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

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Apple relaunched the ill-fated Apple III, hoping to fix the computer's big problems.
Apple relaunched its ill-fated Apple III, hoping to address its earlier problems.
Photo: Alker33/YouTube

December 1: Today in Apple history: Apple III relaunch December 1, 1981: After the disastrous rollout of the “next-gen” Apple III the previous year, Apple corrects the computer’s most glaring hardware faults and relaunches it.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. Apple experiences its first “flop” product with its would-be Apple II successor.

Apple III: 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, Apple inevitably needed an updated computer to replace it.

The early stages of the Macintosh project were already underway, although it was clear the Mac was 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 take part in any effort with the potential to become the next big thing — printed up a series of glossy posters for employees, reading: “THE DECISIONS YOU’RE MAKING NOW HELPED SHIP 50,000 APPLE IIIs IN 1980.”

Apple positioned the Apple III as a business computer. The company knew IBM would attract business users with with its debut personal computer. Apple therefore threw everything at the wall to create a computer that could expand Cupertino’s audience to serious business users and home consumers alike.

Unfortunately, this resulted in a computer built by committee, with everyone involved promoting their own ideas about necessary features. This feature creep meant that a project Apple wanted finished in 10 months stretched to two years.

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

Apple III specs: It’s what’s inside that counts

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

It ran twice as fast as the Apple II. It 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 Apple SOS. According to Apple, this stood for Sophisticated Operating System. It wound up influencing the design of ProDOS, used on later Apple II computers.

Unfortunately, the Apple III did not become a success when it launched in fall 1980. It supported a limited range of software because it wasn’t backward-compatible with DOS 3.2 and 3.3, which Apple II software tended to use. More seriously, its  motherboard overheated, causing its chips to loosen.

Combined with other faults, this earned the Apple III poor user reviews. 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 specs 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.

Existing Apple III customers probably felt “happiest” about the revised edition. Some 2,000 of them got a new machine as a free upgrade because of problems encountered with the earlier model.

Ultimately, the Apple III got one more upgrade (the later Apple III Plus) before Apple ditched it altogether. The Apple III and the Apple Lisa were Cupertino’s two concerted attempts to get into businesses — and the two biggest failures the company suffered during this era.

Would it have succeeded had the IBM PC not arrived at the same time 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.

  • Manuel Cisneros

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

    • Luke Dormehl

      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.