20 years ago today, people thought Apple was going to get acquired in a fire sale

Michael spindler apple ceoYouTubeFormer Apple CEO Michael Spindler

Today, Apple reported a record quarterly profit — again. But investors aren’t happy with slowing iPhone sales, and the stock is dipping in after-hours trading.

So let’s back up and take a minute to remember that things could always be worse for Apple.

On January 26th, 1996, exactly 20 years ago to this day, early tech blog Suck.com reported that Sun Microsystems was in talks to buy up Apple, then worth $3.89 billion.

“Back in late 1995 early ’96, when we were at our peak, we were literally hours away from buying Apple for about $5 to $6 a share,” former Sun President Ed Zander would later recall in 2011.

Apple had been floundering for years at this point. The early nineties saw Apple try everything from making pricey handheld computers to lousy digital cameras.

But former Apple CEO John Sculley’s most catastrophic mistake was committing the company’s computers to the PowerPC processor, while Microsoft, IBM, and Intel teamed up to make Windows run on the cheaper, more popular x86 chips. Microsoft Windows flourished on a variety of cheap PCs, while pricey, limited Macs fell far behind.

In 1993, Apple missed guidance on its quarterly earnings. That was enough for Apple’s board to fire Sculley and install early Apple employee Michael Spindler.

Things were so bad that the board eventually assigned Spindler the task of finding a buyer for the company.

And so, Spindler talked to Sun Microsystems, the manufacturer of high-end computer workstations and servers, about an acquisition in early 1996. The anonymous pundit at Suck theorised that the plan was to use Macs as low-power, cheap computers hooked up to Sun servers for intelligence.

“Not that anyone at Sun or Apple knows anything about successfully producing a low-end mass-market product,” wrote Suck.

It didn’t work, and the deal fell apart. So did Spindler’s acquisition talks with IBM and Philips. And so, after less than three years, Apple’s board fired Spindler, too, and hired Gil Amelio.

Amelio would go on to buy Steve Jobs’ startup NeXT Computer for $429 million, bringing the Apple cofounder back into the fold — which would backfire on him, when Jobs convinced Apple’s board to oust Amelio in early 1997. Oracle would go on to buy Sun for $7.4 billion in 2010.

So while we wring our hands over the future of Apple, remember that it could be a lot worse. Or at least, a lot more dramatic.

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