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Computer Column

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BRIT HUME and T.R. REID

The news that Apple Computer has been forced to make major layoffs is confirmation of a trend long evident in the microcomputer industry, but one which is nonetheless paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic.

Apple is in serious trouble despite the fact that for the past 13 years it has made the most elegant personal computers running under the most elegant software operating system. Yet the Apple Macintosh lags far behind the many different models which use the Intel family of microprocessors (Apple uses Motorola microprocessors) and which nowadays run Microsoft’s Windows operating software.

How could this be? How could it happen in this high-tech age that the best technology ends up second best in sales? It is a long story, but there are some critical turning points, none more critical than the decision Apple made about the Macintosh’s architecture at the very start.

In 1984, the year the Mac first came to market, the largest installed base of microcomputer software in the world was that written for the Apple II. This was the machine that had first introduced computing to the masses, and for a few years following its debut in the late 1970s, it was by far the most popular microcomputer.

In 1981, IBM brought out its Personal Computer, and it would come to dominate the business world. But that would take some years. In 1984, there was still more software for the Apple II than any other computer. In developing the Mac, however, Apple’s engineers decided to make a complete break with the past, in effect, to start over. The Mac would not run Apple II programs.

It would undoubtedly have been more difficult to make the Mac compatible with the Apple II; indeed, it probably would have made the original Mac, with its all-new software operating system, impossible. The central processing chips that drove personal computers in those days were more powerful than anything that had come before them, but they did not have anything approaching the power and speed of today’s chips.

The Macintosh was conceived as a completely graphical system, a major break from the “text-based” computers in use until then. Text-based systems display only a limited set of built-in characters, while graphical software can display anything the computer can draw on the screen. Graphical software is more flexible and attractive, but it imposes a much heavier load on the computer. The computer must be faster, have more memory, and more storage.

Indeed, part of the problem with the first generation of Macs was that they were underpowered. They were fascinating to look at and easy to use, with their mouse, on-screen pointer and graphical icons. But in order to keep their price within any realistic range, Apple could only make them so powerful, and the first Macs were slow and had limited memory and storage.

What’s more, Apple could not count on the vast legion of Apple II users to upgrade to Macs, since they would have to abandon all their software to do so. And at first, software titles for the Mac were few and far between.

The text-based programs written for Intel-based IBM systems, meanwhile, continued to proliferate. The programs had their limitations, but for word processing, database management and spreadsheet accounting, text was fine, and color made them more visually appealing. The early Macs, meanwhile, had only black-and-white displays.

In the mid-’80s, when Microsoft, developer of the operating software for the PC, made the transition from text-based MS-DOS to graphical Windows, it did so much more gradually than had Apple in developing the Mac. Windows did run all the old software for the PC, and still does. Partly as a result, Windows was not nearly as elegant as the Mac operating software, and many think it still is not today.

But Windows has always run nearly everything ever written for the PC, and that has meant that users could try it without giving up their favorite programs. So from its ugly-duckling beginnings, Windows was an upgrade, not a complete change for PC users. Through the years, the Mac has found some niches. For a time, it dominated desktop publishing, but the PC is very much in that market today. The Mac still dominates in certain photography uses and in advanced video editing equipment.

But Microsoft has held fast to its dominance in the main arenas of business software and, with Windows 95, has an operating system that strikingly resembles the Mac’s. Mac devotees swear Windows is still not up to the Mac’s high standards, but it’s close enough for most people, and that’s why Apple is laying off employees while Microsoft flourishes.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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