Like your favourite band, your favourite tech firm probably has had its share of hits and misses. But unlike many bands, Apple has had more than its fair share of absolute bangers.
Apple may get it wrong from time to time, but when it gets it right it has an incredible effect: while some firms dream of changing the world just once, Apple has transformed tech again and again and again.
Come with us as we discover Apple’s floor fillers, the absolute bangers that have us waving our arms in the air like we just don’t care.
The Mac was a triumph. It was the first mass-market computer with a graphical user interface and mouse, and it was specifically designed to be used by normal people. As Steve Jobs told Apple staff in 1984, it was “insanely great”. Apple had tried to make a graphical computer before with the Lisa, but it cost more than a car; the Macintosh was better and an awful lot cheaper too. But Apple wasn’t going to take any risks, and it pumped enormous sums of money into advertising the Mac’s launch. You might recall its famous “1984” Superbowl video, directed by Blade Runner and Alien director Ridley Scott.
This is the computer that saved Apple, which was in the doldrums in the 1990s. Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive’s extraordinary iMac looked like nothing on Earth. PCs were bland, beige boxes. iMacs were hilariously bright and looked like giant sweets. PCs had floppy disks. iMacs didn’t – causing the kind of negative commentary it’d get used to in the coming decades as it was quick to drop technologies it felt were on their way out.
The iMac was a monster hit, although over time it became a little less fun: other than being an all-in-one computer, today’s iMacs have very little in common visually with their candy-coloured namesakes. But it’s entirely possible that if it weren’t for the fun iMacs, there might not even be an Apple today.
“No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” Rob Malda’s dismissive quote about Apple’s MP3 player has gone into history alongside Decca’s refusal of The Beatles because “guitar music is on the way out.” But he had a point: on paper, the iPod was less capable than other MP3 players on the market, and at first, it didn’t even work with Windows. What made the iPod special was the way it worked, the way it felt, and the way it integrated with iTunes to make music purchasing effortless. The iPod changed Apple on a fundamental level: the company called Apple Computer would soon find that computers would make up just a small part of its business.
Did someone say iTunes? iTunes began as a music management app and an easy way to rip music from CD to put it on your iPod, something record companies were furious about at the time. But in 2003, at the height of online music piracy, the iTunes got the iTunes Music Store for easy and affordable music downloading. Purchases were copy-protected to keep the record companies happy and Apple sold stacks of downloads. In the pre-streaming days, it was one of the few legal music offerings that people were actually willing to pay for, and it would pave the way for app sales in the not too distant future. Just don't mention early versions of the Windows app...
The first iBooks took the candy designs of the iMac to produce what we think are the most fun laptops ever designed. As the iBooks got more stylish and less quirky, the iBooks did too: the funky clamshell designs of the iBook G3 were superseded by the cool, clean lines of the “Snow” models after just two years. We were sad to see them go, although we do understand the change: by 2001 the design cues of the iMac and iBooks had already been so widely imitated they’d become design clichés. And the Snow models were better: smaller, more sober and much more durable.
PowerBook G4 12-inch (2003)
Before the PowerBook G4, laptop users had a choice. You could have good. You could have portable. But you couldn’t have both. Good laptops would dislocate your shoulder; portable ones would barely be able to count to ten. That changed with the G4, its 867MHz processor almost as capable as the 1GHz chip in the desktop Power Mac. This was a proper computer that just happened to be tiny.
The G4 was the last generation of the PowerBook, succeeded by the Intel-powered MacBook Pro – but while the MacBook Pro was different inside, it kept the outside largely the same. You can still see echoes of the G4 in today’s MacBooks and MacBook Pros.
Apple didn’t invent the tablet computer: Microsoft was trying to get people interested in its Tablet PC nearly a decade before. What Apple did with the iPad was perfect it. Instead of trying to cram an entire PC into a tablet, which was Microsoft’s approach, Apple stuck with the same mobile OS as the iPhone. While some scoffed – how could anyone get anything sensible done on a glorified smartphone? – most of us saw the iPad for what it was: a superbly useful portable computer that’s ideal for everything from Netflix to number crunching. Today’s iPad Pros outperform many laptops and run desktop-class apps.
MacBook Air (2008)
The MacBook Air was the first tiny Apple laptop since the 12-inch PowerBook G4, and it was a triumph of engineering. With hindsight the MacBook Air was perhaps a little too portable: for all its incredible thinness, which Steve Jobs hilariously demonstrated by pulling it out of an envelope, getting a laptop that thin involved compromises. Non-SSD models were slow, the battery wasn’t user-replaceable – heresy at the time – there weren’t a lot of ports and the price was on the high side. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit and Apple would go on to make equally controversial decisions as it slimmed down the rest of its laptop range.
macOS X (2001)
We tend to focus on Apple’s hardware products at the expense of its software, but Mac OS X (as it was called then; today it’s macOS X) was revolutionary. It was a complete departure from previous Mac operating systems when it was launched in 2001, not just in terms of how it looked but in terms of how it was made. Mac OS X was built on top of the Unix operating system, and unlike Windows, it didn’t try to offer every conceivable feature for every conceivable piece of hardware. That simplicity and UNIX’s solid security meant that Mac OS X was more stable and more secure than Windows: as Windows suffered from a constant onslaught of malicious software and security vulnerabilities, Mac OS X just worked.
Apple II (1977)
The first mass-produced Apple computer was released four years before the IBM PC and it was a huge hit: it was one of the first computers with a colour display and arguably the first genuinely user-friendly personal computer. it was made in various versions from 1977 to 1993, all of them following creator Steve Wozniak’s edict that personal computers should be “small, reliable, convenient to use and inexpensive”. By the standards of the time the Apple II was all of those things, and thanks to Steve Jobs it was pretty good looking too. It sold at first to hobbyists and games players but soon found its way into businesses, helped by the first ever spreadsheet app, VisiCalc (1979).
Apple Store (2001)
We’ve had hardware. We’ve had software. We’ve had services. But Apple’s greatest hits also include its shops, which it approached with the same diligence it applies to its other products. Apple severed its links with traditional “big-box” retailers and struck out on its own, creating a retail experience that was very different from traditional tech shopping. Critics mocked but shoppers flocked to the stores: within just three years Apple Stores in the US were bringing in more than a billion dollars in sales, the fastest retailer in history to achieve that number. Apple Stores eschew the high-pressure sales that plagued the electronics industry and have become social hubs as well as places to buy things.
App Store (2008)
The iPhone was never supposed to have apps: you were expected to just bookmark web apps instead. But Apple quickly changed its mind when it realised the potential not just of selling apps, but of offering a safe place to buy them from. It would take many years for rivals’ imitations to catch up, and in the meantime Apple’s iOS App Store sold billions upon billions of apps and made an awful lot of developers very rich. It’s funny to look back now that we can get Photoshop and 3D gaming in app form: back then we got pretty excited by spirit level apps and fake beer.
This isn’t just Apple’s greatest hit. It’s the most successful consumer product of all time, and it’s sold so many units – 1 billion by the end of 2017 and a lot more since – that all of Apple’s senior management now live in solid gold houses with robot butlers made of diamonds. At least, that’s what we’ve heard. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, but it was the first amazing one – largely due to its excellent touchscreen and touch-optimised operating system. Rivals such as BlackBerry couldn’t believe that it actually worked, and it turns out that they were partly right: when Steve Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, he had multiple iPhones to disguise the fact that they kept crashing.