Apple swapping out Google Maps for its own inferior product makes it irresistible for me to present here an arcane bit of Silicon Valley history I often recall with a certain relish when enjoying a glass of wine with my young colleagues.
In the early 1980’s I had the privilege of joining a little start up called Personal Software to help them market the very first spreadsheet. It was called VisiCalc. Some of you age enhanced folks out there may remember it. It was by far the best selling software product of its day. It also singlehandedly made Apple successful in selling its computers to businesses. Before VisiCalc, Apple was a machine that appealed only to hobbyists. After VisiCalc, which early-on ran only on Apple, Apple’s sales to businesses shot up. It’s no exaggeration to say that VisiCalc was the key to Apple going public in 1980.
I had played a marketing role at Apple as an advertising guy with Regis McKenna Inc., who was in those early days Apple’s ad and PR agency. As a result, I worked closely with Steve Jobs , and we knew each other well. On the day I joined Personal Software (it was later renamed VisiCorp after its most important product), I had a call from Steve, who asked if he could come over and see me. Apple and Steve then were not the Apple and Steve of now. It was no big deal to get a call from Steve Jobs in those days, believe me. Anyway, I said “sure…come on over.”
He did. He put his sandaled feet up on my desk (not a good sign for what was to come) and launched into a Jobsian gun-to-my-head proposal. “License us VisiCalc for $1.00 per machine (it was selling for $50.00 at retail), or we will put our clone on every machine we ship and put you out of business.”
Steve was a lot younger than me, and in those days had very little intimidation factor going for him (in spite of his now famous intemperate behavior). I didn’t bat an eye. I said “no way your software guys could clone VisiCalc, and if they had, you wouldn’t be here making me this offer. You, of all people, would just do it. Nice try, but get out of my office.” You see, VisiCalc was a very hard product to make work well in the tiny memory spaces of that era, and I knew that. Thank god I was right, and nothing more ever came of the threat.
Apple’s walled garden thinking goes back to those very early days. Part of it derives from the inherent joy Steve took in being a bully when he could get away with it. But, as a smart bully, he stopped short of actually fighting if he didn’t have the goods. Steve knew not to try to compete with a non-competitive product, which is all his team then could hope to muster.
Perhaps the VisiCalc experience contributed to Steve focusing his bullying tendencies toward a fierce demand for perfection, so he could bully with confidence.
Mapping is arguably the VisiCalc of the Smartphone. Would Steve have risked launching a non-competitive VisiCalc today? Hmm….