The Apple They Should Have Made, But Didn’t

Whenever there is a large manufacturer of a popular product in the tech space, they always attract tales of near-mythical prototypes which would have changed everything on the spot had they just not been cancelled by the bean counters. The Sony-Nintendo PlayStation prototypes for example, or any of a number of machines inexplicably axed by Commodore.

Apple is no exception. They brought the instantly forgettable twentieth anniversary Mac and the pretty but impractical G4 Cube to market, but somehow they rejected the Jonathan, a razor-sharp modular machine from the mid-1980s.

It’s easy after so long associating Apple with the Mac to forget that in the mid-80s it was simply one of their several computer lines, and not the most successful one at that. The 16-bit machine was something of a slimmed-down evolution of the Lisa, and it thus it doesn’t necessarily follow that every other Apple machine of the day also had to be a Mac. Into this would have come the Jonathan, a high-end modular machine bridging the gap between domestic and business computing, with a standard bus allowing processor modules for different operating systems, and upgrades with standard “books”, hardware modules containing peripherals, not all of which would have come from Apple themselves. It would have been Apple’s first 32-bit machine, but sadly it proved too adventurous for their management, who feared that it might tempt Apple users into the world of DOS rather than the other way round.

What strikes us about the Johnathan is how out of place it looks on a 1980s desk, it would be the mid-1990s before we would come close to having machines with these capabilities, and indeed we’ve never seen anything quite as adventurous hardware-wise. It’s certainly not the only might-have been story we’ve seen though.

31 thoughts on “The Apple They Should Have Made, But Didn’t

  1. >”every user could have their own unique Jonathan setup, pulling together various software platforms, storage devices, and hardware capabilities into their own personalized system. Imagining what would have been required for all this to work together gives me a headache. In addition to the shared backbone interface, there would need to be software written to make an almost-endless number of configurations work smoothly for the most demanding of users. It was all very ambitions, but perhaps a little too far-fetched.”


    1. What makes this approach more ambitious compared to a mainboard with a PCI bus where you can plug in all kinds of graphics cards, parallel port cards, hard drives and so on? The only difference I see is that this looks more modular since you can see the modules, instead of them being hidden in a single big box.

      1. That’s what I was thinking.

        The main killer reason they didn’t do it was because the other stakeholders were concerned that users would switch from Mac-OS to DOS if they were able to add compatible modules. They wanted to OWN the whole platform instead of opening up to others.

  2. I do recall seeing a lot more info for this prototype back in the day I would have to search through my collection of 80’s computer magazines (my brother has it now in storage after a flood damaged much of it) to find it but if I recall it was the first mention of NuBus from Apple. Many more parts from this prototype were used in production machines later.

  3. So it was really just a jazzed-up backplane computer, intended to be used with Apple OS?
    I’m pretty sure that Apple engineers would have put some of what is usually on the CPU board onto the backplane itself, probably where they’d hide their boot-ROMs and maybe designate the closest slot as “CPU board only”

    1. I think it’s a good comparable. There was the primary motherboard, and also the NeXTdimension board. The dimension board with color display cost basically as much as the entire baseline system. I don’t recall if any other boards got past sample units.

      It’s easy to make an awesome future-looking system design if you are willing to throw cost considerations out the window! Sun had some great entries into that space, and I think that would have been the competition, rather than Apple II or Mac units.

  4. Problem of this design is that it only looks cool when the modules stand is fully filled.

    If one owner only have the basic CPU module, then he must have an empty plastic case to complete the stand.

    Then if he upgrade the system with an additional module, he should buy also an empty case to complete the stand, discarding the previous one.

    Noneless to say all these modules are in fact expansion boards inside their own enclosure, requiring additional effort to keep them all attached together.

    1. The B26’s and everything in that series were engineered and manufactured by a company called “Convergent Technologies” and rebadged for and sold by several companies until it was bought out/merged into Unisys. They called this one the “NGEN”, and it ended up with several CPU options starting with the 80186, and had variants with the 286 and 386 cpu’s too.

      I have to believe someone at Apple HAD to have seen a Convergent Technologies NGEN before making that prototype, there are just too many similarities for it to be a coincidence.

  5. Normal consumers would have had the same reaction they always do to these modular concepts: “that’s neat, but I’d rather just buy the computer I want right now, instead of paying extra to do your job for you”.

    Unless you’re more interested in making computers than using them, this kind of modularity isn’t a selling point. And if you /are/ more interested in making computers, the lego approach is restrictive and condescending. But everyone agrees it’s a great solution for someone else.

  6. Ugly. Hostile. From perspective of a design language, I mean. Similar to these NeXT PCs.
    It looks as if someone had been taken inspiration by modular furniture of the mid-20th century or something (cube footstool etc).

  7. “This meant that every user could have their own unique Jonathan setup, pulling together various software platforms, storage devices, and hardware capabilities into their own personalized system.”

    And THIS is why it got killed. Jobs was a notorious control freak that wanted to keep everybody else out of the Apple ecosphere. If Apple can’t control how the product is used, they aren’t going to release it.

    1. It wasn’t always that way, though.
      Let’s take the Power Mac G3 Blue White, for example.
      It was being very maintenance friendly.

      No screws were being required to open the side of the chassis, thumb screws for holding the PCI cards in place..

      I mean, yeah, to most people that person wasn’t exactly meeting the definition of a nice person. ;)

      There were exceptions, I just mean to say.

      After ~2010 things got really in the closed-system direction..

      In the early to mid 90s, when that person was absent, Mac OS (System) as a platform had thrived. Bad for Apple, but good for users.

      System 7 was being available to clone hardware, which not seldomly was of better quality and/or functionality to what Apple had to offer same time.

      Apple wasn’t doing “bad” perse, but was operating more like a “thought factory”, maybe.
      Lots of crazy stuff had been invented back then. 😃

      QuickTime, VR, 360° images, True Type fonts, that Newton PDA thing, QuickTake camera, early webcams (Connectix Quickcam, for Macintosh), etc.
      It was the multimedia era for a reason.

      Things were very experimental, still, even if “Generation C64” did think otherwise at the time (in the 90s I mean, when admittedly things got rather commercial by comparison; the 80s rightfully had some cool hardware hacking culture going on).

      In the 90s, the Macintosh platform also met the graphical specs for online services like AOL, CServe or browsing young internet.

      The average Macintosh provided a reasonable good browser platform in a time when Windows 3.1 had trouble getting online with WinSock DLLs.

      Speaking of crazy things, this video (vision) about the future is really interesting:

      The 90s also were a time when lots of public domain, freeware and shareware had been available to the Macintosh world.

      The programmers were from all around the world and the platform didn’t seem being so “closed” anymore.
      Popular development tools like CodeWarrior had been around.

      All in all, using a Mac rather was a bit like working on PC platform, at the time.
      On venerable PC platform, there were multiple DOSes or DOS compatible OSes running on various PCs of different heritage.

      In the 90s, there were software packages which had both a Windows 3.x (and/or OS/2) and Mac version on same CD-ROM, albeit using a different filesystem for each one, sometimes.
      The Macintosh side had support for longer filenames and a resource fork, rather, than using plain ISO9660.

      Previously, before the 90s, the most advanced hardware to run “System” were Atari STs or Amigas using emulators such as Aladdin.

      Before the Macintosh II was around, at least.
      That thing was a real computer, at least.
      Comparable to an IBM AT or A2000.
      It had NuBus slots, which made hardware upgrades possible, like with other platforms.
      Good thing that one person wasn’t around looking to stop it going into production.

      My apologies for this long comment, but computing history is really fascinating, I think. Especially if it’s about the “bad guys”. 😁

      1. People do forget about the Scully and early Apple years, while doing their “villain of the week”. Mind that open nearly put Apple on it’s deathbed so as a philosophy it has it’s flaws.

        1. Apple gets a lot of flak for being a closed platform these days, but I think the Jonathan is the vision of what could’ve happened if they followed the open approach that made the Apple II so wildly successful.

          My understanding is that a lot of the early days was tension between Woz and Jobs over open vs closed design. Maybe if Woz hadn’t been burned out from management dissing the Apple II, which was still providing most of the company’s revenue until the late 80s, he could’ve helped coax the company into building Jonathan.

          I wonder if the backplane system could’ve contributed to the survival of a lot of the other computers and OSes since it might’ve trimmed development costs for hardware and software for other companies. It seems like an awesome dev machine. Imagine Acorn or BeOS modules on the things, for example.

          With someone as skeptical about Mac as Sculley at the helm, it’s a wonder Apple survived long enough to make the iMac. I think this would’ve been a lot better use of resources than the Apple clone program, but it’s easy to critique now with hindsight.

          Jonathan is still my favorite Apple design, and I have some sketches around of a modern interpretation of the concept I’m hoping to build as a project someday.

        2. To be fair, though, the Apple II and IIGS -the open platform so to say- originated by another kind of Apple.

          The Apple II line was being created by its own team, rather than the Macintosh guys.

          The Apple II was being created by the other founder of Apple, I mean, which was more of a tinkerer than the one being associated with the company all the time.

          But since Apple II line no longer is being a thing these days, this understandably isn’t being recognized by the masses.

          All they know about is Mac and iPhone. And iPad, maybe.
          The once overly popular iPod (the “MP3 player” that couldn’t play actual MP3s) no longer is a thing, either.

      2. Dude, stopping is your friend. To address only your first point, not requiring a screwdriver does NOT mean an open ecosystem. To this very day Apple consumers are not required to own a screwdriver.

  8. I worked for frogdesign in the 90’s and there was a huge cabinet of photographs like this of all the wild concept stuff that frog was doing for Apple long before they had their own in-house design dept. frog was on retainer to come up with concepts like this, many of which have never been published. And these are most certainly not renders, they would have been physical models built in the frogdesign model shop.

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