The Apple Jonathan: A Very 1980s Concept Computer That Never Shipped

In the middle of the 1980s, Apple found itself with several options regarding the future of its computing platforms. The Apple II was the company’s bread and butter. The Apple III was pitched as an evolution of that platform, but was clearly doomed due to hardware and software issues. The Lisa was expensive and not selling well, and while the Macintosh aimed to bring Lisa technology to the masses, sales were slow after its initial release.

Those four machines are well known, but there was a fifth possibility in the mix, named the Jonathan. In his book Inventing the Future, John Buck writes about the concept, which was led by Apple engineer Jonathan Fitch starting in the fall of 1984. Buck quotes George Cossey, talking about the idea:

I’d known Jonathan (Fitch) from my diagnostic days on the Lisa. He was one of the main board designers and I think that after Lisa was sidelined for the Mac, Fitch was looking for what to do, what was the “next generation” Apple computer but not a Mac. A lot of the people working on the Mac wanted to stick with it, just go onto the next iteration of the Mac, because they saw it as “growing,” and they didn’t want to go do something that might never see the light of day.

This concept envisioned a computer that would expand with the needs of the user, through the use of modular components:

Buck also writes:

It was a consumer model computer that came with pre-installed operations as well as a base-level I/O, and it could be upgraded during/or after purchase to business-centric specifications using a unique set of plug- and-play modules. Customers would be able to add a series of book-sized modules (for software and hardware options) that clicked into a slender docking station sitting under the monitor, that itself looked like a bookshelf. The individual software modules, for the prototype, contained the O/Ss for Apple II, Mac, UNIX, or DOS, while the hardware options were DSP, Ethernet, GenLock (for video), extra RAM, mass storage, or a power supply (for different regions). There were no cables.

Fitch believed that the machine’s literal backbone design could become the backbone of Apple’s future sales strategy. An ever-expandable computer that could cover multiple markets without Apple needing to make multiple devices.

A small team worked on the concept for about eight months before engaging Frog Design — yes, that Frog Design — to work on a prototype design to show the idea to Apple brass. Buck also writes about this in his book:

When Fitch eventually took Jonathan before the executive group it appeared as a sleek slate-grey computer, that looked like nothing Apple had done before. It had a reverse-hinged 13″ CRT monitor that squatted over a line of changeable modules, with a modern-style keyboard and mouse tethered to the side. The team had added more options to the bookshelf for the demonstration including the modules labeled “Floppy disk” and “3rd Party.”

The hardware also pops up in Paul Kunkel’s book AppleDesign, which you can still get on Amazon. In it, Kunkel describes the hardware:

Fitch wanted to design a computer around a new microprocessor, the Motorola 68030, which would be powerful enough for business and high-end applications, but could also be packaged in a form that would work in the home. With the Macintosh division developing its own high-end concepts — Big Mac1 and a modular CPU that would eventually become the Mac II — Fitch’s concept would need a totally different architecture to distinguish it from the Mac. As an Apple II product, it would have an “open” architecture. But rather than design another circuitboard-and-slots system, Fitch proposed a more radical approach.


Fitch’s design called for the backplane and track to support book-shaped modules, each containing circuitboards and chips for running the Mac OS, Apple II software, DOS, Windows, or Unix operating systems, plus other modules for connecting disk drives, modems and networking hardware, all plugged into the same track. Since the backplane was horizontal, and the modules were small and slender, Fitch imagined the system as a book on a shelf. “A basic system would have a short shelf with one or two books. A business setup would have three or four books. And a power system would have seven or eight books on a wider shelf.”

Pleased with his concept, Fitch named it Jonathan (after himself)…2

There are very few images of this thing on the Internet. This set of photos is from Nicola D’Agostino’s excellent blog post on the subject:

Apple Jonathan Prototype

The Kunkel book contains several images (taken by Rick English) of the mockup as well, including one with a CRT that looks a lot like a CRT NeXT would eventually ship:

English images

NeXT Display

In more recent years, Dana Sibera has created several amazing renders of the Jonathan, and was kind enough to share them with me for this post. If you don’t follow Dana on Mastodon or Bluesky, you should fix that today.

I particularly love the Platinum version she created, which has some grounding in reality, as at least one mockup was built using the lighter color.

Platinum Jonathan

Here are a few of her renders in the slate color:

Slate Jonathan

Jonathan Modules

The general idea was simple, but in practice, this machine would have been a nightmare.

The backbone of the system would need to accept modules from Apple and other companies, letting users build what they needed in terms of functionality, as D’Agostino writes:

(Fitch) designed a simple hardware “backbone” carrying basic operations and I/O on which the user could add a series of “book” modules, carrying hardware for running Apple II, Mac, UNIX and DOS software, plus other modules with disk drives or networking capabilities.

This meant that every user could have their own unique Jonathan setup, pulling together various software platforms, storage devices, and hardware capabilities into their own personalized system. Imagining what would have been required for all this to work together gives me a headache. In addition to the shared backbone interface, there would need to be software written to make an almost-endless number of configurations work smoothly for the most demanding of users. It was all very ambitions, but perhaps a little too far-fetched.

Buck’s book reports on how Apple executives responded to the concept:

While the design and functionality of the prototype drew praise, the overall concept raised larger concerns. Fitch expected IBM users to buy a Jonathan with individual DOS and Apple software modules, then grow tired of Microsoft’s UI, and eventually opt for Apple’s OS full-time.

Kunkel expands on those concerns:

Jean-Louis Gassée delivered the first hit by observing that Apple would have to sell two or three Jonathans to equal the profit of a single Mac II. Others complained that Jonathan would compete with the Mac II. Then Sculley delivered the coup de grâce — voicing the fear that once the Mac and DOS were offered on the same platform, more Mac users might move to DOS then DOS users would move to the Mac. “That reasoning floored us,” says Fitch. “Apparently, Sculley had less faith in the Mac than we did.”

Sculley was probably right to be concerned, and coupled with the sheer complexity of such a project, the Jonathan was scrapped in the summer of 1985.

Apple Jonathan

Ironically, Apple would offer DOS support via add-on cards years later. The team’s plans for using the 68030 would also come in handy when that CPU landed in the Mac IIx and IIfx.

The phrase “ahead of its time” is often thrown around when talking about computers from the 1980s and 1990s, and in the case of the Jonathan, I think it totally fits. Modern Macs can run software from the command line, all the way up through apps written for the Mac, iPad, iPhone, and the web. Windows and Linux apps can also be run if the user is willing to jump through the right hoops.

Of course, all of this is done in software, not hardware. The Jonathan tried solving a software problem with hardware expandability, which made sense in the 1980s. Just ask TI-99 fans. Even here in 2024, there are folks trying to make this sort of thing work.

My understanding is that the project never made it past the “conversations and mockups” stage. I get why the Jonathan never made it beyond the concept phase, but part of me wishes I could round up a bunch of modules meant for this platform. At least we have some fun photos and renders to enjoy.

Apple Jonathan Render

  1. Read more about the Big Mac project here
  2. Also this