Today in Apple history: Too little, too late for Apple III

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Apple relaunched its ill-fated Apple III, hoping to address its earlier problems.
Photo: Alker33/YouTube

Dec1December 1, 1981: After a disastrous launch with Apple’s “next-gen” Apple III computer the previous year, Apple relaunches its would-be Apple II successor with its most glaring hardware faults corrected.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done and Apple experiences its first “flop” product.

Everything to everyone

The Apple III should have been brilliant. Unlike the Apple-1 and Apple II, which were essentially homebrew projects, the Apple III had the full weight of Apple the corporation behind it.

AppleIII
The Apple III in all its glory.
Photo: Apple

Although sales of the Apple II showed no signs of slowing down, it was inevitable that sooner or later there would need to be a computer to replace it.

The early stages of the Mac project were already underway, although it was clear that they were nowhere near ready to go. All eyes were therefore on the Apple III to become the computer Apple needed.

At the start of the project, Steve Jobs — eager to be part of any project that had the potential to be the next big thing — had a series of glossy posters printed for employees, reading: “THE DECISIONS YOU’RE MAKING NOW HELPED SHIP 50,000 APPLE IIIs IN 1980.”

The Apple III was meant to be a computer targeting businesses, which was a market Apple knew IBM would attract with its debut personal computer. Apple therefore knew that it had to throw everything at the wall to create a computer that could expand Apple’s audience to serious business folk and home consumers alike.

Unfortunately, this meant a computer which was built by committee: with everyone having their own ideas about what was needed. As a result of this “feature creep,” a project which Apple wanted to be finished in 10 months expanded to two years.

As then-Apple engineer quipped, “Everybody had certain ideas about what the Apple III should do and unfortunately all of them were included.”

It’s what’s inside that counts

In terms of spec, the original Apple III boasted a 2 MHz SynerTek 6502A processor, whopping 2 KB of ROM and 128 KB on-board RAM (256 KB in the revised model launched on this day in 1981), and four slots for peripherals.

It ran twice as quickly as the Apple II and was also Apple’s first computer to come with a built-in 5.25-inch floppy drive.

Given the Apple III’s much-publicized problems, it’s ironic that it ran an operating system called S.O.S. According to Apple, this stood for Sophisticated Operating System. It wound up influencing the design of ProDOS, which was used on later Apple II computers.

Unfortunately, the Apple III wasn’t a success when it launched in fall 1980. It had limited software since it wasn’t backwards compatible with DOS 3.2 and 3.3, which Apple II software tended to use. More importantly, it featured a glaring hardware fault in the form of a motherboard which overheated, causing its chips to loosen.

Combined with other faults, this earned the Apple III poor user reviews and it floundered in the marketplace.

The new, slightly-improved Apple III

The Apple III revised edition, which today’s “Today in Apple history” commemorates, was launched in December 1981. It included upgraded spec and new software. Apple also introduced a ProFile 5Meg external hard drive, although the relaunch didn’t receive much publicity from Apple’s PR firm.

The people “happiest” with the revised edition were existing Apple III customers; 2,000 of whom got the new machine as a free upgrade because of problems they had with their earlier model.

Ultimately, the Apple III got one more upgrade with the later Apple III Plus, before being ditched altogether. Along with the Apple Lisa, it was one of two concerted attempts to get Apple into businesses, and one of two big failures Apple suffered during this same time frame.

Would it have succeeded had the IBM PC not arrived at much the same time, and with a lower price point? Perhaps, but the Apple III had a lot of problems that would have made success a challenge either way.

Do you remember the Apple III? Leave your comments below.

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  • Manuel Cisneros

    These are my favorite articles at Cult of Mac. Please keep them coming!

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      Thanks a lot. I appreciate the kind words. :)

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  • Matthew Arnold Stern

    My first job out of college was with a company called Haba Systems (later Haba/Arrays). They made a program for the Apple III called III Easy Pieces, which (if I recall correctly) was a productivity suite. Haba also made Habadex, which was an address book and calendar program for the original Macintosh.

    • Luke Dormehl

      Hearing these stories is my favorite part of writing these posts. Thanks for sharing.

  • Gary L. Wade

    I don’t recall if it was Apple who made the connection public, but I remember at the time pronouncing the SOS as “sauce,” as in “Apple Sauce.” My experience with the Apple III was converting a geological production forecasting application from the Apple II platform to the Apple III for a client. For the time, it was definitely a big improvement over the Apple II’s BASIC. Once the client got a Macintosh Plus, I ported the app over to it.