Every tech company has its ups and downs, but Apple is more like a roller coaster. Yet Apple's highs and lows are not so much about individual products as they are about attitudes and philosophies -- the underlying causes of, say, both the iPad (triumph) and the Pippin (failure).
Here are Apple's five greatest successes and most miserable failures. We'll start with the failures first, just for fun.
(Don't agree? That's why God invented the comments box below.)
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Apple's worst failures
1. Design crimes
From the iMac to the iPad, Apple's design sense has typically been synonymous with "sleek and sexy." Sometimes, though, it gets a little carried away. Take for example the 1998 USB Mouse, aka "the hockey puck" -- colorful, translucent, and... where's that mouse button again? Or the 20th Anniversary Mac, a bronze-colored $7500 monstrosity meant to honor Apple's 20th birthday in 1997 but ended up tarnishing it. Or the Power Mac G4 Cube: Beautiful to look at, assuming you got one that wasn't cracked, but not all that useful unless you need a MacQuarium to hold your fish. Call it the 3F rule: When form triumphs over function, it usually leads to failure.
2. iWay or the Highway
In the Apple universe there's only one way to do things: Steve's way. Want to develop apps for the iPhone or iPad? You'll have to meet Apple's arbitrary and often contradictory standards. Want to use Flash in your app? Go talk to those Android people, they'll take anything. You say your iPhone 4 keeps dropping calls? You must be holding it the wrong way. Sure that "tightly controlled ecosystem" Apple fan boys like to brag about leads to fewer technical snags, but Jobs' obsession with control also drives the nonfaithful to the more free (if less reliable) world of Android.
3. Bully tactics
Apple is like the mean kid on the playground who has all the cool toys. Cross him and he'll get his goons to pummel you. Like, for example, the company's heavy-handed pursuit of bloggers at Think Secret, AppleInsider, and PowerPage in 2004 and 2005, all of whom had the temerity to publish news about Apple products before the company had officially released them. (Imagine Apple trying to do the same thing today to the thousands of blogs that breathlessly repeat every iPhone rumor.) Or last year, when police raided the home of Gizmodo blogger Jason Chen after he got his hands on a lost iPhone 4 prototype. Court documents later revealed that Apple met with police and demanded they raid Chen's house, claiming his blog post was "immensely damaging" to the company. But the only real damage was to Apple's reputation.
4. The MobileMe mishegas
If it was Apple's desire to prove that it too was mortal, the MobileMe launch in June 2008 succeeded beyond its worst nightmares. The $99 a year service was supposed to bring Blackberry-style syncing of contacts, calendars, and email to the iPhone masses. Instead, it brought migraines and mockery, along with Email outages and a rare serving of humble pie to a company that thought it could convert its .Mac users to Mobile Me, release version 2.0 of the iPhone OS, activate thousands of new iPhone 3s, and open its brand new App Store -- all in the same week. It couldn't.
According to a recent report in Fortune magazine, the debacle earned the entire Mobile Me team a public tongue lashing from Papa Jobs: "You've tarnished Apple's reputation.... You should hate each other for letting each other down."
5. Going "professional"
It's a typical pattern in the high-tech world: A start-up becomes wildly successful based on great technology, then proceeds to ease out the geeks who created that tech and bring in adult supervision. Often it works, but it almost killed Apple. Many of Apple's least successful products -- the Macintosh Portable, the Pippin, the Newton MessagePad, and the invasion of the Mac clones, to name but a few -- occurred during this dark post/pre-Jobsian period. It's a miracle the company survived. (See "Return of the king," next page.)