flashback, part 39 of n

The memorials and eulogies and etc. for Steve Jobs have been plentiful and well-deserved.  Everyone is in awe of the iOS era, and to some extent of the iPod (still!), and everyone says that he “saved Apple,” which he certainly did.  But I don’t know how much people think about just what sort of state Apple was in.

I came on board in summer of 1994, with a Power Mac 6100AV that I bought in advance of starting grad school.  I’d wanted a Mac for a while, and the decision to go with a desktop over a laptop was a tough one until I realized that it would mean the difference between a 68K processor (past) and a PowerPC one (future, or at least futureproof).  And so it was that I wound up with the whole kit and kaboodle.  The 14″ monitor with the speakers underneath and the microphone built in, connected to that weird thick port on back of the pizza box.  System 7.1.2, back when the operating system was just called System.  And a Geoport Telecom Adapter, using some of the already-overtaxed CPU to handle the model dialup connection – which, in my case, meant using Apple Remote Access to establish a connection to the school network.

It could have been worse, to be honest – not that many people were dialing in on ARA, so I usually had as good a connection as the 14.4kbps modem emulation could provide me.  But this was an era when TCP/IP wasn’t actually part of the operating system.  I remember trying to get MacTCP working, and arguments over beers at the Garages over Thanksgiving break as to whether SLIP or PPP was a better way to try to get online, while I was dutifully logging into eWorld for Monday Night Football chat.

Salvation was going to come in 7.5.  Or with Open Transport.  Or with OpenDoc.  Or with CHRP-based clone hardware.  It seemed like everything on God’s green earth was being thrown at the wall in the hopes that something would stick long enough to be the miracle that brought everyone charging back into the Apple fold.  Every month, MacWorld or MacUser had details about some new thing – some preview of Copeland, or some new frogdesign concept for a new-look Macintosh incorporating Bluetooth peripherals, or a new line of Power Computing clones that ran faster than anything coming out of Cupertino.  MacWorld Boston, or MacWorld San Francisco, or Seybold – an endless stream of Photoshop bake-offs and promises of new things to come.

None of it worked, of course. Cyberdog was interesting – and one of its most knowledgable authorities wound up best man at my wedding – and things like the Apple Open Collaboration Environment had promise, albeit in a world of LAN-based networking quickly swamped by the Internet.  I never really got round to using my computer as the answering machine.  Similarly, Claris eMailer never really displaced Eudora (except a few years later, briefly, as Outlook Express for Mac), and the clones only serves to cannibalize the existing Mac line.  CHRP and PREP didn’t amount to anything, as nobody really wanted to dual-boot Mac OS and Windows NT on a PowerPC system.

Apple was a mess.  And within two years of Steve’s return, the product line was simple: PowerMac, PowerBook, iMac, iBook.  And to this day, that’s pretty much how the Mac side of things looks: a desktop and a laptop each, for consumer and pro markets.  Simple, self-replacing, non-proliferating (God only knows how many Performa models there were by 1998) – pick something to do and do it right.  And embrace standards – USB,TCP/IP, POP/SMTP, no more proprietary nonsense.  Today, you won’t find a single port on a MacBook that you can’t find on any other laptop, except for the new standard by Intel originally called LightPeak – which Apple now markets as Thunderbolt.

Apple stands for simple computing.  Fortunately, Steve had the chops and the sense to simplify Apple.

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