30 years of Macintosh

Stephen Fry commemorates the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh by lamenting one of the great mischances of history:

In one of the world’s most extraordinary missed meetings in industrial, commercial or any other kind of human history, a Henry Morton Stanley failed to encounter a Dr Livingston in the most dramatic and comical fashion.

In the early 90s a young British computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee had been tasked by CERN (Centre Européeen pour la Recherche Nucléaire the now famous large hardon collider that found the Higgs Boson or a tiny thing pretending to be it) to go in and see if he could find a way of getting the Tower of Babel of different computing platforms used by the hundreds of physicists at the plant to talk to each other. He came up with something that made use of metatextual techniques that he called The Information Mine. Being a very very modest man he realised that those initials spelled out his name, TIM, so he changed it at the last minute to the World Wide Web. He wrote a language HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), a set of communication protocols (chiefly htttp — the hypertext transfer protocol) and an application, as we would now say, on which all these could run, which he called a browser.

He planned, devised, programmed and completed this most revolutionary code in Geneva on one of Steve Jobs’s black cube NeXT computers. Hugging his close to him he took the train to Paris where Jobs was going to be present at a NeXT developers’ conference. Clutching the optical disc that contained the most important computer code in history he sat at a desk while Steve marched up and down looking at hopeful programs and applications. As in all of Steve’s judgments they either sucked or were insanely great. Like a Duchess inspecting a flower show he continued along the rows sniffing and frowning until he got two away from the man who had created the code which would change everything, everything in our world. “Sorry Steve, we need to be out of here if we’re going to catch that plane,” whispered an aide into Jobs’s ear. So, with an an encouraging wave Steve left, two footsteps away from being the first man outside Cern to see the World Wide Web. The two men never met and now, since Steve’s death, never can.

Those who only know me as an inveterate Apple-hater probably don’t realize that I started out as an Apple guy. While my father built his fortune on the IBM PC, first on its need for memory cards, then on its need for high-resolution graphics, (he created and sold the first 1024×768 board for it, the ARTIST card.), my pride and joy and constant companion was an Apple //e. It was stacked, with two disk drives, a color monitor, and a 300 baud modem. I loved that machine, but I gave it up reluctantly when I went off to college and it became apparent that I was going to need something better suited to writing papers.

So, my parents gave me a Macintosh Plus, which gave me a huge advantage over other students, who had to wait their turn in the computer labs when they needed to write their papers. I had a particularly nice setup, since I lived in the only dorm with its own computer lab, complete with Macintosh computers and printers, so I could write my papers, then walk the disk down to the computer lab at 4 AM and print them out without delay. I remember, in particular, one paper on Alfred the Great that blew my professor away because it included a map of England on which I’d drawn the various extents of the Danelaw.

Not that he was unfamiliar with the Danelaw, but it was the first time he’d ever seen a printed graphic in a student paper. That was the power of the Macintosh. I don’t think I ever turned in a paper again without some visual example. In fact, looking at the two college papers I still have with me today, one on the economic development of Japan and the Soviet Union, the other on the Italian condottieri, I can see crosshatched maps of Italy and several charts very similar to those that regularly litter my economics posts. That Macintosh Plus created a habit of readily resorting to bar charts that apparently persists even today.

Where the Macintosh ultimately fell down was not in its failure to penetrate the business market. That’s the conventional wisdom, but it is wrong. Apple was never going to dislodge IBM and Microsoft there and was wise not to kill itself trying. The opportunity that Steve Jobs mysteriously missed, long before the World Wide Web, was the games market. Despite its GUI, the failure to adopt color for three years after the PS/2 introduced VGA/MCGA, as well as its reluctance to embrace a non-serious market, meant that Apple conceded the games market to DOS.

Papers be damned. The first time I saw Wing Commander, I switched immediately over to DOS and picked up a Compaq 386/25. I haven’t looked back since.

I admire the late Steve Jobs. He was an amazingly innovative corporate genius. It is deeply lamentable that his chief legacy as a technologist appears likely to be the walled garden of Apple.