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Apple's biggest fails on the way to $1 trillion

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It’s official. Apple (AAPL) is the first public company in U.S. history worth $1 trillion. That can buy you a lot of iPhones, but the road to the company’s latest milestone has been anything but smooth. After all, you don’t become one the richest companies in history without running into a few crater-sized potholes along the way.

The company founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976 has given us the iPhone and iPad, revolutionized digital music, and is largely responsible for the way we use computers. But this article isn’t about Apple’s achievements. It’s about the near ruinous failures, slip-ups and just plain strange decisions the company has made throughout the years.

These are Apple’s biggest fails.

Apple III

Launched in 1977, the Apple II was the computer that put Apple on the map. Despite slow initial sales, it became a blockbuster thanks to the VisiCalc spreadsheet program that made it a must-have for businesses and eventually schools. The Apple II was created by Wozniak, but the Apple III was not. The machine suffered from a litany of problems, including overheating and pieces popping out of its circuit board, despite being the first computer made with the full might of Apple’s newfound corporate status behind it.

The III was such a failure that if it weren’t for the Apple II’s sales, Apple would have been in dire straits as a company. In a 1985 interview with Playboy, Jobs said the losses from the Apple III were incalculable.

Apple Lisa

The Apple Lisa. (image: AFP)
The Apple Lisa. (image: AFP)

Things went from bad to worse for Apple with the release of the Lisa in 1983. The Lisa was a desktop computer important for its implementation of a graphical user interface aimed at business users. But at the time, the Lisa was more well known for its astronomical price tag: $10,000.

That price tag — coupled with the fact that the Lisa’s software would tax the overall system, making for sluggish performance — virtually guaranteed the machine would fail. The subsequent release of the $2,600 Mac by Apple in 1986 marked the end of the Lisa.

Steve Jobs out

With the failures of the Apple III and Lisa, Steve Jobs was on thin ice at Apple, so he appealed to Pepsi president John Sculley to take on the role of CEO at Apple in 1983. During Sculley’s tenure, Apple become a multibillion-dollar company taking revenue from $569 million when he came on to $8.3 billion when he left. He also famously clashed with Jobs and, in 1985, helped oust him from the company he co-founded.

The Newton

The Apple Newton in all its glory. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
The Apple Newton in all its glory. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

Before the iPad, there was the Newton. In 1993, before even laptops were commonplace, Apple and its then-CEO John Sculley launched a personal digital assistant (PDA) with several novel features in a pocket-sized device: infrared networking to wirelessly send emails and messages, handwriting recognition and a solid set of productivity apps for tasks like note-taking and keeping track of contacts.

But a steep $699 price tag and technological limitations — hit or miss handwriting recognition, sluggish processor — ultimately relegated the Newton to niche status. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he killed the Newton.

Mac clones

In the mid-1990s, Apple chose the same path as Microsoft (MSFT) and began licensing its software to computer manufacturers to make Mac clones, computers that ran on Apple OS, but weren’t built by Apple. The company, however, ended up losing money on high-end Mac clones that cannibalized its own Mac machines and stopped offering its software after a brief legal battle.

iPhone price controversy

Apple released the first iPhone for AT&T (then Cingular) in 2007 for a whopping $599 with 8GB of storage. A few months later, Apple dropped the price of the handset to $399. Naturally, Apple fans who were the first in line for the iPhone were miffed knowing they spent $200 to show their brand loyalty. In a stunning response, Steve Jobs conceded that Apple needed to prove its worth to those customers and offered them a $100 gift card for their troubles.


The iPhone 4.
The iPhone 4.

“Out with the old, and in with the new” seemed the iPhone 4’s design motto. The smartphone, first unveiled in June 2010, ushered in a new look, swapping out previous models’ plastic body for a glass front and back surrounded by a stainless steel frame.

The frame also doubled as the iPhone 4’s antenna, a design decision that made headlines when users complained that signal strength weakened when they held the phone’s lower-left edge. “Antennagate,” as it was eventually called, became such an issue Apple released a software update correcting the signal strength indicator and even offered all iPhone 4 users free bumpers, cases that covered the phone’s antenna and fixed the issue.


A bent iPhone 6. (ABC News)
A bent iPhone 6. (ABC News)

Thinner isn’t always better. Apple learned that the hard way with the release of the slimmer, all-aluminum iPhone 6 in 2014, which some users found bent too easily in their pockets. After Unbox Therapy conducted an iPhone 6 test showing just how easy it was to bend the device, the problem earned the name “Bend-gate.”

Although Apple officially commented at the time that a bend in a device was “extremely rare,” the company also quietly replaced affected devices that passed a visual inspection. It’s also probably no coincidence that the next iPhone model, the iPhone 6S, used a tougher aluminum body that was twice as strong, according to third-party tests.

Putting U2 on everyone’s phones

Just because you like U2 doesn’t mean you should put it on everyone’s iPhones. That was another lesson Apple learned the hard way when it announced in September 2014 that all Apple customers would be receiving a free digital copy of U2’s “Songs of Innocence” album.

The result? U2’s album suddenly appeared as a free download on 500 million iTunes accounts. And while the album was downloaded 26 million times during its first month, other iTunes users were less pleased by the move.

Apple reportedly paid up to $100 million for a marketing campaign around the band’s album, which included a global TV campaign.

Killing off the headphone jack

If there’s one thing people will remember the iPhone 7 for, it will be the headphone jack — or actually, the lack of one. In 2016, Apple ditched the tried-and-true port, favoring wired earbuds that used the phone’s lightning port or Bluetooth wireless headphones instead.

The company tried to make the transition a little easier for some by tossing in an adapter for using old earbuds. But it was unsightly to look at and easy to lose, raising the ire of users who thought Apple was needlessly messing with a good thing.

Read more:

Apple is now worth $1 trillion

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak reacts to $1 trillion milestone

Apple’s path to $1 trillion