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I Still Own My Original 128K Mac October 6, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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My first computer was an original 128KB Apple Macintosh, purchased in 1984.  I still have it.  It still boots.

There, I got that bit of history out of the way.  As the news of the passing of Steve Jobs before his time crosses the planet, I can tell my own story of Apple.  Circa 1984, I had access to an academic discount, and had a choice between a Mac or a DEC PC, the latter of which might have been the smarter choice for someone hoping to latch on with the preeminent technology employer in New England at the time.

Of course, the so-called PC standard was already well on its way to becoming a mess, and DEC left the PC business and, in terminal decline, was acquired by first Compaq, then HP.

But who couldn’t look at the Mac and know that its graphical, mouse-driven user interface wasn’t the future of computing?  Bill Gates, for one, who even as he struggled to come out with a lame, barely-graphical Windows product still insisted that businesses demanded command line operation.  Later revisionist explanations insist that Gates also saw the future correctly, and simply obfuscated the discussion until Windows was more mature, but I’m not so sure.

So I chose wisely, and used my Mac productively for years.  With a developer discount available, I almost bought a Lisa for $5000, half the list price, which was the only way Apple had to develop Mac software.  But third party providers came out with very nice integrated development environments that enabled me to continue working on Macs.

(The Lisa and to an even greater extent these third party tools (THINK!, for example, which was acquired by Symantec) radically changed software development, but that’s a story for another day.)

Despite the hoopla and steady if lackluster sales, the future of Apple and the Mac wasn’t assured until the arrival of the laser printer.  Married to the Mac’s WYSIWYG interface, the combination became the de facto publishing standard almost overnight.

Still, the Mac was largely a niche product, not highly used outside of publishing and similar creative industries.  I don’t have creative skills, so by the mid-1990s it became clear that I couldn’t make a living by being a Mac expert.  Today I have a Windows Server network in my basement with about half a dozen PCs.

Jobs was eventually forced out of Apple, and the decline continued under a succession of uninspiring leaders.  He went on to found two companies, the wildly successful Pixar and the barely surviving NeXT.  Salesman and promoter that he was, he was able to convince Apple to acquire NeXt for an incredible $400 million, and the NextStep operating system became the basis for today’s OS X.

During his time outside of Apple, I had the uneven pleasure of working with one of his better known unauthorized biographers, Jeffrey Young, who authored The Journey is the Reward.  He was able to meet with Jobs only once, at the end of his writing.  Nonetheless, it was a compelling an instructive book, even though it encompassed his life only through circa 1990.

Under Jobs, Apple made highly successful forays into the consumer market, with the iPod and iPhone.  It may even be true that Apple more or less single-handedly made consumer electronics relevant and even important to every facet of our lives, including our business lives.

It should also be noted that there were failures galore along the way – the clunky Newton and Apple TV come immediately to mind.  But failure serves the important purpose of learning from our mistakes and directing our efforts to more productive pursuits.

There are certainly events in Jobs life of which he was probably not proud, and I think his infamous dichotomy between his public and private lives was driven by his desire to be known for his results, rather than how he led his life.  It’s an understandable sentiment, although it has perhaps led to part of the cult of unquestioned worship that exists.  None of us are perfect, but I think it’s better to be known as a whole person rather than the persona we choose to project.

It’s not clear the Jobs or Apple truly invented any breakthrough.  The Mac UI was based on work done by Alan Kay and Xerox PARC years earlier, and the technologies that comprised the iPhone were already well-established.  But both man and company had the unique ability to bring together different technologies into a package that truly pushed the boundaries of product design and implementation.  Of all of the possible creative and business skills, that may be the most highly valued.

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