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An Apple server running Unix in 1996. Really?

I started work at Apple Australia in January 1996 as an Education Sales Manager selling Macs to K-12 schools and universities. On my first day we got a briefing on a new product that would be launched the following month that was “just perfect” for universities. Sitting at the front of the briefing room (the “Cone Room” to locals as the roof was conical shaped) under a grey sheet was what looked like a small bar fridge. The shape was fascinating as it was much larger than any Mac I had ever seen. The local product manager started talking about Apple needing to “diversify its product line” and “find new markets”, my thoughts were more along the lines of “can we just make some Macs that don’t fall apart”. I had just dealt with a very upset private school who had recently taken delivery of 400 PowerBook 190’s which started falling apart as soon as they opened them. These were the first of the infamous Spindler Plastic1 Macintoshes.

At the completion of this “Apple needs to…” speech the product manager took the sheet off this mysterious machine. What she unveiled did actually look like a platinum grey bar fridge with a little green LCD on the front panel and a whole heap of drive bays. What she unveiled was an Apple Network Server or ANS for short.

The ANS was Apple’s way into the Enterprise market via an Enterprise class server. Up until this point Apple relied on their Mac OS based AppleShare server software. It was also a way of Apple showcasing their use of IBM’s PowerPC processor similar to how IBM was using them in their RS/6000 series. To this end these new Apple servers would not run Mac OS but IBM’s AIX UNIX based OS. This was not Apple’s first time using UNIX having released the Apple Workgroup Server 95 running A/UX (Apple’s own version of UNIX) three years earlier. There were two models, an Apple Network Server 500/132 and an Apple Network Server 700/200. The only real difference between the models was that the 700 was faster, had a second internal SCSI bus and had a second backup power supply.

After hearing the words “Enterprise” and “AIX” I immediately thought “OMG what have I signed up for? Would I really have to sell these things to schools?” As it turned out I only ever sold one and that was to the University of Wollongong at a heavy discount for a special project Apple was supporting. I wasn’t alone in not selling any as I am pretty sure nobody bought one. They were discontinued a year later, Steve Jobs had returned to Apple and the ANS disappeared into a hidden backwater of Apple history. It was so forgotten that it never even appears in those regular “failed Apple products” click bait articles2.

Ever since that great unveiling back in 1996 I have always had a bit of a fascination with these most un-Apple of Apple products. When an ANS 500 came up for sale in Melbourne I jumped at the chance. I live in Sydney and the shear size (24.5in H x 16.5in W x 18in) and weight (84lb) of the ANS made shipping almost impossible. Thankfully the seller had a work trip coming up and I was able to meet him halfway in Canberra (a 6 hour round trip) for the handover.

I was assured by the seller that the ANS did “turn on” but it did not have a hard drive. At this point I was happy to just have the hardware, I could use it as a coffee table talking point as a worst case. In hindsight having it not turn on would have saved me a lot of time and frustration and I would have had a nice retro coffee table in my office.

The previous owner was true to his word and it did turn on but getting it to boot was a very different story…………..Stay tuned.

  1. The so-called “Spindler plastics”, a term used by hobbyists to describe the brittle case plastic used by Apple as a cost cutting measure under CEO Michael Spindler in a number of 1990s Macintosh models.

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