My History of Computing, Part 3: Ten Years in the Cult of Apple

In Part 1 of My History of Computing, I discussed the series of beige boxes that got me through grade school and into college. In Part 2, I talked about my college years and my flirtations (and frustrations) with Windows, Mac and Linux boxes in the late 1990s. Now in Part 3, I am on my own, a confused kid with self-esteem and identity issues… prime pickings for the Apple cult…

In 2003, I couldn’t have been in a worse place. I had fallen out of college. I was fired from my job as a telemarketer, and couldn’t find another job in the post-9/11 economic slump. I sold all of my belongings just to stay fed, and when I ran out of belongings, I went to the one place I had left to me: my parents’ house in the middle of the desert. I was so emotionally depleted after the mess I had been in that it took over a year for me to even leave the house, and two and a half years to find another job.

But I at least had a computer that made things a little more bearable. Jeremy’s father gave it to me so I could use it to find another job. It was another Mac, or more specifically, a Mac clone: a PowerComputing PowerTower Pro 225. It was a pretty special machine, and it was upgraded to the hilt, with 256 MB of RAM, an IDE card so you could use regular PC hard drives, an expansion slot with 4 USB ports, and a lot of very nice Mac software. It also had the most comfortable keyboard I have ever used in my life: the Apple Extended Keyboard. It’s a lot like the Model M keyboard on my old 286, but not nearly as loud.

100_1602

(Not my particular machine, but close enough. Picture courtesy this classified ad.)

Why did he get rid of it? He had to upgrade to a Power Mac G4 in order to run Mac OS X. The new Unix-based Mac operating system had come out recently and it wouldn’t run on any Mac clones. Killing the clone business was the first thing that Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple, and specifically locking the clones from upgrading to OS X was just another kick in the teeth. But I didn’t care; I had sold my AMD-K6 beige box to a scrap metal dealer for $20 so I could eat one day, and by this point, having Internet access was absolutely necessary for finding jobs and applying for classes at the local community college.

Unfortunately, that’s what made the PowerTower a bit of a problem. While I had absolutely no problem getting online with dialup Internet, people weren’t upgrading web browsers for Mac OS 9 anymore. Internet Explorer for Mac, which was never feature-complete compared to its Windows counterpart anyway, stopped at version 5.5, and most businesses in the early 2000s were writing web code for IE 6. And there was no Firefox for Mac OS 9; the best you could get was its predecessors: the last release of Netscape before it went defunct and an extremely slow and bulky obsolete version of Mozilla Communicator. So at one time I had about 6 browsers on my PowerTower which rendered web code differently and thus was able to browse many modern websites, albeit extremely slowly and clunkily. Not a very Mac-like experience, let me tell you.

Not just web browsers left the old machine behind. I was taking a Spanish class at the local community college in order to fill in some units I needed for my degree. It had a CD-ROM with software inside. The CD-ROM, even though all it included was some Flash or Shockwave-based flashcard software that my computer could run easily, required Windows or Mac OS X in order to install. At least I didn’t need the disk to pass the class. It got worse though. I sent out a bunch of resumes via email to prospective employers and I never got any responses. One of them did write back, however, to tell me that my resume, which was in Word 98 format, was garbled. Apparently Office for the Mac didn’t play well with Office for Windows.

There was another reason why I wasn’t getting any call backs: the job market in Southern California in the early 2000’s was flooded with young college grads with student loan debt who were taking any jobs they could in order to make ends meet. It was even worse where I was at because I lived in a rural area 30 miles from the nearest town, and 80 miles from anywhere with decent jobs. I knew then that in order to find a job, I would have to leave California.

Wagons_east
So I went on my computer and typed “jobs that include housing” into Google, and lo and behold I found a site, Coolworks.com, that listed seasonal jobs in national parks and far-off adventurous destinations. Wilderness and adventure weren’t what I went to school for, but I was desperate. So I filled out the online application for a certain national park hotel concessioner, which, thankfully enough, was a simple web form. A month later, I jumped on a Greyhound bus and went to a job as a front desk clerk in Yellowstone National Park.

lower_falls
(It was indeed a necessary move, not just for my career, but for my soul too. Before going to Yellowstone I had never seen anything like this before. I’ll write more about it later.)

In my national park jobs, I lived in a 10′ x 10′ dorm, so space was at an absolute premium. I knew that if I wanted a computer I’d have to get a laptop. Thankfully, by 2006, laptops had gone down in price considerably and were almost as cheap as desktop computers of the time. So I saved up all my money from working that summer, and the following summer, I got myself a MacBook, mid-2007 model, with a 2 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1 GB of RAM, and an 80 GB hard drive. It cost me $1100, while a comparable Windows-based laptop would have been hundreds cheaper. Why did I blow so much money on a MacBook? Well, I hadn’t actually used a Windows machine since the late 90s. I still saw Windows PCs as hard-to-run computers plagued by viruses and a terrible user interface. I also thought that since it had the Apple name on it, it would have the fantastic build quality and ease of use that I had come to associate with that brand. I also thought that it would be compatible with at least some of my Mac OS 9 software.

671px-MacBook_white

I was wrong on both counts. The white MacBooks were bargain-basement PCs in a slick white plastic wrapper. The screen was so washed-out in color that I found it hard to believe it was sold by the same company that made high-end machines for graphic artists. The screen had a view angle that was so narrow, you pretty much had to look dead ahead to see anything on it at all. My sister and I could not watch a movie on it at the same time, even if we were sitting butt-to-butt right in front of the computer. The speakers were a particular disappointment, as even when turned up all the way, they were still barely audible. And since Apple had replaced the PowerPC architecture in its computers to Intel chips, no Mac OS 9 software would run on it. So none of the awesome games and productivity software I had collected over the years would run on it. (I was able to get a few of the very old ones working via the mini-vmac emulator, but that’s about it.)

But I really didn’t care about this at the time. The computer was still ten times faster than the one I left in California, and a hundred times more portable. And I pretty much did everything in a web browser anyway. Sure, I couldn’t run Office 98 for Mac OS 9, but I had iWork, a Mac-only office suite that was like Microsoft Office, but shinier. And I discovered easy ways to organize my digital photos in iPhoto, edit my home videos in iMovie, and even make music in GarageBand. This was the multimedia platform I had been dreaming of since the days of staying up all night programming frequencies into my TI-99/4A just to make my machine beep “Eleanor Rigby.”

(This is Walter/Wendy Carlos’ Moog version of “Eleanor Rigby,” my inspiration for all the musical things I’ve done on a computer in my life. It’s absolutely beautiful, unlike all the musical things I’ve done on a computer in my life.)

So that was my computer for the next six years. The legendary build quality of the Macintosh line hadn’t transferred over to this model, though. The shiny white plastic chipped from the palm rests almost immediately, making hard jagged edges that made resting my palms on there quite painful. The DVD burner stopped burning DVDs right around the time the warranty ran out, and stopped reading DVDs a couple of years after that. The battery started expanding in its case, and I had to take it out of the computer for fear that it would explode. It started to feel that Apple had made this computer to be disposable.

They might as well have. 2007 was also the year that Apple created the iPhone, and their entire design philosophy changed to match. The iPhone was a powerful personal computer inside the body of a cellphone. Even though it was as powerful as the first iMac, however, it was locked down even more tightly. It had no user-serviceable parts, not even the battery, and no user-serviceable software. You were stuck with iOS and its limitations whether you jailbreaked it or not, and all software installed on iOS had to come from the Apple App Store, where Apple got a 30% cut of all sales.

This was okay for a phone, but then they started applying these principles to their computers too. First they started making Mac laptops with batteries soldered into the units.  If they had done that with the faulty batteries in the first MacBooks, my MacBook would have exploded. Then, they rolled out the Mac App Store in OS X 10.6. Then they made the upgrade for 10.7 only available in the App Store, which required you to give Apple your personal information and credit card number just to log on. In 10.7, they reskinned the interface of a lot of the built-in programs to look more like their iOS counterparts, and started popping up warnings whenever you installed software not downloaded from the Mac App Store.

Or so I heard. I couldn’t actually install 10.7, because it removed functionality that I needed, such as support for the Apple USB Modem, which I needed to get online via dialup at home. It also removed the Rosetta compatibility layer, so a lot of my old software wouldn’t work at all if I installed the update. It dawned on me that Apple could just remove functionality from my Mac at any time. And then 10.8 didn’t support my model of MacBook at all, for no good reason other than they didn’t feel like it. Eventually, I reasoned, Apple would have computers be just like their phones: locked down, closed-source, and made obsolete at the manufacturer’s whim so you would be forced to continually purchase new product.

steve-jobs-apple-big-brother

I saw the writing on the wall, and I didn’t like it. But what were my other options? Windows, which came from a company with even worse business practices? Whose legendary instability and susceptibility to viruses supported an entire industry of anti-virus software manufacturers and shady “clean my PC” websites? Linux, the geeky operating system with poor hardware support that only die-hard technical geniuses could run, and then only on special computers with hand-picked custom components? Or do I just continue to pay Apple $1000 a year for the rest of my life?

I was able to put off that question until 2013, when my MacBook got hit with a power surge that turned it into a white brick. Unlike the Power Mac, it didn’t make a crashing noise when it turned on… it just died and stayed dead. That poor little trooper that had followed me to Yellowstone, to Zion, and to the Grand Canyon was now no more. I didn’t have $1000 for a new one, or $300-$400 for a used one as old as my dead companion. What made matters worse was that none of my friends at the Grand Canyon had a Mac that I could use to get my data off of my hard disk, which was formatted with the proprietary Mac-only HFS+ file system, which couldn’t be read on Windows without expensive software.

I guessed I would just have to “think different.”

Mystery Logo

Continued in Part 4…

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