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Where will Apple be in 30 years? Andy Ihnatko bites
It’s been 30 Super Bowls since Apple’s game-changing commercial introduced the Macintosh computer. Now, many incarnations, iPhones and iPads later, tech columnist Andy Ihnatko still gets all tingly remembering the first time he laid eyes on a Mac — and that mouse.
I remember no single scene from my childhood with more intense, total, precise clarity than the scorching-hot day in early summer 1984 when I used a Mac for the first time.
It was at a store called Unicom, on Providence Highway in Dedham, Mass. — aka “the good computer store,” aka “the only one within cycling distance.” I’d just seen a movie at the megaplex up the road and I wasn’t ready to go back to my family’s non-air-conditioned house. Unicom sold business computers. The store temperature was warm enough for electrons to flow but not much higher than that.
It’d just received its first shipment of the Mac 128. I’d been reading about it for months and my heart skipped a beat when I saw it on a desk near the entrance. Among the Mac’s many firsts was that the company wanted you to know about the people and stories behind its development. I’d reread the articles about it in Byte, Softalk and Creative Computing magazines so often that this thing had become sort of Excalibur-like in my mind.
I could rattle off names like Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson the way that most kids my age could recite the names of Red Sox relief pitchers.
Mind you, I was no neophyte. I absolutely owned the Apple //. I had written my own operating system for it and was frequently hunched over one of the Apples in my school’s computer lab with a soldering iron and a logic probe, performing component-level repairs.
Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for the Mac. The thing had square pixels! Not dots of fuzzy light: Pixels! With sharp corners! Black as pitch, against areas of bright white. Brilliant, uncompromising clarity.
When the OS accessed the disk drive — which was way too often; the original Mac could keep very little data in memory — it sounded like a gently dozing kitten. The Apple Disk ][ floppy drive chattered and shuddered and clicked and swished so loudly that sometimes, the noise gave me all of the information I needed to figure out how to break the copy protection scheme on a commercial game.
But the mouse was the biggest wonder of all. It changed the fundamental spiritual connection between me and a computer.
No succeeding generation will ever appreciate what a mind-blower the mouse was. Historically, my relationship with a computer had always been “I work out a complex command, hand it off to the computer and await a response.” With the Mac, we were working together.
In retrospect, it was a lot like the experience of finally getting to meet someone you’ve known for years through email or an online community. For the first time, I could see the expressions on a computer’s face change as I tried to explain my intentions and ideas to it. Before, all I got from a computer was “OK, here are your results” or “Nope, I’ve looked at your instructions and I can’t understand them.”
The Mac immediately seemed less like a tool for pursuing a project and more like a collaborator.
This was also the first time I experienced my “Spidey-sense” for great technology. The hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That literally happened. The first Mac was so exciting, so brilliant, so obviously a mile marker for the evolution of technology that it had triggered a neurological response. I’ve had that experience only a handful of times since. It’s no accident that Apple products have been the most frequent triggers of my Spidey-sense by far.
Miraculous. And it’s not as though Macintosh Model M0001 was an objectively great computer. The lack of memory forced you to swap disks incessantly at times, and limited the length of MacWrite documents to about nine pages.
In one of Apple’s earliest expressions of “We’re willing to make users suffer in order to ensure that they have a positive experience,” the Mac’s software designers needlessly forced the user to take their hands off the keyboard and use the mouse, when a simple keyboard shortcut would have been faster.
The first Mac keyboards didn’t even have cursor keys. Apple wanted to enforce the non-negotiable definition of the mouse as the fundamental interface between the user and the interface, instead of letting developers treat it as an alternative to keyboard commands.
And yet we loved the Mac, and suffered through system crashes and the initial lack of software. The Mac wasn’t the most practical PC on the market. But it was the most profound PC by far. Beyond a doubt, Apple was breaking new ground; we weren’t “early adopters” as much as “early believers,” which was far more exciting for us and way more valuable for a company taking a big risk.
It certainly paid off for us, for Apple and the industry as a whole. Archaeologists in the 30th century will line up the personal computers they’ve excavated from the corn syrup-colored ash of our present society by their carbon-dating, and the moment of revolution will be blazingly easy to identify. Before the Mac 128, computers were all like this. Afterward … they were all like the Mac 128.
The Lisa didn’t have this impact; neither did the Xerox Star or the other computers that tried to implement a mouse and a user interface that had first been demonstrated more than a decade earlier.
The Mac 128 was a hallmark of Apple’s future in more ways than one. I instantly appreciated the significance of the Mac 128 and fell completely in love with it. Later that summer, I got my hands on the Mac’s rudimentary, phonebook-style developer’s guide and began to learn how to write software for the Mac in assembly language. That’s how excited I was about the Mac.
But there was just no way, no how, that I was going to raise $2,500 for one. Instead, the first computer I bought was a very nicely built $700 PC clone. I satisfied my Mac itch by joining the Boston Computer Society and regularly using the lab at the Mac group’s offices.
Apple created a brilliant operating system and a genuinely important PC. Ten years earlier, the Apple ][ and its contemporaries made personal computing possible for everyone. The Mac was the first to make it accessible. The Mac unleashed the world’s creativity by eradicating all of the fiddly technical bits associated with art, page design, music composition and, yes, even spreadsheeting.
Apple also priced the Mac so high that all of these miraculous benefits would be out of reach of the majority of the population.
Perhaps this early disappointment fed my developing worldviews on technology. What good is a Spidey sense-inducing revolution if most of the world can only admire it from the wrong side of a pane of glass?
I love my new MacBook Pro with Retina display. Though I appreciate every detail of its design and function, I’m glad there’s diversity in the marketplace. The world needs a $2,000 cutting-edge MacBook. It also needs an $800 Windows 7 laptop and even a $250 Chromebook.
Mac users come across as elitist when we (oh, for God’s sake) mock the Windows notebook for its plastic casing, or the Chromebook because it doesn’t even run “real” apps. The most important feature of any computer, all told, is that it’s yours and you don’t need to share it.
My Corona PC didn’t have a mouse or a graphical user interface. It had something nearly as good: a WBCN-FM bumper sticker on the side. I couldn’t do that to the hardware at the BCS•Mac office. They also wouldn’t let me stay in there and work and play until two hours before I had to be ready to go to school.
I have no particular memories of the first time I fired up my Corona PC but this dull MS-DOS machine let me write piles of code and pages of short fiction and have many experiences with international digital networks that I would never have had if $2,500 had been the cost of entry to the world of personal computing.
But Apple comes around. The original plan for the Mac was to produce a true “volkscomputer,” usable and affordable to all. Hertzfeld, via the essential Apple history site Folklore.org, talks about the original goals of the project and mentions that the target price was $500. The final $2,500 price tag, he said, felt like a betrayal — particularly because it had jumped up from $1,995 partly to justify CEO John Sculley’s huge marketing budget and partly to keep the Mac from cannibalizing sales of Apple’s cash-cow Apple //e.
The $500 iPad is the obvious inheritor of the original spirit of the Mac. The intimacy, simplicity and appeal of the multitouch iOS interface is a whole order of magnitude higher than that of the Mac, as is its affordability and portability — and its ability to connect to humanity.
A couple of years ago I was at an Apple Store awaiting a fix to my iPhone when I saw an employee hand a newly restored iPad to a woman who handed it to its owner: a 5-year-old girl. She frowned and fussed over it as though it were a favorite teddy bear that had suffered a burst seam. After confirming that the iPad was back to full health, she gave it a two-armed hug and held it like a baby all the way out the store. Yes, she had stickers on it. I think anyone at Apple would smile and be proud to hear about that.
What a thrill it’s been to be alive at the time of the Mac’s introduction and to have had enough awareness at the time to appreciate what it meant.
But I was an obsessed, machine-coding circuit-prototyping nerd before the Mac was released — I know what computing was like before the revolution. Even to hobbyists like myself, a computer was, even at its most magical, like a set of pulleys. Rigging one correctly took technical know-how and a certain amount of fuss. It would make your task mechanically easier, but you’d still be doing lots and lots of pulling.
The Mac, and the user interface that it introduced, redefined computing and destroyed the perception of limits to our creativity. Within a couple of years, a computer became something that created new opportunities instead of just solving old problems.
What about the next 30 years? I’m not the smartest onion in the fire drawer, but I know better than to make these kinds of predictions. Whenever I’m tempted to take a guess, I think about an article from an issue of Softalk I read in my teens. It speculated about the features of the Apple IV. The mind-blowing feature the editors came up with? A keyboard with eight arrow keys that could move the cursor diagonally in addition to vertically and horizontally.
But I’ll bet Apple will still be around in 2044. It has an invaluable asset: a fairly clear sense of its reason for being. As a company, it defines itselves by a role, not by a product line or a business model. It’s out there to develop elegant and beautiful articulations of technology that improve our lives and enable our ability to express ourselves.
Over the quarter-century I’ve spent writing about technology, and through the hundreds of Apple employees I’ve met, I’ve come to believe it’s completely sincere about that mission.
Furthermore, it’s a company with an insatiable creative itch. These factors give Apple the ability to maintain its identity — and profitability — even as the world changes around it. What does it matter if now it’s making most of its money from phones and tablets instead of desktops and notebooks?
Apple isn’t required to pursue that mission with a line of hardware that people seem to be less and less interested in with each passing year. This gives them a leg up on most of 2014’s other major players.
In a decade or more, Dell will be totally screwed unless it can develop a tasty fat-free oatmeal cookie. Microsoft will be fine. Sure, it lacks a soul, but even a single-celled organism will survive and evolve so long as it continues to seek out light and heat. Substitute “market share” and “sustainable profit” and you’ve got Microsoft’s autonomous response system. But it’s not a roadmap to persistent market leadership.
I suppose that by 2044, Apple will have followed the plot of any mediocre science-fiction novel and evolved into a being of pure energy without the limitations of a physical form. Translation: services. It enables the company to pursue its core philosophical role in addition to an extracurricular obsession with high profit margins. You can’t get much better than a product that doesn’t need to be manufactured or shipped.
But I wouldn’t want any of my wild speculation or reasoned prognostications to come true. If a guy in 2014 can figure out what Apple will do in two years’ time, let alone 30, it can only mean that one of the most important companies the tech world has — not just in terms of making money or building handy gadgets, but in terms of its contribution to our culture — died a long time ago.
Here’s to the next time I’m handed a device with an Apple logo on it and my Spidey-sense goes off. I’m sure the day isn’t far away.