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Not Every Product Becomes an iPhone: 3 Big Apple Inc. Flops

The Motley Fool logo The Motley Fool 01-09-2015 Daniel B. Kline

12. Apple (USA)© Simon Dawson/Bloomberg 12. Apple (USA)

For a number of years, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has been the company that can do no wrong.

Since the release of the iPod in 2001, the brand has been on an upswing. The iPhone has set the standard for smartphones, and while it's struggling a bit now, the iPad laid out the blueprint the tablet industry followed. Even the company's Mac computers have gone from niche devices popular with graphic designers to beloved mainstream machines.

When Apple releases a new consumer product, it's often the subject of rumors for years before it hits the market. While it's far too early to call the Apple Watch a success or failure, the product has been reported on like the birth of a royal baby or the selection of a new pope.

But just because in 2015 Apple could put its logo on a trash bag with a hole in it and an AM radio stapled to the back, call it an iDress, and sell $1 billion worth before anyone catches on, that doesn't mean the company has never made a mistake. In its long history under its revered former CEO, Steve Jobs, the company didn't always get it right, and sometimes the failures were spectacular.

In many cases, though, Apple, unlike many companies, learned from its failures, and the failures informed its successes. 

Not every product becomes an iPhone: 3 Big Apple Inc. Flops:

1. Before the Mac, there was Lisa

© SSPL via Getty Images/Getty Images

Apple's first attempt at a computer using a graphic user interface (instead of the DOS-like command line on the Apple II), the Lisa was a huge failure. It didn't help that the machine cost nearly $10,000 when it was released in 1983, according to Mac History.

Lisa also had the peculiar feature whereby any software you used on it would become locked to that particular computer. So if a company (the machine was intended for business use) bought a program, it could be used on only one machine. Not one machine at a time, but literally just one machine.

Mac History summed up its fate fairly succinctly.

The Apple Lisa turned out to be a commercial failure for Apple, the largest since the Apple III disaster of 1980. The intended business computing customers balked at Lisa's high price and largely opted to run less expensive IBM PCs, which were already beginning to dominate business desktop computing. 

Lisa, however, did create the blueprint for the Macintosh. Apple says that one did not directly lead to the other, but much of the technology pioneered with Lisa eventually ended up being used more successfully on various Macs.

2. MobileMe, maybe not

Apple© Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo Apple

In 2008, the idea of having what we would now call a cloud-based service was fairly new. It wasn't completely novel, but Apple's MobileMe was an early attempt to allow people to sync email, contacts, and more from the then-new iPhone to their computers.

The suite even got good reviews, with PC Magazine saying the following about the $99-a-year service ($149 for a family subscription):

So in the end, while, yes, you can get most of what MobileMe offers for free from Web services like box.net, Yahoo! Mail, and Picasa Web albums, you can't get them all together in such a clean, elegant interface. And if you're an iPhone user or a user of Mac's excellent creativity apps like iWeb and iPhoto, the tight integration with the Mac makes MobileMe hard to beat.

That made it seem like the product was set for success, but it wasn't, and Jobs was incensed at its buggy launch. He was reported to have called the MobileMe team into an auditorium to express his displeasure.

"You've tarnished Apple's reputation. ... You should hate each other for having let each other down," Jobs said.

MobileMe struggled on for a while before ceding to iCloud, which thrives to this day.

3. The Newton was ahead of its time

apple© ASSOCIATED PRESS apple

When the Newton was introduced in 1993, the tablet as we know it wasn't even a vague possibility. Laptops were still for the most part bulky things, which were portable in the sense that a typewriter or a 13-inch television is portable.

Newton was a tablet and an organizer built around the idea of using a stylus to write on the screen, so the device could interpret your handwriting. It seems impossibly bulky by today's standards -- around the size of a skinny hardcover book -- but it was sleek by the standards of the day.

Its biggest problem was that the vaunted handwriting recognition was so inept it was celebrated in a popular episode of The Simpsons. In the scene, the bullies Dolph and Kearney use the device to make a note to "Beat up Martin." The Newton read the handwriting as "Eat up Martha."

That was typical for the ahead-of-its-time device, which was simply not good enough to be worth lugging around. Still, it's hard to look at a Newton and not see much of what would ultimately become the iPhone and iPad.

Apple, at least in these three cases, seems to have learned from its failures, and even used them as the groundwork for some of the most successful consumer electronics products of all time.

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