Apple Bandai Pippin in retrospective

Video game players were in luck in 1995, because they had numerous console choices. Nintendo and Sega dominated the market with their N64 and Saturn, respectively, and Sony was fast gaining ground with its first PlayStation.

The success of the new kid on the block did not go unnoticed by other consumer electronic manufacturers. Many saw it as proof that the market could sustain multiple gaming platforms.

Enter Apple, then struggling to re-establish itself as a force in the computer industry. To compensate for the loss of market share to companies such as Intel and Microsoft as well as PC manufacturers, Apple had adopted a business strategy of trying to enter the consumer electronics field, and Sony's success was a good enough reason for Apple to attempt its own gaming console. After several years of development, Apple launched the Pippin in 1995 and history was made. But not necessarily in a good way.


The Pippin neversaw the light of day in North America.
Click on image to enlarge.

Apple had never intended for the system to be released under the Apple brand, but to license the hardware and software to third parties. Its first partner was Bandai, a Japanese maker known for bringing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to North America.

The partnership was expected to be a match made in heaven, given Bandai's extensive experience marketing products to children. However, the product received a tepid response from software developers during early demos.

When the system was released in 1995 in Japan, its technical specs were very similar to those of an Apple Macintosh. In fact, Pippin software ran on the Classic Mac OS. A look inside reveals some of the problems that hindered its success.

The Pippin's “brain” was a Motorola 603 PowerPC processor. This 32-bit processor, designed by IBM and licensed to Apple and what is now Freescale Semiconductor (Motorola Semiconductor at the time), operated at 66 MHz and had the following features, according to Freescale's data sheet:

» High-performance, superscalar microprocessing;
» High instruction and data throughput; and
» Integrated power management (which explains the lack of a system fan for processor cooling).

It was the first processor to use the PowerPC architecture and was designed primarily for low-end and portable applications. It was manufactured at an IBM facility at the 500-nm process technology node. Compare that with processors today being made at 45 nm and you can see how far the industry has come.

Also on the board was a device with package markings from BrookTree, which was acquired by Rockwell Semi in 1996 and is now known as Conexant. This RGB to NTSC/PAL digital video encoder revealed Apple's lofty intentions to market the product not only in Japan and North America but in Europe, Africa, parts of South America and possibly Greenland.

Next we see some design wins for Samsung, showing how far back the Korean company has had an association with Apple for its memory components. With the KM416C1204AJ and KM416C254BJ, we have two variations of 4M(256K x 16)-bit DRAM EDO memory devices.

More on board

Moving along the Pippin board, we see a device labeled “Crystal.” Crystal, a Cirrus Logic brand, provided the CS4217-KL. This part served as the (probably 16-bit) audio codec for the Pippin until it was discontinued in 1998. Variations of this same codec later found themselves in Apple's innovative iMac G3 home computer.

The Zilog Z85C3008VSC was the CMOS SCC (Serial Communications Controller), which was optimized for non-multiplexed bus processors (giving more insight into the IBM processor itself). This low-power device acted as the host controller for the internal 14.4-kbit/second modem. For Internet protocol fans, this device supported the daisy-chain hierarchy of interrupts. This was another design win for this SC controller, as the Z85 had found a home on Apple's discontinued Newton PDAs.

Another device that found its way from the Newton to the Pippin was the AMD AM29F010, a 1-Mbit CMOS sector erase flash. This memory served as the Pippin's ROM.

Lastly, we see a practice on this board that Apple uses to this day. The act of using non-descriptive package markings with the “Apple” name on it occurred in 1995 as it does today in 2008. This particular device labeled with “343-S1125,” however, had the telltale Texas Instruments logo. Having the experts at Semiconductor Insights do a decap of the package confirmed a TI device that was the I/O controller for the Pippin.

So why don't we talk of the Pippin fondly, as we do the N64, the Saturn or the original PlayStation? For starters, the system never sold well, despite being released with fanfare in Japan. In fact, it sold so poorly that it never saw the light of day in North America. Four main situations led to its demise:

» Developers considered the Motorola 603 PowerPC processor slow and cumbersome, so the decision to use it for the Pippin was met with derision.

» The system online capabilities depended on a 14.4-kbit/s internal modem, which was also slow, even for dial-up connections, and non-upgradeable.

» When it was released in Japan, the system was priced at $600—almost $300 to $400 more than its competition.

» The system was marketed as a low-cost home computer, despite its having the look and feel of a video game console.

These problems and others added up, causing the system to amount to nothing more than a footnote in gaming history. Still, some positives came from the experience.

Apple pioneered the integration of online capabilities into video gaming. Without that bold idea, who knows if popular online gaming platforms like Xbox Live would exist today?

And Apple as an organization learned from this debacle. Shortly after the Pippin's discontinuation, Steve Jobs was promoted to CEO, and the company took a more focused approach to consumer electronics. Soon thereafter, it turned itself around with the release of the iMac G3. And the rest is history.


Allan Yogasingam is a technology analyst for TechOnline, a division of TechInsights. He holds a bachelor's in computer engineering from the University of Manitoba.

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