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A Technopolitical Digression: Apple and Me

April 29, 2010

Prelude 1: while an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz in 1977, doing crazy programming projects in Algol W punched into cards for an IBM 360, Charlie Bass took us on a field trip to Xerox PARC. There, Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg showed us the Alto workstation running SmallTalk and a concept called Personal Dynamic Media. Black pixels on a white background to look like paper. Multiple windows with icons and animated pictures. A mouse and a cursor. Object oriented processes. A printer that used a laser to create a page that looked like it came out of a book. A big computer at the time, but a vision of a little tablet called a DynaBook. I asked Charlie when we’d actually see a commercial version of the DynaBook. “5 years?” he guessed.

Prelude 2: About the same time, a UCSC student named Kirk Kelley showed me an early experiment in hypertext that he was accessing via a 300 baud modem and printing out on some thermal paper. The printout he gave me has long ago turned jet black, but the concept of hypertext stuck with me.

Prelude 3: I took a Discrete Math class, team taught by the old compiler veteran Bill McKeeman and a fresh-out-of-grad-school teacher named Jim Clark. They never got along, but Clark’s work in 3D graphics at Utah intrigued me. The last day of class, he said he was going to demonstrate a lattice network with a starting node at the blackboard, and a terminal node at the back door. He strode to the back of the room, turned around, flipped everyone off, and he was gone from the class, from UC Santa Cruz, and on to start up his graphics company, and later Netscape. His graphics work stuck with me. His final network diagram stuck with me, both for the math, and for the visual display of information.

Part 1
I cut my teeth on Unix at grad school at UC Berkeley in 1978, where people like Bill Joy and Eric Schmidt were cooking up their code and their future (Schmidt was the TA for my programming languages survey, and I remember him always sitting in the back of the room making snarky comments – Paul Schaffer to Susan Graham’s David Letterman). I continued using Unix professionally at Zehntel beginning in 1979. We licensed Unix source code from Bell Labs, and even licensed a version of Unix for the 8080 from Microsoft. I studied the annotated System 6 source code from UNSW. I remember when Wollongong went against the tide with their “IP/TCP”, but we went with a startup called 3Com instead. I bought a used megabyte of memory from Andy Bechtolsheim for $1000 at his office at Stanford, where he showed us a prototype of a Multibus computer board they had developed for the Stanford University Network (also known as “SUN”).  Vinod Khosla gave us a demo of a new computer from his new company Sun (as opposed to SUN), but it kept crashing.  The old engineering managers yelled “Get a horse!” but we bought one anyway, and former classmates Joy and Schmidt were part of making Sun happen. I was doing mashups with Lisp, OPS5 and Ingres, ambient interfaces and IP-based factory automation services on a Sun-1.  I was moonlighting at Unisoft, doing Unix ports to about 100 different systems built around the 68K.  One of those, in the secret room, was an Apple Lisa and I started thinking back to the PARC demo and Charlie’s prediction. We got an Apple Macintosh at Zehntel in 1984 to do tech pubs, and by 1985 we could actually print them.

Because of that Macintosh and because we knew Unix and TCP/IP, several of us left Zehntel to start Kinetics in 1985. By adapting some Stanford wirewrapped hardware to a mass-produced design, we put the Mac on the Internet for the first time. I moved from engineering to marketing, and was designing our propaganda on a Mac during the day, and helping debug the FastPath into existence at night. For our business to succeed, we had to become deputy Mac advocates, and were invited in closely with Apple to get them into businesses and universities that required real networking.  This was at a time when Steve Jobs was leaving for NeXT and Apple developers were starting to bail, we kept the faith, and got caught up in the fervor of Mac fanaticism. Though we were connecting Macs to Unix systems, my fingers were doing less vi and more MacWrite

Kinetics became part of Excelan, which had their own Unix crew, along with folks looking after VMS, DOS and Windows, and that later became part of Novell, which had its own OS to integrate with all the others. I represented the Mac side of the equation, and wore it well, using successive models of Macintosh both at work and at home.  Steve Jobs gave us a NeXT box, which gave us all some good ideas, but would never become my primary computer. I was part of a secret team called “Star Trek” (how nerdy can you get?) which was a joint venture between Apple and Novell in 1992 to port the Mac OS to the Intel platform. Even when Novell bought Unix, or the Unix name, or something that still isn’t quite clear to me, and even after I took over Novell’s desktop products division which was mostly DOS and Windows-centered, I was still hanging in there on a Mac.

Unix+Mac+NetWare coming together at Novell gave me a real allergy to all things Microsoft. It was easy taking shots at DOS in the 80s while sitting smugly at my Mac. In 1987 I went to MacWorld Boston, where Apple introduced things like the open Macs (slots for cards) and a new application called HyperCard, where you could hyperlink text and images within different parts of a document, and some people even made front ends to network apps. That was cool. A month later, Bill Gates and Microsoft introduced its new Microsoft Mouse at PC Expo, and I think the crowd there actually thought that Bill Gates himself had personally invented the mouse earlier that week. The Microsoft allergy has stuck with me for a long time, even as I’ve loaded up a variety of Windows emulators onto my Mac, and started using Microsoft apps for the Mac. There’s always been grudging reluctance, and a definite lack of respect.

As the web emerged, I moved on from Novell to start Clear Ink in 1995 (with Schmidt joining Novell shortly thereafter.) My programming side re-emerged in developing 90’s-style web sites. You remember, the decade before last? Still on a Mac, but connecting more to Apache and other Unix-based services. I had to call on the vi muscle memory to augment BBEdit, but it was still there.

Then Steve Jobs came back to Apple, brought those good NeXT ideas and we had OS X. And on the same computer at the same time, I had Mac OS and BSD Unix. I could save a file in a folder on my Mac, open a terminal app and pipe the file through awk | grep | sort | uniq and go about my business as though I’d been doing it for 20 years. With one computer I could run Macintosh, Unix, and yes, even DOS and Windows. Apple had done well by me. And Steve Jobs continued to innovate and revolutionize multiple industries: computers, telephones, music, movies, retail, and I still saw the world as a technopolitical battleground, with Microsoft as the axis of, well, actually the singularity of, evil.

Part 2
The world is more complicated. The alliance of good vs the singularity of evil is no longer so straightforward, and recently I’ve been flashing on what’s next for me. The alliance of good saw Netscape emerge and go away, at least leaving the Mozilla legacy in its wake, but that didn’t really make an overall difference. There was also the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” effect: the rise of Linux helped counterbalance Microsoft, but not in a way that fractured the alliance. Sun and Apple weren’t natural allies, but Sun’s Microsoft allergy extended to the banning of PowerPoint or Word docs, and I’d never seen so many MacBooks in evidence than at meetings with Sun.

The single most important factor to upset the balance of power has been the rise of Google. And the transformation of Microsoft post-Gates. And the transformation of Bill Gates post-Gates. And Apple’s turn toward the dark side.

My desktop is a strange mix of legacy Microsoft apps (weaning myself off of Office 2004), I no longer need to use OpenOffice much, and I’vebeen converting over to the Apple iWork apps (Pages=Word, Numbers=Excel, Keynote=PowerPoint) and moving from Entourage to Apple Mail. I’ve been using an iPod Touch as a wi-fi handheld computer for the last couple of years, in addition to it being an MP3 player. I would have had an iPhone except for my Verizon contract, but even after that expired, I was still not ready to switch to AT&T.

But Apple? Is Steve Jobs Mrs. Grundy (at best) or Hu Jintao (at worst)? What’s with Jonathan Ive’s customer dissification?

At the same time, I saw some great Windows 7 demos at the TED conference, as well as updates from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I haven’t tried Windows 7 yet, but am much less reluctant to. I’m using Google Apps for Business to run my company’s mail and calendar, and am starting to use the web-based apps as well. And a Google Android-powered Nexus One dropped in my lap at TED a couple months ago, unlocked and sans contract. I’m using it every day as a computer more than a phone (so far), and it’s got me thinking.

What do I want to integrate with? How will it look? Have I transcended platformism? Is anyone good or evil? Would I embrace a Chrome OS? What’s next?

I’ll ruminate more later. I actually started writing this in February and so much more has happened since then like Apple vs. Adobe, like my new iPad, like Apple sending the cops to bust down journalists’ doors, like is Facebook evil? But if I kept it up, this post would never finish, so more later.

(And while it’s taken me 3 months to spit it out, Jon Stewart does it in 8 minutes.)

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