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Summer Reading: Apple Confidential

Having just finished writing a pair of books that should appear in October, I’ve switched to a more relaxing gear and done a little summer reading. The first book on my list to finish was Owen Linzmayer’s Apple Confidential (No Starch Press, ISBN 1-88641-28-X, $17.95 or less via Amazon or for a signed copy direct from Owen), a record of the tumultuous history of Apple Computer from Apple’s founding through 1999’s Macworld San Francisco.

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Despite the new title and publisher, Apple Confidential is essentially a second edition of Owen’s 1994 collection of historical Macintosh quotes, facts, and stories, The Mac Bathroom Reader. Although I’m one of those for whom reading in the bathroom is a foreign (and uncomfortable) notion, calling that book a "bathroom reader" was actually quite appropriate, since the book’s chapters are short and full of quotes, sidebars, and other easily digested bits of information. Apple Confidential, in contrast, suffers somewhat from this design because it ends up feeling choppy and repetitive in areas where the independent chapters are forced to duplicate information to convey the different aspects of Apple’s history.

But what a story it is, and what a job Owen has done! Thanks to TidBITS, I’ve followed Apple for nearly 10 years and the aspect of the job that I enjoy most is learning the real story behind the public faces of Macintosh companies. Subtitled "The Real Story of Apple Computer, Inc." Apple Confidential doesn’t disappoint, with information that you’re unlikely to have seen elsewhere. Owen talked to a vast number of Apple insiders while putting together the book, which enabled him to ferret out more of the reasons why various events happened, along with the stories of how they happened.

The stories of Apple’s most famous commercials, the Big Brotherish 1984, anchored by blond model Anya Major (who got the job because she was also an experienced discus thrower), and the dismal Lemmings, with its line of suited business-people blindly walking off a cliff, highlight this inside information. Both commercials were so controversial with Apple’s executives that former CEO John Sculley ordered ad agency Chiat/Day to sell back the Super Bowl commercial slots. With 1984, Chiat/Day managed to sell back 30 seconds of the 90 seconds Apple had bought, and John Sculley left the decision of whether to run 1984 in the hands of William Campbell (then a VP of marketing, now chairman of Intuit’s board of directors) and E. Floyd Kvamme (an executive VP of marketing and sales). They gambled on 1984 and won. With Lemmings, though, Chiat/Day managed to sell Apple’s 60 second slot and had to repurchase it when Sculley again passed on the decision and left it to marketing manager Mike Murray, who made the mistake of running Lemmings. In retrospect, which imbues the entire book, Owen points out that 1984 was backed up by the ground-breaking Macintosh, whereas Lemmings was meant to introduce the Macintosh Office, which was essentially the concept of connecting Macs to a LaserWriter and sharing files on a fileserver. Unfortunately, although the Macintosh Office was a good concept, the fileserver part wasn’t to ship until two years later, prompting the quotable Jean-Louis Gassee, then general manager of Apple France, to refer to it as the "Macintosh Orifice."

Similar stories abound, providing a look inside the company during the tenure of each of the CEOs: Steve Jobs, John Sculley, Michael Spindler (who was intent on selling Apple for his three year stint), Gilbert Amelio, and Steve Jobs again. Here is where people who had previously read The Mac Bathroom Reader will especially appreciate the update, since the last five years have been a roller-coaster ride for Apple. Technologies like Copland have come and gone, Apple’s stock price has risen and fallen and risen again, and we’ve seen the Macintosh clone manufacturers sprout from nothing only to be cut down by Apple. As much as Apple as an entity has been notoriously difficult to direct throughout history, Apple’s CEOs have still been responsible for the pivotal decisions that made the company we now see, so it’s instructive to read their stories.

Owen Linzmayer writes primarily for Macintosh magazines, and his journalistic experience shows throughout Apple Confidential in ways other than the article-like style of individual chapters. Most refreshing is the level of accuracy he’s brought to the book. It’s always distressing to read a book about a topic you know well and to disagree with either facts or the analysis, since then you begin to doubt the veracity of the rest of the book. Although I’m certainly no expert on Apple’s internal affairs, especially during the early days, I never found myself questioning either Owen’s facts or his commentary about what happened.

You also get the sense that Owen has researched many of these facts for magazine articles, since figures like the timelines of Mac OS and Macintosh model release dates are not only interesting, but tremendously useful to anyone trying to write about Apple. Similarly, it’s instructive to see the chart of Apple’s quarterly profits over the last four years, broken up by CEO (Spindler, Amelio, Jobs).

In the end, I’ll end up using Apple Confidential as a resource when I’m writing – there’s no better source for Macintosh facts, quotes, stories, and code names (an interesting one that came after the book’s publication is the bronze keyboard PowerBook G3, commonly known as "Lombard;" amusingly, everyone I’ve spoken with inside Apple refers to that PowerBook’s code name as "101"). You may not need Apple Confidential as a reference the way I do, but anyone interested in Apple and the Macintosh can easily spend many enjoyable hours poring through the book’s inside information.

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