apple

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.

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(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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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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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.