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Why Kill Products?
Realities of Business

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

I know some people that get very annoyed at Apple (and companies like Apple) when they "kill" a product that sells. An example is the Newton or the Apple][. People feel that as long as it can sell, then you should never kill it. The truth is far more complex.

We all like some products that get axed -- that is just life. Companies do have strategies (at least sometimes they do) -- and even when we don't like it, we do have to face that sometimes it is for the greater good of the company.

Infighting and zero sum

Imagine this -- you have a fixed number of resources -- how do you divide them up? If you try to do everything (and all products) then you have no focus and nothing gets done really well. So you have to make choices -- and the more you do, the less well you will do what is left. Time, resources and focus are zero sum games (more or less).

Competition is not always good. Whether you like it or not, groups (products) do compete for the same people and resources inside of a company. You can't give to one group without taking away from another. So in the days of the Apple][ or Newton, where should Apple have its focus?

  1. Let's say Apple has 5 or 10 really good industrial designers -- should they be designing for the Apple][, Newton or Mac? Each person you pull off of one product may reduce the quality of the other products.
  2. Let's also say that Apple has 50 really good hot dog coders. They have more like many hundreds of programmers -- and all are needed for their various contributions -- but there are fewer really good leaders that can design and implement a whole project. So what happens if you give 5 or 10 of those away to another group?
  3. The same for managers, sales and marketing, packaging, manufacturing, documentation (technical and user), support people, and so on. It is a almost a complete zero sum game -- and having too many different (non-core) things going on can kill a company and its focus.
  4. Each time a person is wooed away from one group to another, they have a learning curve that can be anywhere from one week to one year -- during that transition (retraining) they are less than fully productive. So just the shifting around itself hurts productivity. In the end, focused companies do better than unfocused ones.

Of course life is about balances -- and not offering people places where they can grow, and some change can be bad as well. That will usually drive them out of a company in it's entirety. But there are thousands of different opportunities and variety inside a company like Apple -- so this isn't as much an issue as people think. It is much worse to start a project like Newton, and then kill it, then to never have started it at all.


So the trick to all this is about balance and teamwork. The company has to be one company with one set of goals and vision (over all). That is why companies create things like "vision statements" -- to try to get people on the same page. Teams can have their own focus, but they have to fit in the big picture. When they don't fit in the big picture, they need to be axed (even when they are a good product). Both to send a message to all the other projects, and to keep the company going in the right direction.

Apple's biggest problem (and most companies) has always been that they are a group of small fiefdoms each fighting for their own goals -- and they don't get the bigger picture.


Newton was a good idea -- but it didn't fit well with what should be Apple's primary focus -- which should have read "a family of personal computers that work well together and run the same software, just in different form factors". Newton was too different. A hand-held computer was not a bad goal -- and certainly within the corporate charter of what Apple was trying to do. But the implementation didn't fit at all. It used its own OS, its own tools, and didn't work exceptionally well with anything else. It didn't leverage the Mac market as well as it could of, and what was being developed for the Newton wasn't being used to help the company at large. So the Newton created itself outside the companies core focus -- and it wasn't profitable enough to justify itself, so Apple was right to kill it.

That is one thing that Jobs understands really well -- no more sacred cows (or only HIS sacred cows), time to clean house and refocus the company. He crams his purpose down their throats, which is a lot better than the alternative which is letting all lower managers run their own little companies.

So the Newton didn't fit in to the companies long term goals -- and it was defocusing the company, and so Jobs saw it as extraneous and shot the baby. Part of this is the companies fault, the Newtons teams fault, and most of it is managements fault for not "getting it" and focusing the Newton so that it WAS part of the companies core focus a lot sooner. Selling it off would have made Apple's own competition and would have pirated needed people out of Apple (and still split the focus) -- so killing it was better than the alternative.

What I would have done with the Newton

For the record, I really did like the Newton -- it was better at what it did, and more innovative than the other PDAs. From the beginning I was an advocate of a few things with Newton that would have made it more "core" focus -- and it isn't like I was the only one with these ideas.

One idea I kept telling every Apple person I knew, was to create a "virtual" Newton, and give it away free with every Mac (software emulator). They even had such a things for testing and development. If they did this, then synchronization would have been much easier (just be making sure the inforamation was the same between the Virtual Newton and the physical one). And the Virtual Newton would create more demand for the software of the real one (and create a larger installed base) -- and add value to the Mac at the same time.

Another idea, was either make part of the Newton API a part of the Mac OS (just share code more), and to have leveraged more of the Mac OS in the Newton (where possible) to improve the learning curve and adoption of both. Microsoft does some things well, and WinCE and Windows is the right idea (even if it isn't a good implementation). Having the Newton API offer object soup, and handwriting recognition to other Macs, or have the Newton and Mac use a high level networking stack (or so on), would have subsidized that development and spread the costs out and allowed more innovation for both. Again, making the TEAM (company) better -- not just the department. In some cases it would be hard because the goals and requirements were different -- but in many areas it was completely doable, but just wasn't done.

The Newton managers (or Apple Managers) prevented such integration for a variety of reasons -- some business, most political -- and only the guy that let the final axe fall gets the blame, not all the screw-ups in between. Alas, none of this matters now.

Apple][ Forever?

The Apple][ story was the same way. Many people are still bitter about killing the Apple][, or bitter that "forever" meant slightly less than a decade (which is arguably forever in computer terms). The Apple][ was a great product -- but it was becoming stagnant and the only way to migrate further would have been to even more directly compete with the Mac. It was becoming topped out (without changing what the product was), and it's entire software market was becoming based on legacy. In fact, that software and market was actually detracting and competing with Macs (especially in education). The platform was going into lower-margin (lower cost) computing, and it was taking resources away from other projects. It was now longer the core focus, and had to be killed.

Again, I would have likely handled things a little differently, by either outsourcing Apple][ manufacture, or licensing it out completely. Letting the Apple ][ drop down into the sub $500 market (and limiting capabilities and future growth) would have left some product differentiation -- but it still would have pirated Mac sales and slowed the evolution (as a company and industry).

As a better plan,, I would have at least setup a complete software emulator for all Macs, and given that away with every Mac sold. This would have smoothed the transition from Apple][ to Mac -- and increased the amount of software available for the Mac. The Apple][ LC cards was a brief effort to do something like that -- but it was a pretty pathetic attempt and targeted to only one machine/model (family) -- and by the time they killed the Apple ][ completely, they could have offered full software emulation (real time) with Quadras. So while a company may want to stop the product from furthering, they can at least give the legacy customers some carrot or incentive to move -- and leaving it up to third parties makes them feel abandoned.

Software and OS

All Mac users, and users of other systems as well, have their favorite software project or OS technology that has been killed as well. Apple has a long list of such technologies like; Pink (Taligent), Kalieda (ScriptX), General Magic (MagicCap) and so on. All of which could have been successful (or were good ideas) if they were done inside the company, and as part of the long term core strategy of the company -- but as a break away product/project they just weren't quite viable and didn't have a unity of purpose that was compatible with the rest of the company. Once split out they were dead politically -- and because they were no longer a core focus. Why should Apple commit to outside scripting / multimedia efforts, or OS technologies or PDA and networking (information) technologies when they had their own solutions in house? Spinning them out was putting one of their feet in the grave and yanking almost all internal influence away from them.

All those technologies and concepts were valid and viable, and might have survived with better management. If Taligent had been a series of frameworks (with a long term plan for replacing the whole OS), and done inside of Apple -- one part at a time, and made cross platform, it would have stood more a chance of survival -- it would have been a core technology. The demand to make the product stand out, meant that it wasn't as good at fitting in. ScriptX is about the same -- if it had been integrated with QuickTime and made core (like the later QTi effort), it would have had a chance (purpose and a focus). General Magic had some good ideas -- but wasn't able to create any core focus of its own -- it was more some smart people breaking off and doing something, but never really nailing down what (and their market). Good efforts all, but once outside of Apple their chances for long term viability were diminished -- though that was also a given had they remained inside of Apple unless they could have learned to fit in better.

And those were just some of the spin off companies -- the list of internal technologies that didn't succeed is long as well -- and just because they fit the focus or direction of the company doesn't mean they are a guaranteed success either -- we have OpenDoc, AOCE, QuickDrawGX, QuickDraw3D and many other tombstones to mark these "almost" successes.

Again, many of the strategies were right for even some of the failures. You can get close and still miss. So OpenDoc was the right idea -- but the implementation had issues, and the timing and partners sort of failed. AOCE and QuickDrawGX were almost the right idea, but was not considered "core" enough to be included in the OS for free -- and so they failed. QuickDraw3D just got bested by a more popular implementation. Such is life. Apple just refines their strategies, uses something else to fill the holes, and goes on. That isn't a bad thing.


So we all have reasons to get annoyed at Apple or any company that shoots our sacred cows -- but we need to keep perspective. The company that is focused on the companies core goals is doing good -- even if they aren't expanding into markets we like, or they pull back from some good products and projects. I don't like every decision made by Apple -- and certainly miss some great products or ideas -- but the really good ideas will return (in some other form).

I hope that more managers (especially inside of Apple) have learned how to "fit in" and make themselves part of the core-goals of the company (a little compromise and playing well with others can go a long way) -- that will save us all some grief and prevent good ideas and products from being killed in the future. But honestly, sometimes killing one product (or a series of them) is better than the alternative. So we should grumble at lost products (and technologies and innovation) -- but not let our sadness turn to bitterness and anger, and blind us as to why it was done.

Created: 08/10/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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