Happy anniversary, Mac

January 27th, 2014 10:31 AM
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January 24, 2014, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the Apple Macintosh. Although Apple had by that point already developed multiple platforms with varying degrees of compatibility — the Apple-1, Apple II, Apple III, and Lisa, to name a few — the Mac would prove to be the machine on which they'd focus their efforts long after all its in-house competitors were cancelled. It was not an immediate success: the Apple IIGS, released in 1986, was more popularly received than the Mac. And it wasn't until 1997 that I made the switch.

My family purchased an Apple IIe shortly after its release in 1983 and kept it until we moved in 1988, outfitting the new house with a IIGS. We added a second GS in 1993, when I launched a dial-up BBS. When I started college a few years later, I shuttered the BBS, left the Apple II at home (until recently), and purchased my first Mac, a PowerBook 1400cs. It was around that time that Bernie ][ the Rescue, one of the first Apple II emulators for Mac OS, added the ability to print from AppleWorks. I was insistent on using the Apple II environment, if not the hardware, for as much as my college work as possible. For all four years of my undergraduate studies, almost all my papers were written and printed in the original AppleWorks.

One year into college, I traded the 1400cs for a Wall Street, which Ryan Suenaga considered the perfect Mac with which to emulate the Apple II. It was one of the last models of laptop Mac to feature ADB and SCSI support, offering compatibility with a wide range of Apple II storage and input devices. I used this Mac for five years, until late 2003, when I bought a new laptop that came with Mac OS X. That computer's successor came in 2007, which was then replaced by Apple (under warranty) in 2009, which lasted until my 2013 Retina purchase.

Just as I wouldn't've been led to the Mac without the Apple II, others trod a similar path. Jeff Gamet, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Denver Apple Pi and CoMUG meetings, wrote for The Mac Observer about his own inventory's evolution, and the excellent reasons it took him so long to come to the Mac:

In high school I got my first taste of Apple computers thanks to the Apple ][+ lab. My parents bought me a Franklin Ace 1000 my senior year, and that computer served me well through college. It was an Apple //e clone with 46KB RAM, upper and lower case text support, built-in 80-column text support, and a 5 1/4-inch floppy drive.

When I had the chance to really get to work on a 512K Mac, things changed and suddenly I could do so much more. And yet I still didn't buy one. Instead, I bought an Apple //GS because it came with a powerful 68C816 processor, color graphics, great sound, a graphical interface that looked just like the Mac (but color!), and — best of all — could run all of my Apple //e programs as well as GS-native titles. At the time it felt like I was getting so much more for my money compared to the Mac.

It's not just the users who the Apple II brought to the Mac; the latter platform simply would not have existed without the former. Ross Rubin writes for CNET not only about how the Mac experience has informed iOS, but also how the Apple II inspired the Mac, both in similarities and differences:

When Apple introduced the Mac 30 years ago, it was already a successful computer company with the Apple II, a product that would continue to be successful for years after the launch of Apple's new darling. If it had taken the approach Microsoft had with Windows 1.0, and later Windows 8 and Surface, it would have grafted a graphical interface onto the Apple II — something that actually eventually happened toward the line's decline with the Apple IIGS — and perhaps provided a more limited number of expansion slots.

Instead, the Mac was almost a complete break from Apple's first hit. It had an integrated monitor, eschewed color, said farewell to its ProDOS interface, and seemed to offer a keyboard only reluctantly, omitting cursor keys to push people toward the mouse.

Pessimist Steve Weyhrich predicts the computers may be more alike than different in their ultimate fate. Weyhrich takes exceptions with Jason Snell and Phil Schiller who extol "The Mac keeps going forever". The same was once said of the Apple II, which proved a promise Apple couldn't keep. Any number of scenarios could toll a similar death knell for the Mac: Apple goes bankrupt, the Mac is outmoded, or Apple's growing divide between programmers and users means that Mac OS X is supplanted by the more mobile and restricted iOS.

However we got here, and wherever we're going, I'm grateful for all the fruits produced from that initial union of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. On the occasion of this thirtieth anniversary, I offer the company a platform-agnostic wish: Apple Forever!

Leaping into the Lion's den

October 25th, 2010 2:35 PM
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Those who learn history may help us avoid it, but sometimes, the details escape prediction. When I interviewed Jason Scott for Computerworld, I asked him about closed systems like Facebook and the iPad. His response:

People think Facebook is an unstoppable juggernaut … and we have to fight, because if we don't, it'll always be like this … It's really bad to flip out, as if this were life and death. We're doing the same thing with the iPad, all this crapola of closed system vs open system, with people rooting for companies like they're sports teams. At the same time there was the Altair and the Atari 800 and the Apple II, we still had the Atari 2600 and the NES — two completely closed systems that worked dependably. We lived with it, it was fine, and now they're gone and there are other things. So yeah, Facebook is pretty terrible with privacy, and I'm bothered by the number of people who happily defend ease over freedom, but Facebook won't survive more than another five years in their current form. You won't recognize them in five years, they'll be something completely different. They can't survive as they are. Look at MySpace or Friendster or Orkut. There's a lot of space in the ecosystem. I'm not too worried. We won't even be thinking about it by October.

If Scott was referring to Facebook, then he may've been right, as there hasn't been nearly as much discussion about the social network's privacy controls lately as there was in the spring. But if he meant the iPad, well — I guess he didn't see Lion coming.

Apple's next Macintosh operating system will feature an inbuilt App Store, similar to what iTunes already offers for iOS devices. Already, alarmists are asking: is this the end of the Mac as an open platform?

I don't believe it is, but Apple isn't alone in moving toward more closed architectures — almost everything today's consumer uses is meant to be used as its designer intended. This approach may be more elegant for the end user, but it's also more restrictive, prohibiting innovative workflows and custom solutions to individual problems. At KansasFest 2010, I moderated a panel on this very topic, after being inspired by an article Ivan Drucker wrote for Juiced.GS.

Closed systems aren't just frustrating for end users. Such proprietary natures discourage curiosity and learning — essential skills for any future programmer or artist, as recently noted by Wil Wheaton in a Geek a Week podcast interview (time indices 16:21–19:36). The former Star Trek star reminisced about fiddling with shortwave radios and how easy it was for kids to take things apart and learn how they worked. "It's a shame that so many things are so closed down and locked down these days," said Wheaton. "That kid that 25 years ago would be inspired by reverse-engineering a game on their Apple IIe is going to have a lot more difficult time doing the same thing today."

The emergent popularity of computer science has given many more students and at many more ages the opportunity to learn computer programming, but those formal structures are far different from the self-taught programmers of a previous generation who could LIST their favorite software, study it, and even modify it. Doing so on a modern Mac is already nearly impossible, and I don't see the Mac App Store worsening the situation. But it does suggest a continuing formalization of the relationship between vendor and user, and a further demarcation between user and programmer.

The year 2010 began with the unveiling of the Apple iPad and ended with the potential diminishment of the Mac as an open platform. Neither digital historian nor Starfleet ensign can see the future these announcements will usher.