My History of Computing, Part 2: From the Dogcow’s Hoof to the Penguin’s Talons

On May 6, 1998, Steve Jobs announced the iMac, the computer that brought Apple back from certain doom, completely revolutionized the computer industry, and paved the way for all the other iDevices. It was just like every other Mac computer that came before it, but the genius of the iMac was that it didn’t look like a computer. It looked like a shiny blue egg from outer space.  And it wasn’t marketed as a computer. It was an “information appliance.” Apple sold it as a quick way for people to get on the Internet without the “fuss” of plugging a rat’s nest of cables into a series of beige boxes, configuring hardware drivers and fighting with the operating system. You just, one, plugged it in, and two, turned it on. There was no step 3, as Jeff Goldblum pointed out in that famous commercial.

And people bought them in droves. It was the 1990s. People went crazy about anything to do with the Internet. Everything in the late 90s was “e-this” and “i-that” and “something dot com.” And they went nuts over the iMac because it got people on the Internet, and non-nerds could use it.  Seriously, everyone went so crazy for the iMac that you could put colorful translucent plastic on anything and it would sell like hotcakes… even things that had absolutely nothing to do with computers:

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(pictured: not an iMac.)

I went crazy for the iMac, however, because it was a Mac. It ran Mac OS 9, which was far superior to Windows 95 in that it didn’t crash and was less susceptible to viruses. And there was a Macintosh way of doing things that was a whole lot more intuitive than Microsoft’s attempt at a GUI. You could install programs just by dragging them from the install disk folder into the Applications folder. Device drivers came packaged in “extension” modules that you could install or remove just by taking them out of the Extensions Folder. There was no Registry to fuck up. And while there wasn’t as much software for the Mac as there was for Windows, it was on average much higher quality and was supported by a well-meaning and enthusiastic band of Macintosh zealots. I still hold that Microsoft Word 5.1 for the Mac was the best word processor released for any operating system ever, and that subsequent releases of Word only added needless bloat. And Windows had nothing like Hypercard, which was like a combination database, application builder, and multimedia program all in one that totally rocked.

And the best thing about the iMac was that it was surprisingly affordable… well, for a Mac. $1000 was considered a cheap computer back in the days. It wasn’t affordable to me then, but I figured it would be someday. In the meantime, my friend and later roommate Jeremy, had bought an iMac, and he let me use his old Power Mac 6100. My Windows-running beige box was currently out for repairs, again, I took him up on it. And I fell in love with the Macintosh way of doing things. But then one day, I turn on the Mac… only to be greeted by what sounded like the screech of skidding tires and the clattering of broken glass. That was the Mac’s cutesy way of letting you know something was hopelessly broken. No helpful diagnostic beeps or screens of undecipherable error codes. Not even a Blue Screen of Death. Just a car crash noise. Jeremy, who was an Electrical Engineering undergrad, couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it either, so he took it away and I never saw it again, except years later at his house, where his mom had turned it into a planter.

So it was back to the beige box and my loathed adversary, Windows 98. I needed another hit of that sweet, sweet Apple Kool-Aid, but I didn’t have the money and Jeremy didn’t have any more old Macintoshes to give me. (He did have one of those very old black and white Mac SE/30s, but I think he was using it as a telnet server for a MUD he was running or something.) Meanwhile, I had another roommate, a music and engineering major named Rupert, who was also a Machead, but his machines also ran something called FreeBSD. It was a version of Unix, like the computers I used in the CS labs ran, and like the new and improved Mac OS that Apple kept promising, but unlike those, it was open source. That meant that anyone could download the source code for free, compile it on their own computers, and change it however they wanted. Open source meant that you were free to operate your computer without the interference of Microsoft, Apple, or any other corporation. Of course, the only part of that sentence I heard was “free”, so I asked Rupert how I could get this on my PC, and thus be able to toss Bill Gates, and his $89 “upgrades” that were more like downgrades, out on his rear.

Rupert hesitated for a while, and said that FreeBSD was very rough around the edges and not really for the average computer user. I thought that he was trying to insult me, but he then suggested that I try something slightly different. He called it “Linux.” Linux was another open source operating system like BSD, but it was written primarily for the PC architecture. It wasn’t as mature as BSD Unix, but there were distributions of Linux that were more geared towards desktop computing and had better hardware support. And it had a penguin for a mascot. I always thought penguins were awesome.

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I got install disks for two Linux distributions, Red Hat 5.2 and Mandrake 9.0, by finding them in books at the school library on “how to install Linux.” I knew that I would be unable to dual-boot both Windows and Linux on my puny two gigabyte hard drive, so I decided to make a clean break of it. I saved whatever personal files I had onto Zip disks and purged the hard drive of Microsoft, hoping it would be for good. Red Hat was a bust–the CD-ROM drive couldn’t even read the disk. Turns out there was a scratch on it as long as my finger. I hoped the library didn’t think it was my fault.

Mandrake installed very easily–the installation was very user-friendly and fast, but once I started running it, problems began to emerge. X11 couldn’t understand my video card so it was stuck in 640 x 480, 16 color mode. I typed a bunch of mumbo jumbo into xorg.conf, and still no deal. I had to put in my old, non-3D-enhanced, video card to get a decent sized desktop. Then I couldn’t get the sound to work because it didn’t have a driver for my sound card. It also couldn’t read from my CD-ROM drive, which was weird because it installed from there! I wanted to go online to find a solution to these issues, but the Linux didn’t even see my Ethernet card, and wouldn’t use my dialup modem because it was something called a “Winmodem.”

I jumped on Jeremy’s iMac and went to Linux forums hoping for an answer to my problems, only to be told “RTFM, noob” in a brusque, mocking tone over and over again. I pored over man pages and walkthroughs on the Internet, digesting page upon page of obfuscated Unixy language and secret command-line code in a quest to get the machine working. This was definitely not a very Mac-like experience. Here I was, a Computer Science major at a major university, someone who had put a TI-99/4A back together from spare parts when I was twelve, someone who could squeeze every last kilobyte out of DOS’s 640 KB memory limit in order to play King’s Quest V on a 286, and I couldn’t get Linux to work. And I was being laughed at by my fellow nerds for even daring to try. Obviously, Linux was not yet ready for the desktop.

Rupert helped with the Linux whenever he could, but then, well… um… drama happened, and he left the apartment, and school, never to be seen again. I can’t really go into detail about it, but it was very ugly and I felt partly to blame for what happened. And that’s when life kind of started to fall apart for me. Jeremy and I moved to another apartment with another friend, but then my sister moved in, and things there started getting awkward. Since I didn’t have a working computer at home, and didn’t really want to be there anyway, I spent all my time at the computer lab. And instead of programming and doing my school work, I was browsing porn and looking for validation from strangers in online chat rooms. At this time I was taking prescription medication for depression, but this made me drowsy all the time and also caused severe emotional apathy, to the point that I didn’t realize, or didn’t care, that my grades were dropping and I was flunking all my classes. Before I knew it, I was out on my ass, with nothing to show for it all but $60,000 in student loan debt… and a broken computer that couldn’t even run Linux. And all I wanted was an iMac.

To be continued in Part 3, where I take the red pill… and see how far the Apple rabbit hole goes.

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