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ATPM 18.05
May 2012





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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Frank H. Wu,

Growing Up With Apple

From time to time, I suppose no different from anyone else, I realize to my regret that I am no longer young. Indeed, the last I remember it was 1983. I belong to the last generation to come of age without computers—the so-called digital immigrants as distinguished from the digital natives. Thus my life can be defined by the evolution of technology.

I identify especially with Apple because the phases of my own experiences coincide with the phases of its corporate development. I was a rebel when Apple premiered its “Big Brother” Super Bowl advertisement, aired only once, and “Think Different” campaign, in black and white with images of great creative figures accompanied by actor Richard Dreyfuss voicing an alluring life philosophy. As Apple becomes accepted in the enterprise and achieves record stock prices, I find myself in management.

In junior high school circa 1978, technology meant a color-coded Mead Trapper Keeper folder system with its proprietary three-ring binder, college narrow-ruled paper, mechanical pencils with .5 mm lead, erasable ink pens, and Hubba Bubba gum (innovative because of its less sticky formula). It was the era when Sony introduced the original Walkman, Mattel and Coleco the handheld football game with LED blips representing players, and Atari and Intellivision the home videogame console. The best arcades in Ann Arbor offered as many as seven tokens for a dollar; the popular games were Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man, Millipede, and Joust. Cable television started to be installed in homes with the revolutionary MTV, enabling its “heavy rotation” of music videos to turn new artists into superstars. (I didn’t have any of the toys, because my parents were as strict as they were frugal.)

When I was in high school, the Apple II was introduced. Geek chic began with a classroom featuring row upon row of the monitors displaying flickering green text, the beige machines with mechanical keyboards, and 5–1/4-inch floppy drives. The popular game titles included “Leisure Suit Larry,” which was crude by multiple measures. The smartest hackers had pirated copies of “Donkey Kong” to share.

Almost nobody had an Apple II at home, though; we had the Texas Instruments TI-99-4 or the Commodore VIC-20 or 64; kids with more money might have an IBM PC Jr., the “Peanut.” For a period, aficionados aspired to own an Amiga.

Back then, I programmed in BASIC on a Commodore bought on sale at K-Mart (it seemed half of the units that were sold were defective), saving a simple game with a bouncing ball that changed colors onto a cassette tape. A friend of mine, who grew up to became a technology entrepreneur, and I wanted to write a program to support hypertext. It proved beyond our capacity at the time and the display capacity of the time.

But the Apple II was the official computer for education. In my senior year, I was part of the team in an inaugural computer contest. Regrettably, that event marked the end of my programming career. I was unable to complete my assignment, which involved a mathematical calculation that contained a trap of a potential endless subroutine. As a consequence, the leading rival to our school won.

So I turned to other endeavors, primarily including writing. The advent of word processing programs, versus the dedicated Wang machines in the office where I worked as a temp, changed writing, too.

In my freshman year of college, the classic Macintosh debuted. Thanks to its mouse and other innovations, it signaled that science fiction had become practical reality. It boasted a 9-inch screen and 128K of memory, retailing for $2,495. It could not be upgraded, but if you opened up the case you could see the signatures of the original design team molded into it.

When I had my first paying internship at a newspaper, I saved all of my summer earnings to buy a Mac. By then, it was called the “classic Macintosh.” Twelve weeks of writing was transformed into a new computer. That should have taught me the relative value of different professional pursuits.

In any event, all of my term papers, and the first draft of what would eventually become my book, were written on a Mac. I set it atop a stand-up desk. I felt as if I had arrived.

I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. I worked in an unheated backroom in the middle of the winter. The first time I left the Mac there overnight, it wouldn’t boot the next morning until I had let it warm up several hours. That’s when I realized the need to back up diligently.

Nonetheless, I left Apple when the late Steve Jobs left Apple. The portable line-up seemed overpriced, underpowered, and not suited for professionals.

So I digressed to a ThinkPad for a few years, until I had a bizarre accident that made it difficult to use the trademark keyboard pointing stick. My first laptop was a ThinkPad 701, the model with the butterfly keyboard that folded out to full-size atop a compact chassis. I carried it in a great ballistic nylon briefcase made by craftspeople in Vermont who had one of those charming advertisements in the back of The New Yorker magazine. When I was at work, my puppy slept in the open briefcase.

But one day, I saw a little piece of rice on the bathroom floor. When I went to pick it up, I found it was a very sharp piece of porcelain that must have been chipped off the toilet, and I suffered a tiny but deep puncture wound to my forefinger. Even after the injury healed, I suffered pain if I applied pressure to the tip of my forefinger.

As a consequence, I had to change to a different input device. I’d been skeptical of the precision of a touchpad. I was surprised when I tried it out.

As a Christmas present to myself, I bought a 15-inch Titanium PowerBook the week before they announced the new aluminum 13-inch and 17-inch models with basketball star Yao Ming and “Mini-Me” actor Verne Troyer. I was not savvy about the Apple product announcement cycle. Anyway, I spent the last week of the year transferring more than a decade of data.

The switch was great. The PowerBook was a beautiful machine. Its mid-century modern aesthetic made it iconic as well as iconoclastic. Mac OS X was a terrific new environment. The graphical user interface was perfected. I had suffered through the “I Love You” virus on the Windows, among other mishaps. I was able to stop calling tech support, except the one time a DVD was stuck in the optical drive (not an uncommon occurrence, it turns out).

The initial aluminum MacBook was more powerful than its predecessor, but not as elegant to my eye. The plastic edging on mine came detached from the top of the case. It was worse than a minor blemish, because my right hand rested where the edge was exposed—a sharp nuisance.

The unibody MacBook was my favorite—until the second generation of the MacBook Air. I use both now. Along the way, I have tried variations, including the all-in-one flat screen white iMac G5 (among the last of the PowerPC chip-based models) and the semi-authorized tablet-form Modbook.

I have signed up for Apple. There are few brands that are defining. And that is as it should be. Even as I have become less materialistic, understanding that the latest hardware will not improve my productivity as much as my own discipline, my loyalty to Cupertino has increased. No other logo promises as much or delivers as reliably, even taking into account the occasional flubs that are the price to pay for any early adopter.

Yet I have had to change my work style. In my current role, leading a major institution, I must be disciplined about maintaining meaningful human contact. In this job, I cannot be tapping away multi-tasking during meetings. That would be demoralizing to others and ineffective as a result. Instead, at the head of a conference table, I either write in an old-fashioned notebook with a fountain pen or memorize the few take-away points. Back in the office, I return to the computer that contains my life’s work. It’s all there, as intuitive as anyone could wish for.

We only become more like ourselves; we never change. My high school humanities teacher told me that. In three decades, I’ve changed, and I’ve seen such change. It’s like replicant Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner, describing what will be lost “like tears in rain” in that profound cinematic prediction of what was to come. With only a few interruptions, Apple has been a constant. As the last line of that Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby, declares, we are borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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