Apple and the Long Shadow of the Nineties

In 1996, Apple was on the verge of collapse as a company, and was 90 days from going bankrupt. It was easily the darkest time for the company and came as a result of a slow decline throughout the decade. Apple saw its product line become bloated, its attempts at a revolutionary portable device (the Newton) fail, and its market share drop to an alarming 3%. Yet, it was only temporarily, and with the return of Steve Jobs, the company was rescued from the brink and eventually built back up to become the most valuable tech company in the world.

Nevertheless, I think those dark times solidified many people’s views of Apple from that point onwards; both in terms of people that will always see Apple as one step removed from being doomed and bankrupt again, to people that see Apple as the underdog company that needs to be fervently defended.

While Apple has been obscenely successful in the past decade, there still lingers this sense that it will all go away. You see this in many articles that jump on slight decreases in sales numbers or small issues with a new product. These relatively minor things are blown out of proportion and play into a narrative that Apple’s success is quickly disappearing and Apple is “doomed.” Yet, the evidence still points to the fact that iPhones are everywhere, that Apple is bringing in billions of dollars, and there is no sign anywhere in the immediate future that this will all disappear. So why does this narrative continue?

I believe part of the reason is the fact many of these tech writers lived through Apple’s dark days, and they think, maybe even only on a subconscious level, that history is bound to repeat itself. In the 1980s, Apple and Steve Jobs had great success with the revolutionary Macintosh, yet once Jobs left, everything went downhill and Windows quickly overtook the Mac and led to Apple’s failures in the 90s. Fast forward to 2013 and the iPhone replaces the Mac as the revolutionary device that Steve Jobs created, and now that Jobs is gone again, Apple will again go downhill and Android will be the new Windows and quickly destroy Apple.

If you don’t think about it too closely, this makes a bit of sense, however, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There are so many factors today that differentiate it from the 90s – from Apple’s $150 billion cash hoard to the overwhelming success of iOS, which is so much more popular than the Mac ever was. Yet, if you’ve always had this view of Apple as one step away from going under, formed by memories of when that was actually true, it’s hard to not see Apple through that lens.

But this legacy of Apple’s dark days doesn’t just affect the views of Apple naysayers; amongst many Apple bloggers there seems to be a continued view of Apple as the underdog, as the company that needs to be defended because it’s being unfairly portrayed in the “mainstream” press. This runs through some of the commentary of bloggers such as Jim Dalrymple or John Gruber, both of whom lived through those dark days of Apple. They will always be quick to defend Apple from anything they feel is unfair or untrue. While they are usually correct in their arguments, and are actually making valid points about issues, they seem almost too defensive at points.1

I think that defensiveness is firmly planted in the days when Apple was the actual underdog, and supporters really did need to defend it, or it was in danger of going away. Yet, does it need to be defended so fervently in 2013, when it’s the most valuable tech company and in no danger of actually going away? I’m not sure, and I cringe a bit sometimes when Apple bloggers get this overly defensive attitude.2 It seems that if you are actually confident in Apple as a strong company at the top of its game, you could simply ignore the naysayers. Although maybe that’s an overly idealistic view of things.

In the meantime, the battles that were fought in the 90s continue to be fought in 2013. On one side are those that will always see Apple as one misstep away from a quick death, and on the other side, those that will always see Apple as the underdog in need of defense. The actual reality of Apple seems to have little effect on this battle, as the attitudes have long been hardwired into people’s minds. It might take the generation that grew up only seeing Apple’s immense success in the last decade to create a new narrative around the company. Until then, Apple’s dark days of the 90s will continue to cast their shadow.

1. For reference, see here, here, and here.

2. I’m not immune to this defensive attitude either and have written some fairly defensive articles in the past. See Apple Fanboys and Why You Shouldn’t Give a Damn About Apple’s Finances.