Saturday, January 24, 2009

A historic week for the Valley and the world

As everyone knows, this is a historic week, not just for Silicon Valley but the world. Twenty-five years ago today, Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh at the auditorium of De Anza College, the Cupertino junior college a mile down the road from Apple headquarters. Steve pulled his 20 lb. Macintosh from a bag, and then let the Macintalk speech synthesizer (later starring in Wall-E) do part of the introduction.

MacintoshWhile the original Mac 128 was overpriced by $500 (thanks to John Sculley) and underpowered, it was arguably the most influential personal computer of the past century: it did more to change the direction of the industry than any before or since. One might argue that role belongs to the Lisa, but I believe that since no one bought the $10K computers, without the Mac the industry would have ignored for years the mouse, menus, icons and windows that later brought us Windows. The Mac also brought home the idea that software design matters — consistency of experience across built-in and third-party products is what makes a consumer platform usable.

Looking back to 1984, the Ridley Scott “1984” SuperBowl ad announcing the Macintosh is available from dozens of sites (even including MSN). In response to that ad, I went to my local BusinessLand store and put down my deposit for my first Mac, which came a month or two later. I’ve spent the last 25 years as a Mac owner, 17 of those years at the head of a (proudly) Mac-only software company.

I originally wanted to write about the original intro, the computer, the past 25 years — or at least the coverage — but I realized that was an impossible task. CNET, MacWorld and ComputerWorld have special sections on the 25th anniversary, while eWeek has a slide show and CNN has user-submitted stories. The Merc only has only one main story, but does have PDFs of the original news clips from January 1984. Larry Magid’s 1984 review for the LA Times shows that he really got it, even if he didn’t appreciate how slowwww those floppy drives were.

Perhaps the most personally relevant article was MacWorld’s question of “The best Mac ever,” in which 3 of the 5 experts picked the SE/30:

The Macintosh SE/30 was the pinnacle of the original Mac hardware design. It looked much like its predecessors, but it was far faster—the first all-in-one Mac where the software could really sing.

Sporting every bit as much horsepower as the phenomenally expensive Macintosh IIx, the SE/30 was like a V12 engine shoehorned into a Honda Civic. Though future models with the original upright shape were released, they were all tagged with the derisive moniker Classic. The SE/30 bore no such shame. It was and is the undisputed king of the original, iconic Macs and, therefore, of all Macs for all time.
The SE/30 has fond memories for me, because it was the workhorse for both Palomar Software founder/programmers for several years. Palomar couldn’t afford extra computers, so after Palomar got its first office in 1988, Neil and I would each carry our SE/30 back and forth from home so that we could work in the evening. Later on, when we could afford an extra computer, we would schlep an external hard disk back and forth. The first time I did real software development on a laptop was on Christmas Day 1991, when I used my PowerBook 140 to write the first alpha promised to Eastman Kodak.

A number of articles (such as this one at the Merc) comment about the Mac’s declining influence. One aspect of that goes without saying: many of the Mac’s ideas (themselves copied from the Lisa and Xerox Parc) were copied by Windows and a scad of other computing devices. It was bad for Apple Computer but good for the industry that visual copyrights did not impede these ideas from become ubiquitous in the computing industry.

At a higher level, HCI experts have been saying for years that the Mac is obsolete because we need to get beyond menus and icons. It sounded like a good theoretical argument, but that’s re-fighting last century’s war. The fact is, the heyday of the PC industry was a narrow window at the last quarter of the 20th century, just as the peak of the mainframe/minicomputer industry’s economic and technical importance came between 1964 and 1985 or 1990.

By the Mac’s 35th or 40th anniversary, mobile computing devices will be the dominant form of computing — devices that allow creating and editing any content that we now use a PC for, and also play music, video and communicate with the rest of the world. I don’t know if they’ll run PC operating systems or smartphone operating systems or something else, and whether they’ll be made by Nokia, HP, Sony or someone else. We’ll have our Knowledge Navigator about 10 years late, but with higher resolution and no menu bar.

I think it’s a safe bet that — even if Steve Jobs is gone — Apple will create a few more breakthroughs on the convergence of computers, entertainment and communications devices, if for no other reason than their current strong market (and design) position in each of these segments.

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