GM's Apple Moment: Could It Already Be Time To Dump The Volt?
Some time ago, I made the unpleasant discovery that Oprah Winfrey publishes a magazine devoted entirely to herself. It’s called “O!” and every month there is a photo of Oprah herself on the cover. It’s almost impossible to imagine the kind of people who would buy such a magazine, but the same could be said about a variety of products from Kenneth Cole’s Indonesian garbage shoes to “Four Loko” alcopops.
The Chevrolet Volt is TTAC’s Oprah. Not only is it overweight and despised by most right-thinking people (in a few senses of the phrase), it appears on our front page more than any other car. We’ve reviewed it at least three times, discussed it endlessly, and even attended an owner’s gathering.
We’ve recently heard that GM wants to be like Apple. Here’s the problem: GM already is like Apple. Not the current Apple, mind you, but the divided, contentious, collapsing (Cr)Apple of the early Eighties. That company had a “Volt” of its own. It was called “Lisa”, and I was there on the day it was unveiled.
The story of the Apple Lisa can be found many places on the Internet, including a Wiki page that has been slowly whipped into shape over the past couple of years. Here’s the precis: In the late Seventies, Apple decided to introduce a successor to it’s wildly successful Apple ][. “Feature creep”, wild enthusiasm, and a desire to leapfrog the competition rather than merely beat it resulted in the introduction of a $9,999 computer that was difficult to understand, slow to operate, and almost hopelessly proprietary in its hardware and software. By the time of its introduction, the Lisa had already been partially abandoned by its development team. A competing project — the “Macintosh” — ended up defining Apple’s future, while the Lisa was doomed to become a technological dead end.
I attended the Lisa premiere at Micro Center in Upper Arlington, Ohio, nearly thirty years ago. I was already a proficient AppleBasic programmer and Apple ][ hardware hack, but I was also a big reader of BYTE magazine and I knew that graphical user interfaces were the wave of the future. The fabled Xerox Star had been the first “PC” to offer a GUI, but no nine-year-old kid in America was ever going to get time on one. The Atari “ST” and Commodore “Amiga” were on the way, each featuring a full-color GUI, but neither would beat the Lisa to market. Therefore, the Lisa was a big deal and I made sure my father bullied my way into the front of the group when the sheet was lifted (literally; it was a computer on a cylindrical display platform, under a sheet) and the Midwest was exposed to the Lisa for the first time.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that a $9,995 computer wasn’t going to set the world on fire, particularly in an era when a new Oldsmobile Cutlass cost less than that, but Apple had become a navel-gazing maze of slightly insane people who had been isolated from the real world by a tidal wave of cash, success, and public acclaim. The Lisa arrived with a bang but barely sold a whimper’s worth of volume.
To begin with, the Lisa didn’t deliver what it promised. The display wasn’t as big as we’d hoped, the resolution wasn’t as good, and performance inside the applications was dog slow. The proprietary floppy disks were hideously expensive and difficult to find. Peripherals were nonexistent. Even if you didn’t care about any of the above and possessed a new car’s worth of cash to drop on a Lisa, your local Apple dealer might not be able to get you one due to production issues.
Does any of this sound familiar? I bet it does — to Volt intenders. The Volt has consistently under-delivered on its promises, from the styling to the open-road fuel mileage. It costs more than anyone outside of GM’s own insane maze thinks is reasonable . The man on the street doesn’t want one and the the Volt true believers couldn’t take delivery thanks to restricted production.
Lisa wasn’t Apple’s only major project of the late Seventies and early Eighties. The Apple ][ was undergoing futher development, first into the Apple //e which had the amazing ability to use lowercase letters and then into the IIgs which was wildly successful in the educational market. The “Macintosh” project was developing a more direct competitor for the standard-priced GUI offerings from Atari and Commodore, and after a rough start (the almost entirely worthless 128kb original Macintosh) it, too, became a success.
At the time, neither of those projects was considered to be quite the “moonshot” that Lisa was, the same way that Ford’s Escape and Fusion Hybrids don’t offer the same “moonshot” capabilities promised for the Volt. Apple likes its moonshots, whether we are talking about the Lisa or the iPhone. There’s something to be said for coming up with the proverbial “paradigm shift”.
GM likes its moonshots, too; the X-cars, the Saturn project, and the Volt were all meant to be more than merely competitive. The problem is that moonshots are a privilege, not a right. Apple “earned” the Lisa by creating the Apple ][, perhaps the most important personal computer of the Seventies, and earning the money and goodwill that came along with it. GM hasn’t earned much lately.
Another issue with “moonshots”; if you take too long, someone else gets to the moon first. The endless delays associated with the Volt allowed Nissan’s less ambitious Leaf to arrive in the marketplace at the same time and effectively whip its ass; meanwhile, a third generation of Prius offers dramatically better efficiency off the battery than the bulky Volt does.
Worst of all, moonshots tend to grow a bit stale. The Saturn SL, which arrived on the market watered-down past the point of recognition, sat through a long lifecycle and an indifferent refresh before disappearing. Honda released three new Civics during that same time, each an incremental improvement over its predecessor. Constant improvement isn’t as sexy as loading up a spacecraft, but it pays real dividends.
If GM really wants to be like Apple, they will do what Apple did to extricate itself from the Lisa fiasco. First, all resources were diverted to other, less ambitious but more effective projects. In this case, one could argue that a Cruze hatchback hybrid which matches the Prius for efficiency and beats it on price and/or interior appointments would be a good way to start. Next, the difficult decision was taken to fold Lisa in with the successful stuff. Lisa received major price cuts, became “Macintosh XL”, and sold five or six times as much volume as the original Lisa as a result. The Volt may need to be brought back in line with other, more successful hybrids, and the price needs to drop regardless of the consequences.
After the “Macintosh XL” variant was obsolete, Apple simply walked away from Lisa. GM’s pretty good at walking away from nameplates, particularly after the bugs are worked out, (*cough* FIERO *cough) so it’s safe to assume not too much encouragement will be necessary here. Dump the Volt, get a world-class Cruze Hybrid out on the streets, sell the rest of the volume at a discount, and call it an expensive lesson learned at taxpayer expense.
Apple went on to have a pretty good ten years with the Macintosh, although by 1994 or so the bloom was off the fruit, so to speak, and it took a major upheaval in both product and organization to fix the wagon. Ironically, what saved Apple in 1998 — the arrival of Jobs and his crazy ideas — were what almost killed the company fifteen years prior. That’s the scariest lesson GM could learn from Apple: that sometimes you can’t learn anything from history, or competitive comparisons, at all.
More by Jack Baruth
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