It was 1999. Only three years have passed since Steve Jobs returned to Apple. Britney Spears was climbing the charts with “Baby one more time” and engineers at Apple were a few months into launching the Mac OS 9. They would dub it “The Best Internet Operating System Ever”. It was a visionary product and an awesome precursor to today’s Internet-enabled operating systems.
Unlike its direct competitor, Microsoft, Apple had a simpler way of shipping its operating systems. They would either come pre-installed on purchased computers or subjected to a standard $99 upgrade fee.
Steve Jobs thought he can get more users aboard if he somehow reached out to those yet unwilling to pay for the OS. Ken Segall, the man credited with naming the iMac , recalls how this happened, in his book Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success:
“[…] Steve provided some details about how the advertising would work. At systems start-up, the user would see a sixty-second commercial. This ad could be regularly changed via updates from Apple’s servers. Throughout the rest of the OS, ads would appear in places where they had the most relevance. For example, if the print dialogue box indicated that you were running low on printer ink, you might see an ad from Epson with a link to its store – so you could buy some ink right then and there”.
The consensus was the main ad, the one running at systems start, would be a premium spot for top-knotch companies. Those Steve admired, say BMW and Nike. Once the ad started running , some system functions would be suspended so the user had to see the whole ad.
Apple engineers and staff were psyched about the idea and they loved the fact that such a new interface could let users try the OS and buy it whenever they felt like upgrading. Apple even registered the patent for this, listing Steve Jobs as the main inventor. Fortunately this system never went public and Apple went on to build its success and later on give out the Maverick OS upgrade for free, but that’s a story for another post.
Apple thought about it, Google and Amazon did it.
Apple was not the only company that thought about the ad-supported OS, but it was the first to seriously consider it.
For starters – like most smartphone users you’ve heard about Android. It’s the most popular mobile OS (or at least the most used). It’s free and it helps Google leverage on mobile ads. So much that it Google now takes in about half of all mobile ads revenue.
Google’s other venture into ad-supported OS is Chrome OS / Chromium OS – the web OS that has Google at its center. And Google’s Ads.
Yeah, both Google and Apple thought about an ad-supported OS. The time-frame, however, is pretty important. Apple thought about the ad-supported OS, it nearly implemented it and ditched it. An year later (2000) Google launches AdWords. After yet another 5 years (2005) Google buys Android. 6 more years passed until Google launched its Chromebooks in 2011.
Amazon, the king of online retail, thought this is a great idea also.It started using it on its Kindle readers in 2011. Later on the Kindle Fire was subsidized through ads. The ad-supported device / OS seemed so good that Amazon didn’t actually bothered to built no-ads versions. Or talk about it.
Apple’s “say no” culture lead to dumping the ad-supported Mac OS
Fortunately Apple scraped the idea and later on figured out an way to give the Mac OS for free (it’s doing pretty well selling apps and music). Its focus on delivering a great user experience finally won. It was Probably Steve Jobs who remembered his own words, spoken at the 1997 Apple World Developers Conference:
“Innovation is saying no to a thousand things”