Friday, April 11, 2008

Jobs Addiction: Stepping out of the bunker... blinking

The Agony of Victory.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the Permian Era of the personal computer. Fern-filled forests were crowded with darting Timexes, lumbering TRS-80s, and roaring Commodore 64s. Weird evolutionary dead ends like the lungfish Mattel Aquarius and the fur-bearing, egg-laying Coleco ADAM slithered through the undergrowth. From the mass extinctions of the early '80s emerged two survivors.

The first to market was the PC, from IBM. It's easy to fault an old DOS machine for its command-line interface if you're a whippersnapper, but back in the early '80s, everything had a command-line interface. Looking at the almost-suitcase-size bunker-shaped beige sheet metal box, one can almost hear some guy in a blue suit and a buzzcut saying "Those hippies in Cupertino are making a mint shipping little home computers. We need a slice of this pie. Whip something up." and three guys in identical blue suits and buzz cuts replying "We're on it, chief!"

Meanwhile, one of those hippies in Cupertino was obsessively pushing for an "appliance computer"; a computer with a transparent Graphical User Interface (GUI, pronounced like bubblegum on hot blacktop) that required no memorization of arcane commands; one that was cute and non-threatening. He wanted a computer that would have a place in every home. Thus was born the Apple Macintosh.

The problem was, there was nothing to do with a computer in every home. Mom didn't need a simple GUI to sort recipes, because she still had index cards and a pen. Dad didn't need some hippie computer that smiled at him when he started it up to work on spreadsheets from the office. And the kids didn't need a mouse to play Oregon Trail, especially when that mouse was attached to a machine that cost more than a two year old Honda Accord. (The original Mac cost $2,495. If you were making minimum wage in 1984, you would have had to work for five months to buy a Mac. If you didn't pay taxes. Or eat.) Lacking a killer application left the "appliance computer" wandering in the market wilderness. Steve Jobs, the hippie behind it all, was run out of Apple on a metaphorical rail.

Meanwhile, the clunky PC had two things going for it. First, IBM opened the architecture to anyone with opposable thumbs and a lemonade stand. With its BIOS painted on billboards, it took clone makers six months to reverse engineer the PC and six years to darn near knock IBM out of the home computer market with a deluge of better, cheaper clones. Second, the vast, beige case was nothing but a hollow box of expansion slots. If dad brought one home from work and turned his back for fifteen minutes, junior would hot-rod the thing with better graphics cards, sound cards, a joystick, and a modem, and be swapping pirated games on dial-up bulletin boards faster than you could say "Killer App".

For the next decade or so, tech geeks (read "gamers") flocked to the PC platform. Meanwhile, Macintosh was number one in the fields dominated by people who didn't want to have to use a computer in the first place: Artists, musicians, educators, writers... in short, hippies. They loved their machines, anthropomorphized them, and the more market share Apple lost, the more fiercely loyal they became.

In the early '90s, after mildly successful ripoffs of Apple's GUI, Microsoft went whole hog and launched Windows 95, which was a blatant enough copy of the Mac OS experience that even Stevie Wonder could see that Redmond had just moved the task bar to the bottom of the screen and the icons to the left side. One of those icons was very nearly the end of Apple, because the launch of the new Windows and its bundled Internet Explorer software coincided with the Killer App that the "appliance computer" had needed all along: The World Wide Web.

Now everyone had a use for a computer: Mom could forward glurge email spam to the whole family tree. Junior could play Quake against other nose-pierced losers around the globe. Dad could download porn 'til his right hand fell off at the wrist. Apple was on the ropes.

Mac loyalists became deranged. Why were these people buying Wintel machines? Couldn't they see that the OS was just a bad ripoff of their beloved Mac? Mac newsgroups paused their incessant font-swapping to paint a picture of "Windoze" users that was as bizarrely schizophrenic and mutually contradictory as the one Democratic Underground posters paint of Dubya. On the one hand they were pocket protector-wearing tech geeks who didn't care about the soul, the gestalt, the experience of using a computer and only worried about cold hard specs and benchmarks. At the same time, they were technically-illiterate bubbas and bubbettes, blind to the obvious hardware and software superiority of the Mac in every way that counted.

Just as the end seemed nigh for Apple, the chief hippie was brought back to Cupertino to see if he could work that old magic one more time. Boy howdy. From the iMac to OS X to iTunes to the iPod to the iPhone, Apple has moved from strength to strength since then. Lured in by a really neat looking box, or a Walkman with a hard drive, or the slickest-looking cell phone to inspire gadget lust since Maxwell Smart dialed his shoe, folks came for the flash, and stayed for the computers. Apple has finally become... mainstream.

The reaction from the faithful, the ones who manned the bunker through the lean years, is actually kind of funny. Like folks who discovered REM or U2 when they were still underground, they're almost resentful of the newfound success of their object of worship. I guess finding out that grandma bought an iPod at the Apple store at the mall is kind of like hearing your favorite college station indie rock group doing tunes for Chevy commercials; suddenly you don't feel very exclusive anymore. And when your whole identity, from your "Think Different" bumper sticker to your Apple tattoo, has been built around being one of the elect, an avant garde rebel, finding yourself suddenly in the mainstream can be something of a... bummer, dude.

39 comments:

Billy Beck said...

Oh, what an idiot that person is.

He is a perfect picture of exactly half of why it never remotely occurred to me to buy a Macintosh. I wouldn't be associated with someone like that in any way, for anything.

The other half is because of all the paying work that my trusty PC's have turned in for me, to include "arts" stuff that these assholes could not have done on a bet for more than a decade.

This is really rich.

Reno Sepulveda said...

This is why I check your blog religiously. That pargraph about Mom spamming her relatives...wicked genius.

I like my iMac but I was kind of shocked at the cult mentality of the Apple "family". For all their crowing about individualism it's a pretty homoginized bunch.

Sebastian said...

There is no Apple cult. This was all a cleverly orchestrated victory on the part of the cult of NeXT which all you Mac worshippers belong to without realizing it.

Long live objective C!!

Ahab said...

This post has been up for like a half hour, right? It has already been emailed to me twice, once with the header "Suck it, MacFags".

bumper sticker philosopher said...

I had a co-worker whose head literally exploded when he found out that Mac was switching to Intel CPUs.

Well, not really. However, it was the closest thing to it short of grey goo dripping from his ears.

This is exactly the guy you are talking about. He had 500 different Apple bumper stickers on his VW micro bus. I'm pretty sure he kept a slightly sticky picture of Steve Jobs in his desk drawer.



This was the same guy who a few years ago swore that his $5,000 G5 dual CPU Apple was so much better and faster than anything out there.

That is until the engineer next cube over with a mildly hopped up single CPU Dell Xeon machine spanked him in every benchmark test out there.

Tam said...

ahab,

I suppose now would be a bad time to ask if you have an OS X install disc I can use for my iMac so I don't have to dig mine out of whatever box it's in?

Eric said...

GUI interfaces....wow. I remember learning to program in basic, then writing a script to randomly generate monsters for D&D on a Vic20. Til we filled up the hard drive. Onto the C64---remember typing in all those lines of code and numbers for games? It sucked. THen I went to college and learned fortran and pascal. I hated college and hated computers after that. Now I have 5--macs and PCs alike. I like to tweak them, I like to make them behave. And I like the GUI that has been invented.

Anonymous said...

There's always Linux (or even BSD) for the folks who view their computing platform as a lifestyle choice. It's not quite mainstream...yet.

They could be really edgy and run Linux via command line only and use Vi instead of MS Word.

Chris

Billy Beck said...

"...monsters for D&D on a Vic20. Til we filled up the hard drive."

Vic-20. "Hard drive."

I squint and squint as hard as I can, and I just can't see that, no matter how hard I try.

(I was there back in the day, although I was an Atari kid.)

Ahab said...

Oddly, I haven't owned a mac in donkey's years; but I often find myself defending Mac because I admire Apple's marketing strategies and capitalist success.

Which, apparently makes me a MacFag.

Regolith said...

Genius!

I'm a Computer Science/Multimedia Studies major, and as such I have fairly extensive experience using all three types of OS - Windows, Mac and Linux/Unix. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, which is why I have tended not to be devoted to any one OS. For example, my personal machine at home is running XP on which I used to dual boot Ubuntu, and I'm currently typing this on an older G4 running OSX, which I use at work to edit layouts for the student newspaper.


However, the Mac fanboys drive me absolutely freaking nuts. Linux fanboys are almost as bad, but they tend to be less vocal. Mac fanatics, on the other hand, have the volume at 11 and they tend to be absolutely blind to any redeeming qualities of something that doesn't have the Apple logo on it.

GeorgeH said...

You are really rockin' out this week.

Mikael said...

Yeah, you're leaving out the atari and amiga...

The mid-late 80s to mid 90s were the glory days of the amiga. Cheap, powerful, great graphics and sound, great little rigs, and not just for gaming, although that was their main function.

I remember back in 93, I had a 7mhz Amiga 600(like a 500 without numpad, upgraded kickstart and doubled base ram), it played games faster than my friends 20mhz 386 PC.

BobG said...

"THen I went to college and learned fortran and pascal. I hated college and hated computers after that."

When I first learned Fortran IV it was in 1969, and you had to punch it on cards, run it through a reader onto a humongous roll of magnetic tape, then run that through a house-sized Univac. Now THAT sucked.

perlhaqr said...

Chris: That would be me. I still prefer the CL to the GUI. I went pretty much straight from DOS to linux, a way back in '93. I had 3.1 installed on something for a while, but I don't think I've ever installed 95 on anything.

And while Tam is fanning the flames of holy wars, I'd just like to say "vi rules, emacs drools". And anything MS Word can do, LaTeX can do better.

Tam said...

I don't do holy wars.

I have two wintel machines, a slew of Macs, a NeXT, and a freakin' TRS-80.

Not a huge Linux fan because I'm just not that much of an actual geek anymore. I'm just a lowly end user now and System 8/9/95/XP/OS X/98SE works just fine for what I need my 'puters to do. :)

Ninth Stage said...

You skipped sad Lisa.

Apple raided Xerox's PARC for their GUI, then they wanted to claim it as original against windows.

Now apple is selling BSD linux machines with some pretties at inflated prices.

Chris said...

You guys left out the TI99/4a :)

I learned Assembly on that POS, with it's firehose attached 'expansion coffin', 16+32k of ram, a 360k SSSD 5.25" floppy, and a 2400 baud acoustic coupled MoDem. Man, those were the days.

Gui? not so much... but I had 16 colors, 4 tones and a noise, and 24 sprites!

I went through the Apple][ stage, didn't get a PC until 386's were out. W3.11, W95, then on to Linux sometime around 96. Never looked back.

When Apple switched from their proprietary OS to a pretty GUI on top of a BSD system, I couldn't wait to get one. Imagine, a Unix-ish OS, with all the cli tools I'm used to using, packaged with a stable GUI that's just gorgeous. Just what I've been waiting for.

So, does the IMac in my basement and the Mac Mini on my reloading bench make me a mac guy?

BTW: Leopard is worth the upgrade, if for nothing else than the backup system. TimeMachine is the handiest backup tool I've ever seen, simple enough for anyone to use.

Kevin said...

Please don't take this the wrong way, but why aren't you a professional writer? You could give P.J. O'Rourke a run for his money.

Brad K. said...

Apple has always won by getting their computers into schools. First with Apple II's. The real turning point for Cupertino, though, was getting the MacBook into the movies. "Legally Blonde" re-wrote brand familiarity.

I think I still have my Ohio Scientific C1P Challenger Superboard computer (with 16k upgrade memory) in a box somewhere. I am not sure I have the home-made RF modulator (and Radio Shack no longer sells components), and I lost the $39.95 JC Penney cassette player used for data storage.

Now my cell phone comes with IE and Java.

Roberta X said...

If it ain't a Kaypro II running CP/M, it ain't doodle.

...Gee, I miss PerfectWriter.... :)

Anonymous said...

While we're on about obsolete software. PCWrite, Quattro and sniff, Word Perfect ( I know Corel still sells WP and Quattro, but..sniff I never get to use them anymore

Chris Byrne said...

Daniel Eran Dilger is even worse than Moore.

roughlydrafted.com is the most ridiculously paranoid applaganda site I've ever seen.

Chas S. Clifton said...

@ Roberta X

Oh yes, the "portable" Kaypro II that took up the whole passenger seat of my van.

Well, it got me through grad school.

-)

Owen said...

HAHAHAHAH! Pop up Hewlett Packard ad on the mac geeks page.

Cobar said...

Exquisite writing. Even if I did not know a damned thing about computers that would be a joy to read.

Rick R said...

Shortest case of "Writers Block" I've ever seen...

Well done.

Rick O'Shea said...

Tam,
What the heck are you doing with a TRS-80?

I wrote my first (and last) lines of code on one of those, and thought I was very cool until about a year or so later when I learned that the whole world uses MS-DOS except Radio Shack.

But I can't talk; somewhere in the attic is my first computer - a Timex Sinclair, with it's preferred storage method, a portable audio cassette player.

Good Lord, I'm old...

the pawnbroker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ravenshrike said...

Eh, the reason's Macs are good at CGI is primarily because of unified architecture, which is a byproduct of disallowing clones. As to Linux v MS, the only reason MS still has the following it does is because the *nix crowd has yet to come up with a singular viable alternative to DX. While the OpenGL tools are good, they are not unified and therefore many devs won't bother to use them since it takes a greater learning curve which given the vastly reduced install base makes it on the whole not worth it. Basically the same disadvantage the PS3 has to the 360 without the inherent hardware advantage.

Brian said...

Oh, yeah. Vic-20, bitches. If you're not saving your work on an audio tape, you're not saving it at all, are you?

W00T!

BTW, thank you for describing exactly the way I've felt my whole life. This idiot high school friend I had a million years ago loved 'underground' music. All of a sudden, as soon as it came on the radio, he claimed to hate it and said that everyone who liked it was a poser. He always claimed to never care what anyone thought. Except his choice in music was absolutely swayed in every way by 'what everyone else thought.' The Mac crowd has always seemed the same way.

Losers.

Anonymous said...

My first experiences with computers was at IBM as an explorer scout. Fortran, Cobal all on punch cards to be coalated and then run. Hated the language but was a command line junkie there after.
Still have my Sinclair, its manual and the box it was shipped in to me with the cable hookups. My TI-99 4A is out in the garage gathering spiderwebs along with 20 or so cassettes loaded with programs my friends and I wrote.
I saw my first Mac when one of my friends bought a Lisa and proudly showed it to me ... I was not impressed.
When the TRS-80 came out it was the first 'PC' I used to do classwork on and we saved to 5 1/2 floppies. It was all command line untill I saw my first 'real' PC and had to have one. Read the 'Computer Shopper' and figured out what I needed to have.
Being that I was living in Doraville I drove over to Jimmy Carter Drive and hit several shops, bought a lot of parts and then built an AMD DX-40 with a math co-processor chip. I got a lot of mileage out of that box and haven't looked back.
FWIW, I had all the software available for a pitance and I could custom build a box to suit my needs and upgrade it until the next generation of CPU's made me buy a new motherboard.
When you upgraded a Mac back then (and now) you just bought a new overpriced box.

From a personal point of view I wanted to express *my* creativity and the Mac platform was/is rigidly conformistic and proprietary and very native software limited.

Gmac

og said...

Ms X: I still have a Kaypro 10 around here somewhere. When I was younger, and it was the "hot machine" we called it "the Sewing Machine". Now, I'm thinking of shooting the screen out, and using it as a mailbox.

Yeah, I love how the Xerox PARC group usually gets left out of these discussions, as if the Apple GUI sprang from whole cloth out of Steve "get a" Job's brain.

Sean_Galt said...

You SHOULD write professionally.

Fantastic post.

Tam said...

og,

I don't understand the passion ther. PARC was immaterial to the post. All I said was "one of those hippies in Cupertino was obsessively pushing for an "appliance computer"; a computer with a transparent Graphical User Interface".

I didn't say he was "inventing" the GUI, or that he took great piles of zeroes and ones, squeezed them between his mighty thews, and lo! The GUI!

I also said "The first to market was the PC, from IBM. It's easy to fault an old DOS machine for its command-line interface", and nobody's chewing up the carpet yelling about who made DOS. ;)

trainer said...

Been involved with computers since the 70's.

I never, never, never found MACs to be especially useful in the real business world. Anything the MAC could do for a company, a UNIX box could do better...and network better too.

They were always problematical in a business market and too expensive for the home market. While they networked together well, they didn't play well with others.

They never made me any money. Today you might, just might, find a few in a graphic arts department or a personal laptop on a salespukes' desk. Don't call your support desk for help.

Sebastian said...

They integrate with corporate networks fine these days. I use MacOS for both home and work and have no problem getting work done with coworkers.

Brian J. said...

Someone needs to tip the hat to Commodore 64 GEOS, ainna? I mean, it could do anything that standalone applications could do better more slowly, but it had a pointer and a click interface.

'Cept of course you probably used a joystick with it.

HTRN said...

I find the comment "Apple goes from Strength to Strength", terribly amusing Tam.

It's well known that the Ipod was the product that saved Apple from bankruptcy - they're profits dropped to 1% in 2003, and the prediction that they'd be in the red in '04. Of course, that was before the Ipod sales exploded. Along with Itunes, they're the only two products that are really profitable.