Archive for January, 2011

Playboy, Newsweek chat with Steve Jobs

January 31st, 2011 11:28 AM
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A few months ago, Playboy published an online version of an interview they conducted with Steve Jobs in 1985. With Jobs currently on medical leave, it seems a timely opportunity to review his not-so-humble origins as Apple's first CEO. Some of my favorite excerpts discuss his relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak:

Playboy: What happened to the partnership [with Steve Wozniak] as time went on?

Jobs: The main thing was that Woz was never really interested in Apple as a company. He was just sort of interested in getting the Apple II on a printed circuit board so he could have one and be able to carry it to his computer club without having the wires break on the way. He had done that and decided to go on to other things. He had other ideas.

Playboy: Such as the US Festival rock concert and computer show, where he lost something like $10,000,000.

Jobs: Well, I thought the US Festival was a little crazy, but Woz believed very strongly in it.

Playboy: How is it between the two of you now?

Jobs: When you work with somebody that close and you go through experiences like the ones we went through, there’s a bond in life. Whatever hassles you have, there is a bond. And even though he may not be your best friend as time goes on, there’s still something that transcends even friendship, in a way. Woz is living his own life now. He hasn’t been around Apple for about five years. But what he did will go down in history. He’s going around speaking to a lot of computer events now. He likes that.

Following suit, Newsweek has also published their own 1985 interview with Jobs. In this article are two themes in particular that I have trouble reconciling with the man who leads Apple today. The first is his prediction of his role in the world and in the industry:

I personally, man, I want to build things. I'm 30. I'm not ready to be an industry pundit. I got three offers to be a professor during this summer, and I told all of the universities that I thought I would be an awful professor. What I'm best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them … I'm probably not the best person in the world to shepherd it to a five- or ten-billion-dollar company, which I think is probably its destiny …I don't think that my role in life is to run big organizations and do incremental improvements.

Despite that disclaimer, Jobs has made it practically a corporate philosophy to make Apple customers into beta-testers, with first-generation hardware that is rarely up to snuff. Given the "incremental improvements" made each year to the iPhone and soon the iPad — both products being not revolutionary so much as evolutionary — it seems Jobs had a change of heart.

Second, there's the dejection Jobs expressed at his diminished role in his final days at Apple:

I was, you know, asked to move out of my office. They leased a little building across the street from most of the other Apple buildings. I, we nicknamed it Siberia … So I moved across the street, and I made sure that all of the executive staff had my home phone number. I knew that John had it, and I called the rest of them personally and made sure they had it and told them that I wanted to be useful in any way i could, and to please call me if I could help on anything. And they all had a, you know, a cordial phrase, but none of them ever called back. And so I used to go into work, I'd get there and I would have one or two phone calls to perform, a little bit of mail to look at. But … this was in June, July … most of the corporate-management reports stopped flowing by my desk. A few people might see my car in the parking lot and come over and commiserate. And I would get depressed and go home in three or four hours, really depressed. I did that a few times and I decided that was mentally unhealthy. So I just stopped going in. You know, there was nobody really there to miss me.

For a man who was and is often characterized as blustery, overbearing, and obnoxious, such humble disconsolation seems unlike the legend that is Steve Jobs.

Finally, Apple II blogger Steven Black injects some further humanity into the discussion:

… as a guy in the industry who cut my teeth on, and still have massive affection for, Apple ][s, and who from my early teens took a deep interest in all of the stories surrounding the germination of the personal computer industry in the 70s & early 80s, and who lived through the times that saw its initial genesis, I can’t help putting all of the intellectualism aside and just hoping that this doesn’t signal the end of Steve’s career, or indeed an inexorably downward spiral in his health.

Steve’s an icon and a giant of the industry. This sounds blindingly obvious to say. But for many of us around my age, he is in a very real sense the father of our careers, and the founder of a not insignificant proportion of our way of life. I just hope all of the non-geek Apple customers out there can appreciate what the man has achieved in his lifetime. If & when Steve is lost to us, whenever that may occur, it will really feel like the captain has left the bridge.

(Hat tips to Taimur Asad, Leander Kahney, and Arnold Kim)

Livescribe Zork

January 27th, 2011 9:53 AM
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As people like Andrew Plotkin and Wade Clarke and games like A House in California demonstrate, text adventures and their cousins are still capable of innovative gameplay, decades after the genre's emergence. Such creativity usually takes the form of unique software features and storytelling techniques — but let's not overlook the role of hardware.

I first became aware of the Livescribe Echo pen in Major Nelson's podcast, when co-host Laura Massey demonstrated a small portion of its features. This traditional ink pen includes modern electronic features to remember what you wrote and even interact with those writings. For example, by drawing a picture of a piano keyboard, one can then use the pen to tap on the keys of the piano illustration, and the pen will emit the corresponding tones, as if it were a real piano.

Apparently the pen is also programmable, allowing the implementation of original functions. One hacker took advantage of this opening to create two games for his writing implement. The first, Tic-Tac-Toe, is not of specific interest to readers of this blog, but I'm including it in the embedded video to provide a simple demonstration of how the pen works. But the second game, Zork, seems beyond what any pen should be capable of.

Infocom games have long been ported from their original platforms, with a move to portable devices being especially popular these past few years. But the above example is an entirely new medium in which to play interactive fiction. Practical? Not especially. But it showcases the outside-the-box thinking that has made text adventures popular in the first place. Who knows where they'll go next?

If you prefer a classic interface for this classic game, try Good Old Games, which is currently selling six Zork games for six dollars.

(Hat tips to Eric Neustadter and Jason Scott)

Steve Jobs' greatest hits

January 24th, 2011 1:04 PM
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Steve Jobs, a survivor of pancreatic cancer who in 2009 underwent a successful liver transplant, is currently on medical leave from Apple Inc.

Many would argue that Apple's health is directly tied to that of its co-founder and CEO, as evidenced by the company's floundering without his leadership from 1985 to 1997. To commemorate that perspective, Computerworld recently published a gallery that highlights 12 noteworthy innovations rolled out under Jobs' leadership at Apple. Though Jobs' role in the design of many Apple products is questionable, we circumvented the issue by simply saying that these were products launched while he was CEO — a rather inarguable fact.

I was assigned this story by the publication's chief news editor, Ken Mingis, who selected the contents of the gallery. It was originally proposed to cover only those products launched since Jobs' return to the company in 1997 and not any of the releases from his first tour of duty, from the company's founding in 1977 to when he was ousted in 1985. I had no issue with that — an article has to be focused, lest it try to cover all of existence — but we were challenged to explain to the readers how or why we could omit such milestones as the Apple II and the Macintosh. We compromised by adding those two products to the original ten, resulting in this final, chronological lineup:

  1. Apple II (1977)
  2. Macintosh (1984)
  3. iMac (1997)
  4. Power Mac G4 Cube (2000)
  5. Mac OS X (2001)
  6. iPod (2001)
  1. iMac G4 (2002)
  2. Mac mini (2005)
  3. iPhone (2007)
  4. MacBook Air (2008)
  5. iPad (2010)
  6. iPhone 4 (2010)

Had it been up to me, I would've omitted different models of the same product, such as the iMac G4 and the iPhone 4, and maybe included more failures, like the Apple III and Apple Lisa (the latter especially being notable for its pre-Mac GUI). But even without those changes, it's a pretty thorough gallery. Still, I still expected Apple fans to be more contentious in the selection, yet the article has thus far produced little discussion and feedback. What about you — what products would you have added or removed?

I was encouraged to be "witty" with each product's headline, so I relied heavily on this list of Apple advertising slogans. Although it might've been clearer to use the product name and release date instead, editor Mike Barton, who also selected the photos, instead bolded the product name in its brief description, allowing us to be both witty and clear.

I hope everyone enjoys this brief review of Apple's history. Whether or not you like Jobs, he and his company deserve to be in good health.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kim)

Computer History Museum interview with Woz

January 20th, 2011 10:17 AM
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As previously reported, Steve Wozniak was on-hand last month to give the press a tour of the Computer History Museum's new exhibit, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing". The exhibit opened last week, and Todd Miller of the San Francisco Chronicle took the opportunity to speak further with Apple Inc.'s lesser-known founder, learning more about Woz's motivation to write BASIC for the Apple-1 and how he improved upon the original machine's design with the Apple II:

Here's my favorite quotation: "Most of the big companies and — a lot of new thinking went into them. They were risky, and it was difficult to say whether they would work or not — just like the Apple II."

It's so encouraging to know that the genius who invented our favorite computer is so welcome to continue speaking about that topic. As Jason Scott recently said in the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, "The retrocomputing culture is very, very lucky, because … so many of the people who formed what's important to us are part of the community still. It's so rare that you'd have someone who's into old cars, and the guy who invented the cars shows up all the time. We're so lucky because we get people like Wozniak who show up and are like, 'Oh, yeah! Yeah, hi! Oh, did you like that? Oh, thanks!' as opposed to we all dream of what that person must've thought." Thank you, Steve Wozniak, for being that guy.

While Mr. Miller's videos are new, there were plenty more shot at last month's press tour. Check out the original blog post for a half-dozen other appearances by the Woz.

Courier's reign

January 17th, 2011 12:04 PM
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Filed under Musings;
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Farhad Manjoo is pretty worked up over a trivial matter. For Slate Magazine, he ranted why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. This 1,486-word typographical diatribe is rampant with the same form of sure-mindedness its author finds so belligerent in his opposition: "What galls me about two-spacers isn't just their numbers. It's their certainty that they're right."

The difference is that Mr. Manjoo claims to have history on his side:

Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

With this evolution to support him, Manjoo insists that anyone still using two spaces is a prehistoric troglodyte still reliant on ancient technology to string words into sentences.

But wait! Manjoo does provide some allowance: the Courier font. Although rarely seen on modern computing platforms, Courier was the default (and, in fact, only) font offered by AppleWorks Classic on the Apple II. In such an environment, it makes sense to distinguish a non-sentence-ending period from another.

Those who have migrated to other platforms may have since adapted their style to the variety of fonts the Macintosh made standard a quarter-century ago. Obstinate authors weaned on the Apple II who insist on computers adapting to their users and not vice versa have instead customized their environments to maintain a continuity that began with the Apple II.

For me, this means changing Apple Mail's default font to Courier — and I don't think it took any editing for my blogging tool, MarsEdit, to default to Menlo, also a non-proportional font. Once published, my blog posts appear in a proportional font, but WordPress, which powers this site, automatically displays those double spaces as a single. I can therefore preserve my workflow while presenting content that's appropriate to its context.

MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.


MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.

Every writer has his or her own quirks, from spaces after a period, to "built-in" or "inbuilt", to whether or not punctuation goes within or without quotation marks. It's the writer's responsibility to offer writing that is consistent with the style of the intended publication, if one is to be both employable and likable as a writer.

But to go on a moralistic rampage about the sins of extraneous whitespace is unnecessary … though perhaps good for page views: over one thousand responses have furthered this controversy thus far.

Do you think the Apple II has played a role in perpetuating this archaic typeset pattern?

Sold on eBay: New-in-box Apple II, never to be opened

January 13th, 2011 9:14 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Mainstream coverage;
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About this time three years ago, Dan Budiac made headlines when he bought a new-in-box Apple IIc for $2,553. Although Apple II hardware is sold on eBay every day, this purchase was unique for a combination of three factors: the high price it fetched; the rarity of an Apple IIc whose original packaging had never been opened; and the fact that Budiac, rather than preserving that state as any collector would, instead removed the computer, booted it up, and played Oregon Trail.

Another such opportunity has come about, this one landing in the hands of Alabama's J. Scott King. He purchased the IIc from a dealer in Chicago for a sum far greater than Mr. Budiac paid: according to the eBay auction, the final bid was $4,995.

That's a lot of money to pony up for a 25-year-old machine, and Mr. King won't even get the joy of the machine that Mr. Budiac did: this IIc is staying in its box. He justifies his investment and decision: "I didn't buy the machine for its utility value, or even its stand alone value as a new machine," he explains. "No, I bought it because it was new in the sealed boxes and might be (maybe not) the only sealed factory box set left — to me that makes it highly collectible. I'll promise you this: in 10, 20 or 30 years from now and I going to be worried I might have paid to much — I don't think so."

He recorded his purchase's arrival in this YouTube video:

A photo gallery of the IIc is also available on Mr. King's Web site.

Mr. King emailed me earlier this month with the offer of an interview; unfortunately, his email response landed in my junk folder, which is why this blog post was beaten to the punch by the latest episode of the RetroMacCast podcast, which interviews Mr. King starting at time index 16:56. My apologies for the late report.