Thursday, June 28, 2007

OT: Apple - 10 years ago

Reading an article over at Yahoo on the history of Apple's past failures ( here ) I was reminded of my own history with this company. Let me start out by saying that I am not a fanboi of Apple or any other company or technology. I prefer a more pragmatic approach to technology. Whatever is the most appropriate tool for the job at hand is what I will select. Be it Apple or Microsoft or Sun or whatever...

1978: Apple's 6502 based Apple ][ product had been on the market for little over a year. It wasn't cheap either. But I lusted after it's capabilities especially it's color capabilities. At this point, I had built my own single board computer.

It was an 8080 based machine that had 4K of dynamic RAM and I built a little DMA front panel for it with the obligatory toggle switches. I used 7 segment hex displays instead of the more typical row of binary LEDs that were common on the Altair and IMSAI machines of the time.

I used this machine to learn machine language. Writing all of my code out in binary. I must have had the patience of a saint back then to do this because I cannot even conceive of it today. I saved my money and bought an Apple ][ in 1978.

Using this machine, I learned assembly language and got work as a programmer (previous to this I had been working on disk drive hardware for a living). I expanded the machine with floppy disk drives - 2 5.25" and 2 8" (the latter for CP/M development). I put a ton of memory into the machine and a Z-80 CP/M card, an 80 column card.

I learned a TON with this machine and I really loved using it - I spent many sessions well over 24 hours just hacking away software for the machine. I wrote a column in an Apple ][ magazine (called Hardcore Computing) and loved every minute of it. I was a member of the Call-APPLE user group and met both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at some user's meeting at a Computerland.

Woz was great - a bit shy but a really nice guy ready to talk to anyone about the machine. Jobs was also very nice. But obviously a salesman. I remember coming away from that experience and thinking that Jobs would have made a great used car salesman.

I was a big fan of both the machine and the company. But things were changing at Apple. Apple was becoming increasingly arrogant. They released the Apple III in 1980 and it immediately flopped as it was MUCH too expensive and it had serious hardware failures. But I ignored this turn of events and kept plodding along on my Apple ][, happy as a clam.

And then, in August of 1981, IBM entered the PC market. I went down to the local Sears Business center to check the machine out on the day that they got the machines. Since the OS on the machine was fashioned after CP/M, I was immediately at home on the machine and blew away the sales people in the store because I could immediately be productive on a machine that had just come out that day.

The machine was "OK" in my opinion. No great shakes. I happily went back to my job programming the Apple ][. One day in early 1982 I get a call from an old boss asking if I know how to work on an IBM PC. I lie and say "Sure - it's no problem". They offer me a job writing software on the PC at 2X what I am making on the Apple.

The following weekend I call up a friend that I know might be in the market for a maxxed out Apple ][ and offer mine up for sale for the low low price of what it will cost me to get setup on an IBM rig (tax included). They jump at the chance to buy the machine and my life shifts away from Apple and into the world of the IBM PC.

Having cut my programming teeth on an Intel processor, the transition to the newer processor was a snap. And I was already familiar with the Microsoft Basic from the Apple as well as the OS since it was a mimic of CP/M.

1983: As was my habit, I went to the big computer show in Las Vegas that year known as ComDex. And as always, I went by the Apple booth. At the booth they were showing their new computer Lisa. It was demonstrated for myself and the other guys that I went to the show with. I thought it was very cool. Not $10,000 cool (that was the price of the machine), but cool nonetheless. I asked the marketing weasel who they thought would pay $10K for a little machine like this and they were convinced that businesses would just snap this thing right up.

Not having a crystal ball, I wished them luck with it and moved on. No way in hell was I going to spend 10K on ANY computer, never mind an unproven one with a radically new concept for the user's interface that might or might not fly. Add to this that I was making a great living with the IBM PC, the Lisa and it's advanced UI concepts were purely academic to me.

1984: Apple releases the Macintosh. I had been following all of the rumors and crap in the press leading up to this machine and I was very interested in seeing it.

So I went with the wife and stepson over to Computerland and we checked it out. It was very impressive. VERY unique. The screen was SO sharp and detailed. But it was black and white like the old Lisa. Noooo - not good....Then I saw how much memory it had and decided that it was best to wait until they stopped being retarded and put some decent memory into the machine. It reminded me of the time that Bill Gates said that no one would ever need more than 640K of RAM.

So, for me, the Mac was an interesting novelty - Nothing more. But my stepson was enraptured by it. He would go on to develop for the machine and make a decent living at it as well.

Once Apple started seeing a little success with the machine, the "Us vs. Them" mentality with Apple vs. IBM continued (it started with the 1984 Superbowl ad where Apple targeted IBM directly). I always felt that this polarization made Apple look bad and that there was really no need for it. Yet it persists to this day (See Jobs 2007 WWDC keynote if you want more examples).

1987: This was a pretty big year for the Mac - Apple made their one millionth machine and the very first Color Mac came out: The Macintosh II. Color was enough that I decided to get one to play with and I bought a Mac II in 87. I really liked the machine. It was pretty fast and it had a new technology called HyperCard that was a lot of fun to write simple applications with and supported Hypertext (sort of a predecessor to the web).

In 1988, I had a motherboard issue with the machine and I called Apple to see what I needed to do to get it resolved. The rudeness and overall poor treatment that I received at the hands of Apple's support organization once again soured me on the company. Once I jumped through all of the fiery hoops that Apple put before me and got the machine fixed, I promptly sold it.

After this, I did not pay a heck of a lot of attention to Apple for many years. By 1997, Jobs had been tossed out on his ass and Apple looked as though it was on the brink of extinction. The June cover of Wired magazine best reflected this:

From my perspective, if Apple failed, it was fine with me. I felt that their arrogance (which I believe was very much fostered into the company by Steve Jobs) led them to this position of failure and that it was well deserved.

Then Apple brought back Steve Jobs after buying his failing NeXt Computer company. This seemed to be a softer, gentler Jobs. And to a degree, it was. Now with Jobs at the helm combined with the changes that Gil Amelio made (whose effect would be attributed to Jobs), the company seemed on the road to recovery and appeared to be shedding it's holier than thou attitude.

From 97 through 2001, I watched as Apple re-invented itself. Providing trendy new designs and new approaches to their product lines as well as the implementation of OS X. For me, personally, the introduction of OS X was the most interesting change. This was, ostensibly, Unix with a true Mac style interface.

Now, during the intervening years here, I had been developing for Microsoft Windows. Starting with version 3.1. Prior to 3.1, Windows was truly a non-starter. With Windows 95, Microsoft finally got it right and the concept of a GUI for IBM style machines really took off. I was happy to make a living in this world.

Fast forward to 2005 and I buy my second Macintosh. This time around, it is purchased because the Final Cut Pro application is the platform that I intend to build our post business on. My reasons for this is that the number of potential clients out in the broadcast and film world that are using this product is immense. It's a no-brainer.

Having worked in the entertainment business at a major Hollywood studio and having been around this world for years, I wanted to get out of the grind of working for the man. Using the Mac again after having come from System 5 on the Mac II, it is very clear that Apple has made a TON of improvements. There are two areas of the UI that I always hated on the Mac, though, and still these have not been addressed. OK, to be fair, one of them is addressed in the next version of OS X.

The first one is the fact that I can ONLY use the lower right hand corner of a window to re-size the window. In the MS Windows world, you can grab any edge or corner that you want and re-size it as you like. The second thing is that the Mac uses VERY subtle indicators to show you what window has the focus. This one drives me nuts. They are supposed to have fixed that in the new OS Leopard.

My experience with Apple's support has actually been very positive. My hold time was 2 minutes on average, the help desk person was not from Bangalore with a thick accent and apathetic attitude. Additionally, when I ordered an iPod for a Christmas gift and FedEx delivered it to the wrong address, Apple promptly sent another unit out to me ASAP so that it would make the date for Christmas.

When I asked them if they wanted the other iPod back when FedEx got around to sending it to the right address, they said no - Keep it with their compliments.

Since this time, I have bought another Mac for the business, and overall I am very happy with the products. They are well engineered and very functional. Apple seems to have lost that arrogance that once turned me away from them.

Am I an Apple fanboi now? Not by any stretch of the imagination. I am a cautious consumer of their products. I still own and use Windows machines. If someone came to me and asked if they should buy Mac or Windows, I would do the same thing that I did 10 years ago. Determine budget and needs and decide on what meets their criteria.

While I am generally pleased with the Apple products that we own, I am also mindful of Apple's past mistakes. I hope that Apple does not regress back to their arrogant days of the past (and even today they are not totally divorced of this issue) and end up back where they were in 1997.

It was 10 years ago this month that the Wired cover appeared and Apple looked to be dead. I wish Apple every success in the future and I hope to never see them back where they were 10 years ago. Good luck with the iPhone, Steve. It's going to be an interesting journey.

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