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  • Newsletter Issue #1051

    February 26th, 2024


    When I first started to use Macs in the late 1980s, I was the oddball. Most users of personal computers worked on traditional, text-based PCs, such as the ones from IBM. When I visited a computer store — yes there were many of those — to buy apps for my Mac, the clerks often gave me a sideways glance that smacked of derision. Sometimes they actually had a few titles stuck on a rear shelf catching dust.

    I actually reveled in the fact that computer viruses had mostly ignored Macs to my detriment. Weeks after my new Mac iicx was set up at my home, way back in 1989, it caught a virus. Worse, it was from an infected software floppy containing a screen saver utility from a firm known as Fifth Generation Systems. I ended up reformatting the Mac and reinstalling everything, except for that one. An online search introduced me to a solution to future problems of that sort, something known as VirusDetective (discontinued many moons ago). I wasn’t certain if it was best, but I liked the title and, besides, it was something you don’t find often these days — shareware. I didn’t have to pay if I didn’t like it, but nobody would disable it if I decided to just continue to use it. Yes I paid.

    As you might imagine, there was no online checking of serial numbers; access was just too slow in those days. Remember this was before broadband Internet was actually available in many parts of the country. That occurred beginning in 1996.

    In any case, my Mac otherwise worked fine except for a penchant for screen freezes. A forced restart and I was back at work, except that any unsaved work would be history. I got into the habit of saving jobs frequently, and there was even an autosave utility or two around to protect me.

    I would have thought that Apple would get the message and make the Mac OS more reliable going forward. Maybe it was, but I also recall when I bought my first Power Macintosh in 1994. It shipped with a version of System 7.5.x that was so buggy that Apple quickly replaced it with something less crash prone. It occurred within weeks after I acquired the thing, so I didn’t suffer so much.

    In those early years, it seemed as if Apple lost its way. There was such a proliferation of models that even product managers were sometimes stumped. Like computer electronic companies — even today — the cheapest Mac, the Performa series, would sometimes come in models only available at a specific chain store. Spec wise it was hardly different from other models with a different product number. Ah, yes, the infamous Performa series.

    Apple just wasn’t doing so well in those days, and many tech pundits predicted doom. I persevered even after the release of Microsoft Windows 95 cemented that company’s position as the premier provider of computers with graphical operating systems. Sure, Windows was nowhere near as warm and fuzzy as a Mac, but it was usable enough for business users to run Microsoft Word or Excel on it, and there were enough apps to attract gamers.

    I focused my computing — and writing — life on Macs. Although I actually started using what passed for personal computers in the late 1970s — and even learned a tiny bit of basic programming along the way — I chafed at guesswork. I wanted to see what I was getting without having to fix something or do it all over.

    The Mac’s fate, alas, seemed up in the air, however, until Steve Jobs came back into the fold when his company, NeXT, was acquired by Apple in late 1997. Although Jobs’ efforts to build costly computer workstations had long since failed, his operating system, based on Unix, was solid and reliable. At a time when Apple’s efforts to create its own modern day operating system flagged, it was an acquisition born of desperation.

    I don’t think Apple’s executives realized how Jobs would manipulate affairs to place himself in the driver’s seat after his predecessor was ousted. I remember him referring to his status as “ICEO,” for “interim,” since he at least pretended that he was going to hold the position until a more permanent solution was at hand.

    It didn’t take Jobs long to fix a broken company. Product lines were consolidated, simplified. Whole lines of accessory gear were discontinued, including the LaserWriter, which helped began the desktop publishing revolution in the previous decade, and the Newton MessagePad. The latter was in some ways ahead of its time; in other ways it was underdeveloped and just didn’t catch on.

    But it wasn’t just a smaller product lineup. Jobs exploited the talents of his design crew, especially Jonathan Ive, and delivered the bulbous iMac in the summer of 1998. It was meant as a consumer-level model. In that sense, it was a cleverer alternative to the failed Performa series. It wasn’t powerful by any mean. It used laptop-style electronics, but it was cute and relatively easy to use. As the ads said, “there is no step 3.”

    Thus began years of powerful product introductions that set the industry afire. Drab personal computers were supposedly out — though ugly generic PCs are still dominating the workplace — and tiny gadgets, such as the iPod and especially the iPhone, dominated the consumer electronics space.

    In the iPhone, Apple leveraged the technology it acquired with the NeXT purchase. What later became known as iOS was designed as a simplified stripped down version of the MacOS. The product in the middle — the iPad — largely upscaled iOS, but with some new wrinkles to make them more viable as potential computer replacements.

    Well, for some people. After stellar growth, the iPad persisted but never seemed to regain its momentum. Some people swear by — and not at them — but not me. Maybe I’m too old to change, but Barbara, who was never a PC person, has made her iPad a constant companion. She does everything on it, from email to messaging, to online research.

    What was novelty became commonplace over the years. In the third decade of the 21st century, the smartphone is king. Billions of them are in use, and Apple has retained a healthy market share despite the comparisons to the Mac versus PC wars of old with the presence of Android.

    iOS technology, in turn, fed the Apple Watch, which has become a best selling health and fitness device. Sales are probably in the hundreds of millions, making the company a major player among all kinds of wristwatches.

    The departure of Jobs left a money person in charge, Tim Cook, whose production expertise resulted in Apple being able to deliver vast quantities of goods with few delays. Some criticize his early penchant to seek overseas production to save expenses, but that is true for just about all tech companies to one extent or another.

    What Cook isn’t, in terms of his public image, is a salesperson. He seems to try during public presentations, but he leaves his lieutenants to handle the meat of the demonstrations.

    Apple has surely profited, become one of the most valuable — and sometimes the most valuable — companies on the planet by the artificial measurement of market cap. What can Apple do wrong?

    With its products embedded into almost all elements of society across planet Earth, what can they do for an encore. How can they assert dominance going forward with aging products?

    The latest proposed solution, referencing my previous column, is evidently smart — or virtual reality — glasses. The $3,499 (US) Apple Vision Pro is supposedly the next generation of tech gear. Maybe. But the question is, aside from certain creatives and dedicated gamers, who wants one?

    Is it a harbinger of the future where we will be more immersed in electronic gadgets than we are now? Where can Apple take it? Will a future update and tech advancements reduce the size to that of a regular pair of glasses, such as the ones I wear for close-up reading? What about smart contact lenses that tap its resources from a cloud-based AI system? What about simply implanting the technology into one’s head with a simple operation? You can switch between virtual reality — and the other kind — at will or with a shake of your head.

    In such a world, maybe we’ll all be cyborgs of some sort, mostly physical but with electronic enhancements? But will they cure human imperfections, such as decaying teeth, pattern baldness, heart disease and cancer? Just upload the necessary app, and you’re good to go, right?

    While Apple mostly seems to take existing inventions and make them relatively easy to use for the masses, its future is obscured by the mantra that they do not talk about future products. Until they do, usually shortly before it goes on sale.

    So, no, I don’t think Apple has lost it in the years after Jobs left the scene. But maybe it’s too focused on marketing and sales compared to brilliant products, but there are always inventors working in their basements or garages to devise something totally unexpected. In the end, perhaps a replacement for Apple is even now under development somewhere.

    Don’t forget that IBM was once the dominant force in personal computing. But when was the last PC — or electric typewriter for example — released under that brand?


    Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
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