Gadget Graveyard: The Apple Pippin

Paul Monopoli looks back at "one of the worst products of all time"...

The Saturn was released to disinterested gamers, and Nintendo were making what can only be described as ‘interesting choices’ with their releases. The 1995 CES saw the debut of the Virtual Boy, which promptly flopped. The Big N’s Ultra 64 was unveiled at the same show, but used cartridges at a time when developers were looking to make use of the mass storage offered by CDs.

While each CES will see announcements from the big names in video games, there are also a few surprises that the public never sees coming. Microsoft, a major player in the home computer market, unveiled the XBOX at the 2001 show to an unsuspecting public. It became one of their biggest success stories, and the lineage of that original console is still alive today, with the XBOX One X. It’s a lesser known fact that Microsoft’s biggest home computer rival had already dipped their toes into the console market years earlier, but unfortunately the end result was a sour Apple.

Steve Jobs was forced to leave Apple Inc in 1985, and while the company continued to deliver quality products, including Macintosh Classic and the Powerbook, it also made some questionable choices. A tech giant during the 70s, 80s and early 90s, Apple was becoming better known for its failures than its successes. Commentators would mock the company, ignoring the still successful Macintosh line, and instead focused on underperforming products, such as the Apple Newton. Steve Jobs would be brought back into the Apple fold in 1997, but before that Apple had another major failure on its hands.

The 1996 CES saw the debut of the Apple Pippin, released in partnership with Japanese toy giant, Bandai Entertainment. Bandai, themselves, had a questionable track record with video games, having released the overpriced Playdia multimedia home entertainment system two years prior. The Playdia suffered from a lack of third party support, with Bandai themselves releasing 99% of its software catalogue. It was quietly discontinued in 1996.

Apple’s partnership with Bandai saw the US giant developing the hardware, while their Japanese counterpart manufactured, marketed and distributed the console. At its core the Pippin was a cut down PowerPC Macintosh, with 5MB of RAM, a 4x CD-ROM drive and a 14.4k modem. The device was released with a controller, power and video cables, and a small library of software to get the end user started.

Additional accessories that could be purchased included a keyboard and drawing tablet, wireless controller and 256MB optical drive. Due to the Pippin being a Macintosh Lite, adapters were released that allowed users to attach Mac devices to the Pippin and vice versa.

The Bandai marketing team decided to release the console with different names in different territories. In Japan the Pippin was released as the Atmark, while in the US it was called the @world (pronounced Atworld.) While the front of the packaging shows that it is “Advanced Technology by Apple Computer”, the back tells us that it is distributed by “Bandai Digital Entertainment.”

The Atmark was released in white/beige, the same colour being used for the Macintosh line of computers, while the @World came in black.

The price announced at the CES launch was a wallet-busting US$599. At the same show Nintendo announced their Nintendo 64 console would launch at US$199, leaving many commentators to doubt the success of Apple’s product. With Sony and Sega already established and Nintendo about to launch, was there any room in the market for a player 4 in the console market? Particularly one with a checkered history of hits and misses in the home computer market?

One of the biggest features of the Pippin was its ability to browse the Internet, and Apple partnered with Spyglass to create the @World Browser. This was designed to make browsing available on your TV,  however the televisions found in many households at the time didn’t have the required resolution to display high res webpages. This resulted in a clunky and visually unappealing browsing experience. Also, the supplied 14.4k modem just wasn’t sufficient to deal with the data requirements of the late 90s internet user, who demanded 28.8k or higher.

Aside from the high price and poor browsing experience, it seems that Bandai had not learned their lesson from the Playdia launch two years prior. The software library for the Pippin was tiny, with many third party developers sticking to the familiar Nintendo and Sega brands, or jumping on the successful Playstation bandwagon.

Along with all of this, commentators at the time had difficulty establishing exactly what the Pippin was. It was a cut down Macintosh computer with a controller. So was it a computer or a console? The controller featured a trackpad that could be used in place of a mouse, and accessories included a keyboard and disk drive. Some reported that it was an upcoming games machine, while others cryptically referred to it as an entertainment machine. Others decided against using a term to describe the machine, referring to it as a “product.”

The Pippin sold poorly upon release, and while it is hard to find a source that provides accurate sales figures, online commentators seem to agree that 42,000 units were sold. It is estimated that approximately 100 games were released for the system, with many of them being declared shovel ware. As with the Playdia before it, many of the programs available were ‘edutainment’, though the Bungee title Marathon stands out above all others.

A first person shooter in the vein of Doom, Marathon 1 and 2 are highly acclaimed titles that didn’t see mainstream success until their debut on Microsoft’s XBOX as Halo. It took Apple’s main competitor to make Bungee the success it is today. The original games are clunky and awkward to control on the Pippin’s ‘Applejack’ controller, and are best played on a Mac.

After the failure of the console stateside it was rumoured that American @World stock was being returned to Bandai in Japan. Indeed, the occasional black Pippin can be found on Japan Yahoo Auctions and Japanese retailers such as ‘Mandarake’ occasionally have them in store.

The final nail in the coffin for the Pippin was the return of Steve Jobs. In 1997 Apple restored their former founder to CEO status, a position he retained until a few months before his passing in 2011. Jobs rebuilt Apple from a struggling former IT leader to the iGiant that it is today, ditching the products that were losing money. This included the Pippin, which is now regarded as one of the worst products of all time. Boo!

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