NeXTSTEP operating system was one of the first to use "object-oriented" programming techniques, and it also includes many of the features that Apple was hoping to build into Copland, such as "memory protection" and "multi-tasking", which make the computer system faster and more reliable. It may be, then, that the take-over by Apple proves Jobs right once more, giving both Apple and NeXTSTEP a new lease of life.
However, there are huge hurdles to be overcome. It's still unclear how Apple and NeXT's engineers can adapt NeXTSTEP to work with existing Mac technology - although Apple plans to make an announcement on this subject tomorrow. Apple also has major business problems, with dwindling market share and huge financial losses during 1996.
But return of Steve Jobs has generated a tremendous amount of goodwill towards both Apple and Jobs himself. Steve Jobs has come home; now we have to see whether Apple can pull off a comeback of its ownn