A new article from Inc earlier today poses an interesting question: What if Apple had ceased to exist in 1996?
It feels like a hypothetical exercise to consider this possibility today. For younger fans and users of Apple devices, it may seem like a crazy proposition. However, in reality it was a decision or two away from becoming reality 25 years ago this month. I have to admit that, even though I was following technology closely at the time and knew about Apple’s decline and financial difficulties, I never knew about this specific event until today.
As described in the article, Sun Microsystems, a company that was definitely in the ascendancy back in the winter of 1996, made an solid offer to purchase Apple outright. On January 31, 1996, this all came to a head with Apple’s Board of Directors meeting to decide the fate of the company.
It all goes back to a single day, 25 years ago: January 31, 1996, starting around 8 a.m., when Apple’s board of directors met in the offices of its New York City law firm.
There were two items on the agenda, according to an account by Gil Amelio, who was a member of the board at the time and whose name will become quite familiar to you shortly, if you don’t know it already.
Item #1: a proposal to sell Apple outright to Sun Microsystems.
Item #2: a plan to bring in Amelio as CEO.
As Amelio recounted in his 1998 book, On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple, the deal to sell Apple to Sun came very close to happening. He was impressed by Sun’s presentation, until the moment when Sun’s CEO and founder, Scott McNealy, wouldn’t commit to keeping the Apple brand alive (as opposed to rebranding everything under “Sun”).
I’ll leave it to you to read the rest over at Inc, which I highly recommend, as it’s definitely an interesting footnote to tech history.
The fascinating thing about this story is just how close Apple came to effectively ceasing to exist. It sounds very much like if Sun’s proposed price per share had been better, Apple’s board may have accepted the offer. This is in spite of the fact that they may have dumped the Apple brand name entirely after the purchase. That’s hard to fathom in hindsight.
No matter what Sun would have done with Apple, you can basically rule out all that the company has created or accomplished since. That’s the really fascinating part about this. If Sun had bought Apple, Jobs doesn’t return. Without Jobs paired with Jony Ive, there’s no iMac. Without the iMac, there’s no turnaround followed by a fast rise. No iPod. No iPhone or iPad. No MacBook Air. Just think about the impact of these products on the computing and general tech markets, especially from a design perspective.
It was Gil Amelio, the man the board ended up choosing as CEO that day, who eventually pushed for Apple to purchase NeXT and bring Steve Jobs back to the company. Even though this would eventually lead to Jobs ousting Amelio shortly thereafter, the man does deserve credit for two pivotal decisions that set the table for Apple to recover. Many younger Apple fans likely didn’t realize the impact that he had on the company we know today during his relatively short tenure.
It’s interesting to look back at decisions like this one in hindsight and consider the possibilities. What would the tech landscape look like today if Sun’s proposal price had been a little higher? Things in the tech world still would have moved forward and different players would have emerged. We would still have a lot of the same advancement and technologies, even without Apple’s influence. However, it’s a lot harder to imagine what mobile devices and laptops would look like today without a thriving, independent Apple’s massive influence.
I would love to know what you think of this article and the possibility of a world without Apple for the last 25 years. Let me know i the Comments section below or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.