RIP Steve Jobs. Along with his passing, everyone in the tech world seems to be telling their stories about Apple’s influence on them in their formative years; here’s mine.
Like Eric Bangeman in the above-linked Ars Technica article, my first computer wasn’t an Apple II — I also had contemporary experience with TRS-80, TI 99-4/A, and Commodore 64 machines. Unlike him, my first experiences with the Apple II didn’t stand out as more satisfying — I actually was touched more deeply by the Commodore 64, likely because it was so much cheaper my family could afford one much sooner. But I did spend a lot of time playing with an Apple II+ at a friend’s house. Lots of Moon Patrol on the C64, lots of Lode Runner on the II+, lots of BASIC programming on both… the C64 was a very gentle introduction to these newfangled home computers, since you could plug it into any TV, and it worked fine with no storage (games came on cartridges), or with very cheap storage (cassette tape adapter), or you could buy a disk drive. And the C64 had color graphics and better sound support than the contemporary Apple II models… on the other hand, Apple’s BASIC actually had graphics commands, which on the C64 forced you into machine language territory.
Later I got an Apple IIc, and it was better in many ways than the Commodore 64 — but in other ways not much better, or no better at all, especially considering the price. I really appreciated the democratizing influence of the Commodore’s price — they were available for $150 at Toys ‘R’ Us, IIRC.
As it became time to upgrade the IIc, the original Macintosh was already on the scene, and I had a choice — jump to Mac, or upgrade to the latest and greatest Apple II, the IIgs. It seemed like an easy choice at the time — the IIgs was backwards compatible with the software and peripherals I already had, had color graphics and awesome sound, was expandable, and was roughly equivalently powerful. Only a couple years later, Apple made it obvious they were betting only on the Mac, finally introducing a Mac which supported color and expandability, and essentially killed off the IIgs. (They did continue to release impressive software updates for the IIgs, including a couple complete rewrites of its GS/OS operating system, which I take to mean that the IIgs software team felt much as I did about their machine’s demise.)
This was a real blow to me — the IIgs had been a stretch for my family to afford, and I don’t recall any hints at the time from Apple that it would be a dead-end purchase — so, with the wrath that only a 12 year old boy can muster, I swore that I’d never buy another Apple product. (Only much later did I realize that this coincided with the Steveless interregnum at Apple, opening the door for me to reverse this pledge later.)
Thus was kicked off a 15 year period of PC buying, where I learned the use and programming of MS-DOS and then Windows, from 286 to 386 to 486 and Pentium and beyond, and again the democratizing influence of the Wintel economy was attractive — people have long claimed that Apple computers were an overpriced item for the snob market, and while we all know that’s not true and even the stereotype has mostly dissolved, it’s still worth examining a little deeper. It’s now widely accepted — and if you look closely you realize it’s been true even longer — that Apple computers offer a good value for the money you do spend, and compare favorably with PCs at the same price point. And yet, there were often lower price points, satisfied only by PCs, that were still good enough to be relevant. Probably Steve Jobs didn’t feel that way, but I know I did, with the C64 in 1982, and with my 386 in 1992.
In high school, as a staffer and eventually editor of our school paper, we did most everything on Macs — a few Mac Classics, and later one color IIci. They were underpowered and slow, and we cursed them often, but they did the job and most of the curses were affectionate. They also networked, which was something PCs of the day didn’t easily do. Unlike standalone computers, networked computers need names — I don’t remember all of them, but two of them were Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, provoking utterances like “dammit, Kurt Cobain crashed again.”
In college in the later 90’s, learning about CS fundamentals and history and non-consumer architectures and Unix and operating systems and the impact of the MMU, it became obvious that neither Mac OS (stalled at System 7) nor Windows (in the throes of the 9x procession) was really living up to the promise of performance and reliability supported by the hardware that was commonplace at this time, but that Windows 9x was closer — at least most of the software ran preemptively scheduled separate memory spaces, and its mostly backwards compatible cousin Windows NT could even be called a real OS. So it was easy for me to continue looking askance at Macs (while, to be sure, my Mac loving friends looked equally askance at Windows machines, and I’m sure we both claimed the other crashed more). However you look at it, this was not the proudest period for the Mac, while Apple kept trying and failing to get its house in order with Taligent and Pink.
Around this time Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and kicked off efforts to revitalize both the software and hardware behind the Mac. The hardware efforts paid off right away, with the bondi blue iMac and later iBook; the software efforts would take longer. I wasn’t the least bit tempted by these fruity looking computers, running the same tired Mac OS derivatives (8 and 9 being like Windows 98 and ME, that is, not meaningfully better than what they succeeded), and the IIgs experience still smarted, 10 years later.
This remained basically true until OS X came out — a Mac OS a geek could run, and still respect himself in the morning — and with it, the white iBook, which both in appearance and in internals was far more respectable than its predecessor. Just as I was graduating from college, I used my Apple student discount and bought one, finally breaking my age-12 promise.
The early revs of OS X (beta, and 10.0, and 10.1) showed a lot of promise but they were still new, under optimized and slow, and the iBook’s hardware wasn’t enough to compensate for this, and I never ended up using it for anything serious, deferring to more capable PC hardware I continued to buy. A year later, I traded the iBook away as a partial payment for a Ducati motorcycle. However, the hook was set and a couple years later, as OS X hit its stride with 10.2 and G4 processors became affordable, that underpowered feel was gone; I bought a G4 laptop, was won over by several factors that really matter on laptops (suspend/resume that’s reliable, wifi that’s reliable, combining to mean you can open the lid and be online and typing a few seconds later — something that was a total crapshoot under Windows at the time and, um, still mostly is another 7 years later), and, to close with another reference to Bangeman, every computer I’ve bought since that I didn’t build myself has been a Mac.