May 14

The online Apple Store’s humble beginnings

The latest numbers show that in 2013, Apple rose to #2 in online retail, second only to Amazon.

Not all that amazing, given that iTunes and App Store sales are now included in Apple’s figures.

But, given the humble beginnings of the Apple Store, it does give me that “how far we’ve come” feeling.

It all started with a baby step back in the “Think different” years, even before the first iMac appeared.

In those days, Apple made its big announcements with multipage inserts in magazines like Time and Newsweek. Apple creating an online store was indeed big news — though not quite big enough to merit its own insert.

The piece you see here was titled “Think different. Really different.” Within its pages, Apple announced three bits of news:

1. A faster processor. (Get it? a chip!)
2. Build-to-order Macs.
3. This new thing called the Apple Store. (Technically, #2 and #3 are one and the same, but hey, three is always better than two.)

Viewing advice: close your eyes and imagine you’re in 1998. The design of this thing will look much better now.

Revisiting this insert, two things struck me.

First, what awful packaging Apple once had. Those Mac boxes had all the sex appeal of colorless cardboard. Oh, right — they were colorless cardboard.

The presentation of Apple products became beautiful only when Steve Jobs’ passion for the complete user experience made it down to the packaging dept.

Second, I was fascinated by a bit of information contained in the Apple Store spread: “We built the Apple Store with the same technology we used to build Dell’s online store in 1996 — only we made a more advanced version to make your shopping more rewarding.”

Really? My 2014 brain finds it incredibly hard to believe that Apple helped build Dell’s online store. I suppose this refers to some kind of re-building, as Dell had been selling online for at least a decade at this time.

I can’t find any evidence to validate this.

My instinct would be to slam the writer for gross exaggeration or outright lying — were it not for the fact that the writer was me. And of course I’m Mr. Trustworthy.

I assure you that the broad strokes of what I wrote came directly from Steve Jobs. If I found a nugget elsewhere, it would have ultimately been approved by Steve, as he was aware of every word and image in national advertising.

So, for now, I will simply file this away as a forgotten-yet-astounding fact. Maybe someone out there can clarify.

One last memory on the making of this piece, and then I’ll go away.

As I gathered info from those building the online Apple Store, I was told that Macs were indeed now customizable — with one exception. That would be the memory. I thought this was odd, given that memory would be the one thing buyers would be most eager to customize.

After unearthing this tidbit, I found myself in a meeting where Steve casually mentioned how great it was that customers would now be able to build their own Macs online.

I then shared what I was told about the memory issue.

Steve seemed more surprised than I was — and very concerned. He instantly summoned the responsible party to the Apple boardroom where we were meeting.

Ten minutes later, a woman showed up. She was barely inside the door when Steve confronted her: “We can configure Mac memory in the Apple Store, right?” In a matter-of-fact way, she said “No, Steve, we’ll be able to do that soon, but we can’t do it at launch.” She proceeded to give him a few technical reasons why.

Steve rejected her rationale and said that this was simply unacceptable. Right there in front of a roomful of people, he directed her to fix this immediately and sent her on her way.

Guess what? Steve got his way. Not long after this meeting, I got the go-ahead to include the part about customizing new Macs — no asterisk required.

By today’s standards, that insert was pretty tame. The first online Apple Store was but a shadow of what it was to become. But it’s safe to say that, even before there was an iMac, the Apple revival was well under way.

If you’re interested, read the Mashable article about the evolution of the online Apple Store.

  • Dan

    REDWOOD CITY, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Aug. 13, 1996–NeXT Software Inc., a leading producer of software development environments for the Internet and Enterprise, today announced that NeXT’s WebObjects, server-based development environment, is providing dynamic web page creation and legacy data integration for Dell Computer Corp.’s new Internet computer store. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/NeXT+Software's+WebObjects+Adds+%22Muscle%22+to+Dell+Computer's+New…-a018569383

  • Samanjj

    Great find Dan!

  • dr.niyat

    Before WebObjects, server side was written in cgi and perl scripts.
    WebObjects allowed you to wrap your database into
    objects (EOF). there was mapping between html and code so your
    html was basically clean not littered with anything.
    This is before anything called Javascript or CSS or any other junk
    that we have today.
    Back then WebObjects was written in Obj-C but was
    later rewritten in Java in order to placate the Market
    that and Apple killed the product and now is basically
    an internal product just for Apple.

  • dr.niyat

    Also Microsoft got scared by Dell using enemy product.
    Spent years converting to their tech and even then had hard
    replacing everything.

    At one time BBC was using WebObjects to publish all their stories.
    There are more such success stories which were mainly
    due to Consultants and once Apple shitted focus to Mac OS X,
    consulting dried up too. By then everything was shifted from Java to Javascript with pushing massive amount javascript code onto the browser. but thank fully iphone came along and
    Objective-C got a revival and dominance that basically made
    web apps non player.

  • Magic_Al

    Apple had switched to brown-box, black-and-white or spot color-printed packaging during Jobs’ absence, which was cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the white, full color-printed boxes Jobs preferred (see the original 1984 Macintosh packaging). It should be noted these brown boxes contained styrofoam packing which Apple has since eliminated. At the time of the Apple Store starting, Jobs had to work with products that were already in the pipeline (the original Power Macintosh G3 is in the same form factor as previous Power Macintosh models). You don’t see his full effect until the iMac.

  • “We built the Apple Store with the same technology we used to build Dell’s online store…”

    “We” refers to NeXT. Steve was fudging a little bit when he told you about that.

  • deasys

    Barely. WebObjects initial release was on March 28, 1996. NeXT was acquired by Apple on December 20, 1996.

  • Jesse Tayler

    In a certain way, NeXT brought the most impactful software inventions of the 20th century: The Web, to provide for freely published information, and the AppStore to provide for the commercial arts.

    Interestingly, these two inventions were both created using the same language and tools used to program today’s iPhone, as was WebObjects. And so the first websites, early interactive sites and universal electronic digital rights management — all during the early 1990’s.


  • ksegall

    I see that now from the previous comments.

    If only my memory on this one hadn’t faded. I buy the idea that it was NeXT that we were talking about. But, given Steve’s insistence on truthful and clear writing, I’m surprised we worded it this way. I’d think that a reasonable reader could easily conclude that (a) it was Apple who did this work, and (b) we were talking about the original store that drove Dell’s PC revolution.

    Maybe the rules were a bit different back then!

  • As much as Steve liked the truth, he was also good at fudging it. :)

  • Before 1996 the industry norm was catalogs or giant ads in publications like InfoWorld (for IT) or Computer Shopper. My understanding is that NeXT built the online store that allowed you to customize an order — keep in mind that the web was still very green by 1995 (most consumers were using AOL and dial up):


    “In 1996, Dell began selling computers via its web site.”

    So this is what happened: NeXT had a relationship with Dell once they gave up on their own hardware. NeXT built the online store that everybody loved for Dell. When NeXT was acquired by Apple Dell rebuilt the store using Microsoft technology.

  • PS The 1996 Dell website was pretty crude looking:


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  • ksegall

    I see that my recollection of when Dell started selling online isn’t very accurate. Thanks for clarifying. It’s interesting that Michael Dell ever had any kind of business relationship with Steve, especially given the nastiness that went on between them in the late 90s.

  • yet another steve

    Not fudging at all… Apple bought NeXT lock stock and barrel and the resulting company was VERY MUCH a combination of the two. Today’s Mac OS really has its lineage in NeXT far far more than the original MacOS. (Those foundation classes we developers use are still all prefixed “NS”.)

    And “we” wasn’t a stretch either. It was him and his team at NeXT.

    The company name and logo going forward was Apple’s. The computer name was Macintosh. But the company and technology were every bit as much from the NeXT origins as the pre-acquisiton Apple ones.

    And looking at how the leadership wound up… you can honestly say that NeXT acquired Apple and then changed its name. :) Not legally, but certainly in sprit and leadership.

    What’s funny to me is how I dismissed NeXT in the 90s as an interesting but dead-ended company and technology. 20 years later I’m working with the descendants of their technology, not (the pre-NeXT) Apple’s, not Microsoft’s. Every iOS device’s software is a direct descendant of NeXT.

  • Gary Deezy

    The DELL store was built using NeXT technology, as was the original Apple store; Apple owned the NeXT technology by that point.

  • Also, the boxes in the magazine ad above were made for marketing purposes — note that they are not product-specific. That’s why they look “generic”.

  • ksegall

    Yes, I figured as much. Just the same, they were hideous boxes — and something that would never, ever have received Steve’s blessing in later years.

    But this is true of so many things that you see in old ads. The standards were different, and what looks dated today actually looked cool back then. Hard as that may be to believe…

  • gctwnl

    My NeXTdimension Turbo Cube was (is, I still own it and it still works) so cool. Still hardly anybody knows the NeXT-part of all the iCoolness sold by Apple today. Think for instance how Apple was able to switch from PPC to x86 in such a short time and run it’s software on ARM (iOS), and recall the m68k/hppa/sparc/x86 ‘fat binaries’ of NeXT in the 90’s that was the visible effect of the core portability NeXT created. HP had to change the HPPA processor so Windows NT could run on it (did they ever sell that combo, btw?), but NeXTSTEP ran on all.

    On the darker side: Apple today also often resembles NeXT because next to insane levels of attention to detail, sometimes there is also an insane level of neglect.

    Haven’t read the book, but Steve Jobs always seemed to be to be focused on user experience and simplification is of course an important result of that focus, but it was never ‘simple because of simple’.

    Oh and BTW, I came here via Scoopertino and may I add here that I think that site is brilliantly done? I always though the designs were often gorgeous and super-professional, the execution brilliant, and now I know why.

  • Chris_in_Eugene

    The text does say “[w]e built The Apple Store with the same technology we used to build Dell’s online store in 1996.” So yes, kind of the ‘royal’ we in that it was NEXT, but given that Steve was head of NEXT when it’s WebObjects was used to build the Dell store, it is still accurate. Also, since it mentioned 1996, it wasn’t making reference to the original Dell store. I think this is still clear, and keeps from having another paragraph or two about how NEXT was now part of Apple, and it was NEXT technology that was used, and lots of other bits that would have lost the reader.

  • Moeskido

    I was always under the impression that the online Apple store was partially created from the acquisition of Power Computing’s online store assets, following their shutdown at the close of the clone licensing era. Am I conflating two separate facts, or is any bit of this spurious memory correct?

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  • godofbiscuits

    Apple actually made quite a big deal about switching to plain cardboard for environmental reasons. I worked at Taligent at the time. I don’t remember there being much ado made about cost savings.