I am a middle kid. When I started high school my brother had already used the family computer, a Mac Plus, for a couple of years before he left for college. The thing had no on-board storage so for a while I wrote everything on an early version of Microsoft Word that fit on six 3.5″ floppy discs that you had to constantly swap in and out.
When we bought a hard drive my sophomore year, I thanked jeebus to be past that disc swapping nonsense. Still the hard drive seemed excessive somehow, a big expensive thing that had way more memory than we would ever fill (thirty two megabytes!). I was a cold-blooded killer with CrystaQuest. I struggled to ‘win’ SimCity v1.0 until I figured out that you could keep taxes at 0% for most of the year and then jack them up to something crazy on tax day. I hear that they ironed that out later.
When I left for college my sister took over the Mac for a while. Startup took a few tries by then, but papers came out of the ImageWriter II for a few years yet. Eventually the folks bought her a laptop just because.
Two things stood out about that grey box. One, using it just made sense. I watched my brother run it when I was eleven or twelve, and then I figured out the rest myself. Two, twelve-ish years is a pretty good run for a computer. The thing lasted so long that it went way past being slow and limited next to the stuff that other kids were using. It became a comical monochrome dinosaur that would not die or even call in sick. It did not occur to me until college that peripherals and drivers and weird operating system versions could get in a fight and tie up the inside wires in irreperable knots.
I think it is wrong to argue that the simple, everyone-friendly personal tech would happen eventually if Steve Jobs finished his college degree and found a comfy job in insurance. What happened when Apple forced him out? They made PC clones with Microsoft-like operating systems that had less and less to offer consumers other than vastly less compatibility with proprietary software and equipment. When Jobs bought Pixar he created an absolute revolution in animation. When he came back to Mac he re-reinvented computers, phones, music and pretty much every damn thing else. I honestly think that without Jobs we’d live in a world where fat feature lists are pretty much the only thing to distinguish our awkward, buggy PCs, smartphones and Microsoft Zunes.
Mark Nugent made a related point this morning at TAC.
The original Macintosh was introduced in 1984 as “the computer for the rest of us”—an easily-scoffed-at slogan, as the machine retailed for $2,495, or $5,440 in today’s dollars. But even though its products are still criticized as overpriced, Apple has since delivered on the democratic promise of computer technology. The iPhone and its peers, which are orders of magnitude more powerful than all 16 pounds of that first Mac, are within easy reach of the middle class. What’s more, you can’t get a better phone even if you’re able to pay an extra $500, $10,000 or $100,000, which is not the case with cars or televisions. Assuming Microsoft’s chairman uses a phone based on Windows Phone 7, I can safely say that, with an iPhone 4 in my humble pocket, I have a better phone than Bill Gates.
This is a philosophical point, but it cannot be emphasized enough. The idea that the feature list matters above all pretty much defines Microsoft. It would rule the world if a counterweight did not exist to challenge Redmond’s lead. It genuinely worries me that nobody else can match the simple, reliable, good aesthetic that characterizes Apple stuff, because Apple will have to do it and they don’t have Jobs anymore. RIP.