In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh personal computer, popularizing the desktop graphical user interface and mouse, the foundations of almost all mass-market computer operating systems since. In 1985, Nintendo brought its Famicom game console to the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System, popularizing the directional-pad-and-buttons form of gamepad that has been the basis of all subsequent successful home gaming consoles.
More than 20 years later, these two computer interaction pioneers are the darlings of the technology industry, and similarities still abound. This series will take a closer look at what shared traits have elevated Apple and Nintendo to the top of the modern tech world. In this installment, we dismiss the importance of industrial design and see how both companies assisted their own decline.
Industrial design: A red herring
Yeah, yeah; they both use a lot of white plastic. This, however, is not so much of a similarity as it is a robbery. Apple used the glossy white first on its iPods (2001), iMac G4s (2002) and iBook G4s (2003). Nintendo then, as so many companies have, ripped off Apple’s design for its DS Lite and Wii (both 2006). There’s no shame in that. Well, maybe just a little, but it’s understandable considering Nintendo’s earlier designs.
Most offensive was the original DS, which, in the words of Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins, was “ugly as the devil’s face.” Previous Nintendo products were only marginally less appalling; they either looked like a toddler’s toy (Gameboy Advance, Gamecube) or felt as cheap as a used Hyundai (Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo Entertainment System) [i]. So, while Apple and Nintendo’s most successful products may look alike today, this likeness is not the kind of ideological correspondence that most closely ties Apple and Nintendo together not as innovator and imitator, but as corporate kindred spirits.
Decline: Toppled by a former partner
Before Microsoft devoured the personal computer industry whole, they actually worked cooperatively with Apple. Steve Wozniak wrote the Apple II’s original integer BASIC, but as time passed the industry demanded a floating point BASIC compatible with the Apple II. Wozniak was either too busy or unwilling to write it, depending on who you believe, so Apple was forced to turn to a third party. Microsoft was tapped, and in 1977 they wrote a product called Applesoft BASIC, a combination of the two company’s names (weird, huh?). In 1983, during a special event promoting the original Macintosh, Steve Jobs staged a bizarre “Software Dating Game,” which featured Bill Gates as a prospective date/developer for the Mac. During this event, Gates praised the Mac effusively and stated that he expected half of Microsoft’s 1984 revenue to come from Macintosh software sales, specifically its spreadsheet, graphing, and word processing products.
In order to develop such software, Gates and the Microsoft team needed an intimate understanding of the Mac years before its release. This meant that Gates was fully aware of the Mac’s revolutionary GUI far earlier than the rest of the industry, around 1981. Even back then, Jobs and Gates were not exactly buddies, and Jobs was wary of Microsoft copying Apple’s interface. As such, Apple had Microsoft sign an agreement stating that Microsoft could not write any software that utilized a mouse until a year after the Macintosh was released. In a colossal, preposterous, mind-blowing blunder, the release was written as a firm date in the contract, September 1982, rather than as a dynamic date corresponding to the Mac’s actual release. Under these terms, Microsoft was free to sell mouse-enabled products in September of 1983, even though the Mac did not actually ship until 1984. Microsoft proceeded to do so, announcing a mouse-enabled version of Word and, more threatening to Apple, the first version of Windows in 1983 [ii].
While Windows would take several years from its original 1985 release to spread across the globe like a flu pandemic, the origins of Microsoft’s tyrannical operating system can be at least partially traced back to Apple. Had Microsoft never been given a sneak-peek at Apple’s desktop GUI, perhaps Windows would have been too late to the game to conquer the operating system market. Mircosoft’s supremacy ushered in Apple’s darkest years, from the early 90s until Steve Jobs’s return. Many of Apple’s problems during this period were its own fault, but had Windows been less successful, it would have given the Mac more room to breathe. The Mac OS, tied to the Macintosh hardware, could never have been Windows, but it could have been more than the battered straggler it was in 1997. As it happened, however, Apple gave a substantial boost to the company that eventually came to dominate them.
Nintendo even more directly sowed the seeds of their own despair. The original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was gigantic hit, selling more than 60 million units worldwide. The Super NES, after a long war with the Sega Genesis, eventually emerged victorious in the 16-bit era. With these two hits under their belt, Nintendo was synonymous with videogames. To enhance the SNES, Nintendo partnered with Sony to create a CD based add-on to the console. Called the “SNES CD,” this product was announced during CES in 1989. However, due to a contractual misunderstanding, Nintendo decided that Sony was given an unacceptable amount of control over games produced for the SNES CD and cancelled all plans to continue work with Sony. Nintendo instead partnered with Philips, another agreement that went nowhere for the SNES [iii].
Sony was not willing to give up on gaming so easily. They had put a significant amount of effort into developing a CD-based gaming platform and continued development on their own. The result was the Playstation, which debuted in 1994. This modest gray system marked the beginning of the modern gaming console: disc-based, predominantly 3D gameplay, and aimed at a more mature audience.
The Playstation was not an instant success. In 1996, the impending Nintendo 64 still had the potential to maintain Nintendo’s legacy. Unfortunately for Nintendo, a series of poor corporate decisions crippled the console, giving Sony the opening it needed to claim the throne of videogames. Nintendo’s worst decision in the 64’s design was the continuation of cartridge-based games. The cartridge had less storage capacity than a CD, leaving less room for detailed textures or dazzling pre-rendered cinematics. Worse, developers disliked the cartridge, both for its limited space and because it was difficult to program for. The lack of third party still looms over Nintendo, and the 64 cartridge was the origin of the problem.
The 64 also heralded the beginning of the other enduring criticism made of Nintendo: its immaturity. Besides Zelda and Golden Eye, the 64 was primarily defined by games such as Super Mario 64, Super Smash Brothers, Banjo-Kazooie and Mario Kart 64. These are great games to be sure, but they reek of childishness. Some gamers loved and embraced this feeling, but the evolving market demanded a more mature experience.
Sony’s most impressive achievement in the games market may be that they realized the significance of the NES’s 1985 release date. Kids who had a Nintendo in the 80s were now 5-10 years older; in other words, they were no longer kids. Sony brought the industry into adulthood with fantastic grown-up games like Metal Gear Solid, Grand Turismo, Symphony of the Night, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII [iv]. By grabbing the kids who had grown up with games, Sony elevated the gaming industry from its toy-like stature into one of the most profitable sectors in American entertainment. Without the Playstation, who knows how long the industry would have taken to reach maturation. And without Nintendo, who knows if the Playstation ever would have existed.
Next Time: Fallen Giants Return to Glory
Apple and Nintendo both gave impetus to the companies that would eventually come to bring them to ruin. Apple gave Microsoft a headstart in the desktop OS market, a boost that certainly could not have hurt a company that became the largest in its industry. Nintendo likewise aided the rise of a giant. By dumping Sony on the street, Nintendo left Sony with the knowledge and desire to launch a successful games console. Although the results of Apple and Nintendo’s unintentional assistance would not be felt until years after the fact, the effects would, in time, bring both companies to their knees.
Brought to their knees, yes, but not completely down. Next week we’ll take a look at how tiny products saved big companies.