Today in Apple history: Apple introduces the doomed Apple III


Apple III
The Apple III should have been a smash hit. It wasn't.
Photo: Alker33/YouTube

May19May 19, 1980: Apple introduces the Apple III at the National Computer Conference (NCC) in Anaheim, California.

After two years of development, the Apple III is the computer Apple thinks will be the successor to its enormously successful Apple II. Instead, it turns out to be the company’s first major misstep.

Apple III S.O.S.

Inside Apple, the Apple III was developed under the codename “Sara.” On paper, it should have been a massive success for Apple. For the first time, this wasn’t a computer built on virtually no budget by just Steve Wozniak. Instead, it’s created by an entire committee of qualified experts — all of whom had their own ideas about what it should be and do.

The result was “feature creep,” and a project that should have lasted 10 months stretching out for a couple of years.

From Apple’s perspective, one of the imperatives of the Apple III was that it should be a business computer. Although sales of the Apple II showed no signs of slowing down, and the Macintosh project was just getting started, Apple wanted a computer that would appeal to companies. The IBM PC was already heavily-rumored, and Apple wanted a machine that could shoot it down.

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, 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.

It was capable of emulating the Apple II, but came with its own Sophisticated Operating System operating system — supposed to be announced “soss” (like “Apple sauce”), but was instead referred to as S.O.S. when the full scale of the Apple III disaster became apparent.

The Apple III in all its (relative) glory.
Photo: Apple

Mo money, mo problems

There were a few faults with the Apple III. One was production problems, which meant that volume shipments of the computer didn’t begin until March 1981. Another was the price, which ranged from $4,340 to $7,800. In 2017 terms, that translates as $12,879.06 for the base model and a massive $23,146.69 for the fully kitted-out version.

The biggest problem, however, was that it suffered from major faults. Steve Jobs insisted that the computer not feature a fan and also dictated its size and shape, without concern for what this would mean for electrical engineers.

This ability to pull of miraculous, reality-bending technical feats worked for Jobs later in his career. In this case, it resulted in a machine with an overheating motherboard, causing its chips to loosen. Apple’s official solution asked users to lift up their Apple III and drop it from a height of six inches, thereby reseating the chips.

Apple later released a more permanent fix in the form of an ungraded Apple III, which launched in December 1981. But by this point it was too little too late. By the end of 1983, months before the Macintosh 128K launched, only 75,000 Apple III units had been sold. To put that number in context, the Apple II — which the Apple III was supposed to replace — sold close to that number every month.

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