Today is the 20th anniversary of the Macintosh computer. If anyone knows me, they know that I am a Mac-guy. It’s not that I won’t use Microsoft products (I use Microsoft Office every day), it’s just that I prefer Macintosh, the way it works, the elegance with which the software and hardware are designed and integrated, and its bulletproof nature.
However, my history with Apple Computer goes back further than 20 years ago. In fact, the first computer I remember using was an old DEC minicomputer on paper-feed terminals. All of the computer’s input and output was done on reams and reams of paper. Talk about killing forests! That was for a summer class I took I think between 7th and 8th grade, the summer of 1981. (It might have been between 8th and 9th grade; the memory’s hazy now.) It was a lot of fun learning BASIC and telling a computer to perform a task and having it do it. We don’t think anything of it today, but back then it was revolutionary.
But my first exposure to Apple computers was freshman year in high school. I took a technical drawing class (industrial arts, you know) with Mr. Berube. He was a cool teacher, a helicopter pilot in the Army National Guard who taught us about responsibility for your own work and treated us like young adults rather than children. He also had in his classroom an Apple II+ with a drawing tablet. We were enthralled by it. You moved a pen on the tablet and it drew a white square on the black screen! I think that first computer had a grand total of 16k of memory. Mr. Berube used it as a reward for those who got their projects done early and correctly.
It wasn’t until junior year that our family got our computer, the upgraded Apple IIe. This was also the computer on which I got my first taste of online life. We had a 300 baud modem (imagine!) and I would dial into Boston-area bulletin boards to chat with people and play games and download stuff, mostly relating to Star Trek. We upgraded to an Apple IIc in my freshman year in college (that was supposed to be a sort of portable computer, in the sense that it was self-contained and you could carry it and the monitor someplace else and plug them in.)
Soon after that, when I was working full time, I bought my first computer for me. It was an Apple IIgs (the “gs” stood for graphics and sound, don’t you know.) It was the first Apple computer with a graphical user interface and I remember spending hundreds of dollars on an upgrade to 512k of memory. That’s kilobytes, not megabytes. I spent a lot of time on that computer, buying all kinds of books, customizing it, adding peripherals. It was the computer I used when I became a charter subscriber to AOL, which at the time was called Applelink Personal Edition. (If only I had bought stock in it back then. ) It was the last of the Apple II computers and was soon to be superseded by the Macintosh.
And that’s what I really wanted. Sure, most Macs at the time had little 9” grey screens, while my GS had a big 14” color screen. Still, I knew that Macs were the wave of the future. My sister and brothers worked at Motorola during this time and once in a while I would go with them to work on a Saturday or they would bring a Mac home to do some work and I would get to play with it, usually a Mac SE or something similar.
Yet my Apple IIgs would have to do for sometime. I kept for a long time, and even took it with me to Franciscan University of Steubenville. My first papers during my first year were written on it. But in my third year (my first year of grad school), I finally got what I’d been wishing for: my first Mac. And it was a laptop: the Powerbook 520c! A laptop with a color screen.
I took that laptop everywhere. It weighed a ton, but I didn’t care. I was one of the first people in school who took all his notes on it. There was only one other in graduate theology doing that and he had a Windows laptop. It was a great machine that lived on long after I was done with it, passing it on to my brother Bernie who used it for several years until he bought his own computer. My poor Apple IIgs was relegated to storage in the basement. (It disappeared not long after when a roommate moved out. He denied taking it, but the fact remains it was there before he left and gone after.)
The Powerbook served me well, but when I started working for Catholic World News, I needed a new computer. This was the Power Computing PowerCenter 120 (later upgraded with a faster CPU to become a PowerCenter120/150). Yes, it was a Mac clone from the upstart company that was eventually bought out by Apple. That computer stayed in service long after I moved on. Until last year, it was still running as my pastor’s computer, but eventually we upgraded him to a brand new iMac.
In 1998, I moved up to a Power Macintosh G3/233 desktop. This computer was loaned to me for use at home by an ad agency for which I was doing part-time computer support. But when they went out of business, I inherited it. I soon replaced it, in 2000, with a Power Macintosh G4/450 that was my primary computer for a couple of years, but which is now my web server that this web site is running on over my cable modem. In 2001, I purchased a new laptop computer so I could work on the road, the white iBook (as opposed to the infamous “toilet-seat cover iBook“). That computer is still in use today. When I’m not taking it on trips with me, it’s my in-house portable (catching the Internet over wireless) and playing music (from my collection of mp3s) and talk radio during the day.
In 2002, I purchased my current desktop computer, the iMac Flat Panel 17″, a sweet computer that looks good, performs well, and may be the best Mac I’ve owned yet.
I did skip one Mac that I own, but never used. In the summer of 1998, Apple introduced the original iMac, a product that didn’t only revolutionize computers, but industrial design for all kinds of consumer products. You know a product’s design has had an impact when they make George Foreman Grills that look like it. That summer I entered a contest on the Disney web site. First prize was a car and a trip to Disney World, I think. Second prize was just a trip, and third prize was an iMac. Guess which one I won? The car might have been nice, but I was happy with my new iMac. But since I already had a relatively new and more powerful computer, I loaned it to my brother John who used it as a family computer for a couple of years. Now it’s my mom’s computer and it is happily running all the latest software, allowing her to write letters, check email, and surf the web.
Of course, if I were to follow recent history, I would be looking to buy a new computer this year. The new Power Macs are unbelievably fast, the Powerbooks are sexy, and the iMacs remain great values. And there are probably new Macs on the drawing board that blow even those away.
Yet, it’s not just the hardware that’s so great about Macintosh, it’s the software too. I’ve used every Mac operating system since System 6 came on two floppy disks all the way up to today’s Mac OS X 10.3, a fully modern, Unix-based system. I’ve learned a lot about computers that I wouldn’t have otherwise and used that knowledge to both broaden my horizons—from the first days on bulletin board systems to this blog that I assembled from its various software components. I don’t think I could have set up my own home web server on a Windows box.
Apple Computer’s always been an innovator, going places nobody else dared to go. Remember when the iMac was the first computer to ship without a floppy drive? People said it would fail. How would you send files to anyone else? With CD burners, email, and USB flash drives, it’s not even a question anymore and the floppy disk is dying a quiet death. Who knows what innovations Apple will come up with in the next 20 years: Speech recognition? An entirely new kind of interface? Holographic displays? Something we can’t even imagine today probably. Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it. And I’ll probably be buying it.