Replaying the founding of Apple

June 2nd, 2014 9:35 AM
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Gender Inclusive Game Design by Sheri Granar RayAfter recently finishing the Austin Grossman novel You, which featured many references to classic computers such as the Apple II and Commodore 64, I moved onto the 1986 novel Replay, a time travel tale by Ken Grimwood. It's a bit like Groundhog Day, except instead of the main character repeating the same day, he's reliving the same 25 years. As in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, he naturally uses his future knowledge to ensure his financial security — except where Biff Tannen relied solely on sporting events, Jeff Winston also plays the stock market, making investments in companies he knows are bound to succeed.

At one point, his wife laments to him a recent business meeting:

"Hippies, that's all they were. That tall boy was barefoot, for God's sake, and the other one looked like a…a Neanderthal!"

"Their idea has a lot of potential; it doesn't matter what they looked like."

"Well, somebody ought to tell them the sixties are over, if they want to do anything with that silly idea of theirs. I just don't believe you fell for it, and gave them all that money!"

He couldn't really blame her for the way she'd reacted; without benefit of foresight, the two young men and their garageful of secondhand electronic components would indeed seem unlikely candidates for a spot on the Fortune 500. But within five years that garage in Cupertino, California would be famous, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would prove to be the soundest investment of 1976. Jeff had given them half a million dollars, insisted they follow the advice of a retired young marketing executive from Intel they had recently met, and told them to make whatever they wanted as long as they continued to call it "Apple." He had let them keep forty-nine percent of the new enterprise.

"Who in the world would want a computer in their house? And what makes you think those scruffy boys really know how to make one, anyway?"

The ability of Grimwood's protagonist to meddle with history is inconsistent. In this particular 25-year bounce, all the hero's investments accomplish is to funnel various companies' profits into his bank account. But Steve Weyhrich of Sophistication & Simplicity points out how dramatically the above cash influx would alter Apple's evolution: "This person who invested $500,000 in Apple before Mike Markkula came around would potentially have made it unnecessary for Markkula, regardless of this investor’s recommendation. Markkula's personal involvement in the company would possibly have been diluted, since it was not his cash that was at risk. The outcome of the early days of Apple could have been quite different with a large, non-Markkula-based capital investment. Jobs would probably have decided he didn’'t need some old-school business person telling him what to do, which could have removed the adult supervision they needed in those early days."

However, Steve and I disagree over whether such startup capital would've even been welcome. Mike Markkula had invested $250,000 in Apple in exchange for becoming a one-third owner of Apple, this being after Ron Wayne had temporarily owned 10% of the company. In neither case did Jobs or Wozniak relinquish majority control of their fledgling company. Last summer's Jobs film suggested Jobs was a shrewd businessman in his negotiations with Markkula, and while I suspect that particular scene was exaggerated, I absolutely believe Jobs as a man insisting on being in control. For him to settle for keeping only 49% of his company, even in exchange for a half-million dollars, is unbelievable.

But Steve points out, "Remember that before Markkula came along to invest, Jobs was willing to sell the Apple II to Chuck Peddle and Jack Tramiel of Commodore in exchange for jobs with that company and a specific salary. With an offer of $500,000, he would have probably been willing to [settle for a] 49% or less share."

What do you think? Would Woz and Jobs have taken this offer? And, if so, how would it have affected Apple's development?

Fictional references

May 5th, 2014 11:01 AM
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Books about Apple and the Apple II and its founders and inventors are innumerable — history has woken up to the importance of these industries and innovators. But the Apple II plays an important role not just in fact, but also in fiction. A voracious reader of sci-fi and fantasy, I've recently come across references to our favorite computer in a number of novels.

First was in Ready Player One, a novel by Ernest Cline and the best book I read in 2011. The main character spends most of his time plugged into a virtual-reality MMORPG designed by a "a god among geeks, a nerd ueber-deity on the level of Gygax, Garriott, and Gates." In his quest to unearth an Easter egg, our hero, having received a clue pertaining to Captain Crunch, researches interstellar maps for a relevant planet. "I found a few worlds named after famous hackers, like Woz and Mitnick, but none named after John Draper."

Any book with an entire celestial body named after Steve Wozniak is okay by me!

Last year, I read my second-ever e-book: These Days, a novel by Jack Cheng that I picked up through its Kickstarter. This book's main character, Connor, is a graphic designer for a company called Pseudo. At one point, he is asked: "Do you know who Doug Engelbart is?"

It took a moment for Connor to place the name. One of the few entertainment projects Pseudo had been able to land was a series called ArpaNet, a failed attempt at capitalizing on old-school detective shows and eighties nostalgia. Every episode, the show's protagonist, Frank Arpa, a university professor who moonlighted as a private investigator, would log on to the bulletin board systems of the early internet to hunt for new leads. Whenever progress on a case stalled, a mysterious informant who went by the handle of Lick would steer Arpa and his team in the right direction. The network had shelved the series after four episodes, but Connor had had a blast working on the project while it lasted. It was probably the most fun he'd had in all his years at the company. He'd been tasked with recreating the text-only interfaces of the era and spent hours upon hours digging into command prompts on old computer history websites. He watched YouTube videos of ancient operating systems. He bought a working Apple II off Craigslist and experimented with text-only ASCII banners and graphics on the green monochrome screen. In the course of his research, he'd come across a particular black-and-white video shot in the late sixties. In the video, a silver-haired man talked into an operator's headset as he stared at a monitor off camera. The text on the monitor was superimposed onto his own image as he spoke, and every once in a while the video would cut to a view of his hands. He operated a blocky wooden mouse and a keyboard, and a second pad that looked like a section of piano keys, and all the while the computer made strange, abrupt noises that sounded like bursts of a high-pitched electric razor, or the first half of a dog's bark. "The Mother of All Demos," said the caption beneath the video. And the man in it was Doug Engelbart, the head of a group of scientists at a Stanford research lab. In the video, Engelbart and his team publicly demonstrated for the first time NLS—an early ancestor of the internet—along with hyperlinks, the computer mouse, and videoconferencing, all in an hour and a half.

Now I'm amid a novel by Austin Grossman. I really enjoyed his 2007 debut novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, about the antagonist of a Justice League-like team of superheroes. His April 2013 novel is You, a book that is, inexplicably, set less than two miles from where I live outside of Boston. The main character was born in 1969 (the same year as the author, and a decade before me), and the book is set in 1997 as he enters the computer game industry as a designer. Several flashbacks to his childhood trace the path of his experiences with personal computers. On page 13:

One summer in middle school I finally got an Apple IIe, a beige plastic wedge with computer and keyboard in one piece, along with its own nine-inch monochrome monitor. I discovered the delinquent thrill of using copy programs like Locksmith to duplicate copy-protected games on a 5.25-inch floppy disk and the trick of double-siding a disk by clipping a half-moon out of it with a hole puncher.

Austin Grossman's YouOn page 66, digging through the archives of his employer, Black Arts, for their earlier titles: "I was sure a few dozen copies were out there lying in basements in cardboard boxes, filed away with cracked copies of The Bilestoad and Lode Runner… [but here] there wasn't much from 1983 apart from an incomplete set of blue-and-white Ultima III: Exodus floppies."

And on page 81, he lists more games he grew up playing: "Silly 2-D games, little guys jumping around on platforms — Sammy Lightfoot, Hard Hat Mack, cheap Mario Bros. rip-offs. Adventures — Escape from Rungistan, Mystery Mansion."

I've not yet finished You, but I'm sure there will be even more references to growing up digital. So far, I find myself agreeing with one review: "You is a brilliantly written piece of fiction from author Austin Grossman. If you enjoy video games, fantasy, science-fiction — grew up in the 70s, owned an Apple II and spent many nights lit by the glow of a monitor screen — if you don't know who you are or what you want to be, You is a book you can’t miss."

Since none of these books are about the Apple II, it makes it all the more fun to unexpectedly encounter our old friend in these new contexts.

What book would you write to feature the Apple II?