BOOK REVIEW / Blind love and battles for the big Apple: 'Insanely Great' - Stephen Levy: Viking, 15 pounds

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The Independent Online
THERE has undoubtedly been more nonsense per keyboard inch written about the Apple Macintosh than any other computer. It is to a certain part of the computer community what the Morgan is to some car freaks - a love that takes on almost human dimensions. More worryingly, it is a love that can speak its name only in terms that bore the rest of us rigid.

Of course, anthropomorphism is a dangerous thing. In extreme cases, it can lead to some pretty weird behaviour (witness the man who was found tenderly caressing his Austin). The blind love it generates can also make those infatuated overlook the worst shortcomings of the ones they adore. Thus Morgan drivers become so obsessed with their toys that they forget how uncomfortable the ride is.

So it is with the Apple Macintosh. Yet the strange thing is that this obsession-induced sclerosis came to paralyse the thoughts of the company's founders and leading lights to the same extent (if not more) as the public at large. Nothing else could explain Apple's position today, when it barely turns in a cent profit on each of its computers, when once it had the entire personal computing world at its feet.

For the brainchild of Steve Jobs is indeed a marvellous machine, one whose graphics and usability made the competition - principally IBM-compatible machines - appear laughably primitive when it first appeared in 1984. The Mac spoke the language of users, not men in white coats, and offered ground- breaking ways for computer illiterates to write letters, design magazines, make music and produce graphics.

That the Mac hasn't wiped out the opposition - and that virtually every major corporation in the West still relies on IBM-compatible machinery - is almost entirely the result of errors perpetrated by John Sculley, the marketing guru hired from Pepsi to bring order to the genius-inspired chaos of Jobs and his crew. First, he priced the machines too high. Second, he would not let any other hardware makers get their hands on the Mac's operating system - the heart of the computer, and its unique feature. By contrast, any techno-nerd with a soldering iron could get hold of the bits to make an IBM-compatible clone. And they did, with literally thousands of computer makers springing up from Texas to Taiwan.

The effect of the IBM free market was twofold. First, it drove prices down further, making the Mac even less competitive. Second, it brought to the fore new ideas about the machines and, more important, about service and backup. The flowers that bloomed may have been duller than those at Apple, but there were hundreds, rather than one.

It took until 1990 for the company to get the message of the market. By then it was almost too late. After many years of trial and error, Bill Gates, the nerd-genius behind Microsoft, had made his Mac-lookalike Windows interface for the IBM community finally work. The Mac's USP had virtually gone. The massive profits went in a Bruce Lee display of price-chopping. So, too, did Sculley, in a nasty boardroom row.

Now Apple faces a fight for its very survival. Its brand-name loyalty is still remarkably high - how else could its Newton hand-held computer (memorably described by one reviewer as an Etch-a-Sketch with attitude) sell so well while being such a turkey? Its future will depend greatly on a new range of computers, to be launched this year in conjunction with none other than IBM.

Levy gets the story mostly right, and is particularly strong outlining how Apple built on the work of earlier pioneers of screen icons and mice to make a commercial product. Still, he devotes far too little time to the marketing errors that unhinged Apple's quest for true greatness and dominance. But then so did the men from Apple.