Today in Apple history: Apple introduces the doomed Apple III

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

May 19: Today in Apple history: Apple introduces the doomed Apple III computer May 19, 1980: Apple introduces the Apple III at the National Computer Conference in Anaheim, California.

After two years of development, the Apple III arrives to follow the enormously successful Apple II. For a variety of reasons, it turns out to be the company’s first major misstep.

Apple III S.O.S.

Inside the company, teams referred to the Apple III by the code name “Sara.” On paper, it should have been a massive success. For the first time, this wasn’t a computer built on virtually no budget by Steve Wozniak alone. Instead, Apple threw a committee of qualified experts at the project — all of whom had their own ideas about what the new computer should be and do.

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

From Apple’s perspective, one of the imperatives was to make the Apple III a competitive 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 specs, the original Apple III boasted a 2 MHz SynerTek 6502A processor, a whopping 2KB of ROM and 128KB of RAM, and four slots for peripherals. It ran twice as quickly as the Apple II. It was also Apple’s first computer to come with a built-in 5.25-inch floppy drive.

The Apple III could emulate the Apple II. However, it came with its own Sophisticated Operating System — supposed to be pronounced “soss” (like “Apple sauce”). Instead, it became known as “S.O.S.” when the full scale of the Apple III disaster became apparent.

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

Mo money, mo problems

Several things came together to make the Apple III a failure. 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 2018 terms, that translates as $13,949.34 for the base model and a massive $25,070.24 for the fully kitted-out version.

The biggest problem, however, was that the Apple III 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.

An ability to pull off miraculous, reality-bending technical feats worked for Jobs later in his career. In this case, however, 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 6 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 computers had been sold. To put that 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.