No company inspires the naysayers the way Apple does. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking back, plenty of journalists and company execs will no doubt be slapping their own foreheads over cynical statements made about products that turned into successes.
Sure, sometimes Apple makes bad decisions and bad products, and slavish devotion to and adulation of the company is just as wearisome as endless Apple-bashing. Caution, scrutiny and scepticism are all healthy and useful attributes with which to greet any new product, whether from Apple or anyone else.
With the Apple Watch, the sceptics are back on the offensive, and we ourselves have had our doubts about the trajectory of Apple's product in this tricky market. Yet, almost every Apple product was considered a surefire failure by someone, somewhere, when it arrived. That doesn't mean the Watch will be a definite success – but if history has taught us anything, it's that we'd be foolish to call it 'doomed' just yet.
We've collected together some of the knee-jerk reactions predicting the demise of Apple's products. And yes, some of them are our own.
No product has attracted quite the levels of dismissal as the iPhone. "We've learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in," said Ed Colligan, the CEO of that technology titan which continues to dominate the mobile marketplace today, Palm.
The sentiment was echoed by John Dvorak, who wrote a column for Market Watch in 2007 called "Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone": "As for advertising and expensive marketing this is nothing like Apple has ever stepped into. It's a buzz saw waiting to chop up newbies. There is no likelihood that Apple can be successful in a business this competitive."
Palm didn't learn even once the iPhone shipped, though. "You know the beautiful thing: June 29, 2009, is the two-year anniversary of the first shipment of the iPhone. Not one of those people will still be using an iPhone a month later," said major investor Roger McNamee.
Then there's Steve Ballmer of Microsoft: "Five hundred dollars? Fully subsidised, with a plan? It is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn't appeal to business customers because it doesn't have a keyboard which makes it not a very good email machine. So, I look at that and I say, well, I like our strategy. I like it a lot."
Equally bullish was Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division: "About 20 million devices will ship with Windows Mobile on it. We will outsell the iPhone. We will outsell the BlackBerry. We don't make phones ourselves. We don't have any plans to make phones ourselves." Hellooo, Nokia!
Finally, Bill Ray wrote at The Register before the existence of the iPhone was announced: "The hype is reaching fever-pitch, and the odds are still stacked that Apple will announce a device combining the functionality of an iPod and a mobile phone in January next year, but whether such a device will actually sell is another question." The answer to that question was yes. By the hundreds of millions.
Then there's the iPad, the device dismissed by everyone as "just a big iPod touch" – as if that was a bad thing. TechRadar itself made fun of the name before it launched, and yet that name has become almost synonymous with tablets.
Even before it was confirmed, there were doubts, including those from Bill Snyder at PC World: "If you run a small business and want to avoid wasting money and brain cells on superfluous technology, forget about the iSlate or whatever Apple is going to call its tablet computing device. It's going to be too expensive, it does things you don't need to do, and it will add a messy layer of complication to your company's computing infrastructure. Sure, the tablet we expect Apple to launch on January 27 will probably have more than its share of cool factor. But do you want to spend $1,000 or so for bragging rights?" (It turned out to be quite a bit less than that, incidentally.)
Later in the same piece, when discussing the on-screen keyboard, he said "It's no accident that business people who rely on a phone for heavy email access still tend to use a Blackberry or other smartphone with a physical keyboard." That "still" might have been true then, but it ain't true no more.
Alex Cook at Seeking Alpha also failed to see how computing could change: "I don't get it. It costs $500 for the basic model, when you could get a laptop with a lot more functionality for about the same price. The iPad hype machine has been in full effect this week, and I still think it's just that – hype. I don't buy the iPad hype. Analyst expectations for iPad revenue are way overblown. If I turn out to be wrong, I'll gladly eat my words, but I'm pretty sure that I'm not wrong." Do you want ketchup with those words, Alex?
"Nothing from the iPad specs that I've seen really shows any great cause for celebration." wrote John Breeden II in Government Computer News. "Unless Apple has also developed some new type of power source, such as nuclear cells or magical hamsters on tiny spinning wheels for the iPad, don't expect the claims about battery life to hold true." In fact, not only was Apple's 10 hour claim true – perhaps even a little conservative – but Apple has maintained it ever since despite huge leaps in abilities.
As for us, one of our writers at the time asked, "why buy an iTablet when you can have a much more versatile MacBook instead?"
Referencing some of the adjectives used to describe the iPad at its launch, here's Scott Moritz writing at TheStreet: "Behold: The Apple iFlop. Neither 'truly magical' nor 'revolutionary,' the cluelessly named Apple iPad tablet device has dropped like a shiny wedge into the gadget game, dividing tech watchers into opposing views – the critical and the adoring." Of course, there was a middle ground, but Moritz didn't see it at the time.
Don't feel bad Moritz, you certainly weren't alone.
The iPod was the product that marked Apple's modern renaissance, and helped it break out of its traditional computer market – not that you would have known it from the reaction that greeted its announcement. Perhaps most famously, Rob Malda, the founder of Slashdot, dismissed it in eight words: "No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame."
Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal dinged the $399 price as "a little high." But he noted that the iPod's FireWire connectivity allowed for faster song downloading than USB. The iPod also sported "a significant battery life and a fast recharge speed," he said.
Deal also praised the fact that the iPod fits into Apple's digital hub strategy. "However, I question the company's ability to sell into a tight consumer market right now at the iPod's current price."
The iPod was another stab at Sony's success in the consumer market, Deal noted. "Clearly Apple is following Sony's lead by integrating consumer electronics devices into its marketing strategy, but Apple lacks the richness of Sony's product offering. And introducing new consumer products right now is risky, especially if they cannot be priced attractively," Deal said.
Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Intelect, said that the iPod will likely stand out for its large storage capacity but predicted that the device may have trouble digging out a niche in the market. That, it did not.
Mind you, plenty of the public were just as dismissive. One commenter on a MacRumors story suggested to Apple that "rather than enter the world of gimmicks and toys, why don't you spend a little more time sorting out your pathetically expensive and crap server lineup? Or are you really aiming to become a glorified consumer gimmicks firm?" (That last line didn't really prove to be quite the jibe that was intended).
Over on The Mac Observer, we had this from Rodney O Lain: "$399? Get real. I've read the on-line arguments about comparisons with FireWire hard drives (btw, what is the speed of that drive in the iPod? 4200 rpm? 5400 rpm? 30 rpm?). But, I'd figured that Apple would have learned from the Cube pricing errors. Obviously not. If Apple can make a $1,299 iBook, then surely the company can make a more affordable MP3 player."
"I hope I'm dead wrong, but I don't see people beating down the doors to spend 'four bills' on an MP3 player; for Apple's sake, I hope it doesn't go the way of the Cube."
Of course, people have been underestimating Apple's appeal to non-geeks for years. Go back far enough, to the original Macintosh that brought to the mainstream the system of windows, icons, menus and pointers we still use today, and you see our point.
John Dvorak gave us this gem in the February 19 1984 issue of the San Francisco Examiner: "The nature of the personal computer revolution is simply not fully understood by companies like Apple (or anyone else, for that matter). Apple makes the arrogant assumption of thinking that it knows what you want and need. It, unfortunately, leaves the 'why' out of the equation – as in 'why would I want this?'"
He wasn't wrong about the arrogance, but he did fail to look beyond it.
Predictably too, there was a great deal of resentment from the highly technical computer hobbyists against whom the Macintosh was a direct assault. In March 1984, Keith Thompson wrote in Microcomputing that he "felt uncomfortable and even suspicious about a computer that is so easy to operate".
And the bastion of geekery, Byte magazine, kicked off the tradition of calling Apple products under-specced with the line "Only one disk drive? You've got to be kidding!", which, no matter how valid a criticism it might have been at the time, is still funny as a kind of template for the comments made by speeds and feeds users which Apple still has to contend with now.
The original Bondi Blue iMac was introduced in 1998 on Steve Jobs' return to Apple. It was a clear break from the past, ditching some legacy Apple ports (ADB and SCSI), introducing USB (for which few peripherals existed) and removing the floppy disk. Even Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal, who is generally pretty gentle on Apple, thought this was a step too far: "That one glaring design mistake in the iMac is that Apple decided to build it without a floppy-disk drive – indeed without any removable storage medium at all. That makes it very hard to transfer files between the iMac and any other computer."
And while he wasn't wrong as such – despite the "i" standing for internet, the web was nascent in the late 90s, and services such as Dropbox were a decade away – it's still pretty funny today to think the inability to shuffle bits of data around on physical artefacts was a deal-breaker at the time.
Mine you, for Tim Bajarin, president of consulting company Creative Strategies International, there was something worse. "The bigger question is whether the iMac can actually translate into getting new computer users," he was reported as having said in the New York Times. "Our gut feeling is that it doesn't have a lot of support from the brand-new user." And why? "You still have the problem that there is not enough Mac software. As great as I think the iMac is, this software issue is going to plague Apple for an eternity."
An eternity later and the Mac is just fine.
Steven Levy made the same basic point in Newsweek and, in hindsight, the same mistake: "The eye-catching iMac's biggest problem, though, is that many consumer software programs do not run on Macintoshes. If your desire is playing the latest computer-baseball game, for instance, having an ultrafast iMac won't help you – those games run only on Windows."
Let's leave the final words on the iMac to professional Apple-botherer Paul Thurrott on WindowsITPro.com. "Frankly, I don't see what all the hubbub is about. The iMac, which had pre-orders in the 150,000 range, will be bought primarily by existing Macintosh customers, just like other Macs."
"If you're interested in ordering all your software mail-order, and not being compatible with the rest of the world, the iMac is a beautiful looking computer. But when it comes to computers, beauty is only skin-deep: It's not about beauty, it's about availability." You old romantic, you.
Apple Retail Stores
Some of Apple's most important innovations aren't products themselves, and one of the things that has had the biggest impact on the company's success has been its network of retail stores – totalling 453 as we write.
They've been a phenomenal success, not just by getting Apple in front of more people but by raking in tens of billions of dollars – but of course some people greeted their introduction with heavy doubts.
"Rather than unveil a Velveeta Mac, Jobs thinks he can do a better job than experienced retailers at moving the beluga. Problem is, the numbers don't add up," read a Businessweek piece titled "Sorry Steve: Here's why Apple Stores won't work." "Given the decision to set up shop in high-rent districts in Manhattan, Boston, Chicago, and Jobs's hometown of Palo Alto, the leases for Apple's stores could cost $1.2 million a year each," David Goldstein, president of research firm Channel Marketing Corp, was reported to have said in Bloomberg Business. "I give them two years before they're turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake."
Meanwhile, one independent retailer told Macworld: "If they're going to break even and make a profit in the second year, they have got to sell professional systems." That might have been a justifiable position in 2001, but today it looks plain goofy given Apple's focus on the affluent consumer market – and the writing was on the wall for anybody who chose to read it then, too.
Back to Goldstein for the closer, though: by sticking to high-end locations, "Apple could be perceived as a Chanel-Gucci kind of computer. That would further drive it into a niche market." He was partly right about that perception, but with the Apple Watch it's just become a bit more literal.
Which brings us to Apple's latest baby – and not much has changed. Even before the Apple Watch's announcement you could still find the same barrage of doubts.
"If Galaxy Gear quickly creates a buzz," wrote Douglas Ehrman at Seeking Alpha, "it will be hard not to look at the new iPhone and wonder why Apple is late to the smartwatch party. Samsung's timing is beautifully calculated to challenge Cupertino." The Gear might not have created a "buzz" among buyers, but it was the starting gun for the new smartwatch movement, and led to a series of wearables from Samsung before the Apple Watch was even announced.
We also got this from our old friend John Dvorak at PC Magazine, long in advance of its unveiling: "The long-term success of the iTime (or whatever it gets called) will be similar. If it can't replace the iPhone completely it's a goner. Right now, I see it as the next iPad in terms of immediate popularity. Then it will fade in much the same way, unless it becomes even more useful for the average person. To do that it has to replace something else, and the iPhone is the only candidate."
It's entirely possible that the Watch will fail, but little in computing history suggests it has to kill the iPhone before it can succeeded. The desktop is still around even though we have laptops, laptops are still around even though we have tablets, tablets are still around even though we have smartphones, and so it seems more likely than not that the iPhone will hang around regardless of the Watch's success.
At the Watch's unveiling, Joseph Volpe at Engadget said: "At today's Cupertino, California, event, we – the press, the world at large – were treated to a beautifully designed smartwatch laden with an embarrassing slew of useless gimmicks. With Apple Watch, you can view the phases of the moon or the positions of the planets; you can draw crude pictures with your finger and send them to friends (a feature eerily reminiscent of Nintendo's PictoChat for the DS) or even send them your heartbeat. Cheap tricks that consumers will tire of after a few weeks."
He might be right, but we'll have to give it a good few weeks to see if developers can offer up some great use cases before users start getting bored.
Meanwhile on the Guardian, in a recent piece called "Nine reasons only a tool would buy the Apple Watch," Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote: "'If you're an email junkie, you can read full emails,' said Cook, excitedly, as though the idea of us being able to access phishing scams, PR requests, political party propaganda and long-ago subscribed-to newsletters 24/7 was a good thing."
It's all to play for right now, and some of us on TechRadar have cast our own doubts on the longevity of this device. Chris Slate wrote: "It does a lot of things, but nothing that can't already be done on another device. Apple Watch seems to hold a slight advantage in tracking health and fitness data, but the point is there's no single feature that marketers can use to define the product as unique or necessary."
It might not be long before some people are made to eat their words. Otherwise, Apple could have the biggest flop on its hands for quite some time. Whichever way it goes, the next few months are going to be very interesting indeed.