MEME 1.03

MEME 1.03


I had originally intended to write about Newt Gingrich and the Unabomber in this issue of Meme, but, unexpectedly, Meme 1.02 on Windows '95 created an infectious mini-plague which turned around and sent me off to another course. My thoughts on Windows '95 and the Whole Computer paradigm were quoted in the August 28 issue of Inter@active Week and this led to a stream of surprising email -- people bemoaning the supposed death of Apple in this new world, asking me what I thought about Apple. So this issue of Meme is dedicated to debunking:

The Myth that Apple Could Have Been a Contender.

The popular press is awash with eulogies for Apple Computer. These eulogies come up all the time: with the IBM-PC in 1981; the mutant Lisa in 1983; the arrival of Windows 3.0 in 1990; the Newton fiasco in 1992; Windows '95 in, well, 1995. The weird thing about these eulogies is that they often have more to do with the mood of the writer at the keyboard than the facts. Since most writers use Macintoshes, it is no surprise that they are especially depressed about the ever increasing marginalization of Apple. I share in that frustration as well, since it means fewer and fewer software products come out for my cranky Mac IIcx (how it sags these days). But sentimentality aside, the facts are that Apple never, ever, had a chance to be the "industry standard" for personal computers. Not in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 (I can count) to 1995. Not ever. So if there is zero chance of ever dominating the entire industry with your standard, what do you do? This is the question Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and later John Sculley all faced all day, every day. And you know what? They played the game beautifully, nearly every step of the way.

A little bit of theory first.

Making computers is a really weird business. It's weird because the whole industry sits on top of a giant wobbling-bowl of jello. The jello is the uncertainty created by the relentless advance in microprocessor technology. Every 18 months the core thing which makes a computer a computer halves in price and doubles in speed. That's a lot of instability because it means your computer is constantly facing supposed "obsolescence." From our point of view, as people buying these things, the microprocessor march is both exciting and disturbing. Exciting because we get to do new things with our ever more powerful computers -- like play Doom in the office. Disturbing because whatever sits on your desk and cost a bundle is never right. It's never really good enough. It's never state-of-the-art. It's always somehow slightly deficient. We surreptitiously paw through the computer ads in the paper, getting frissons of megahertz envy, fantasizing about having a machine "expandable to 768MB of RAM" (the PowerMac 9500/132, yours for $5,200).

Thanks to the microprocessor things get so much more powerful so quickly that there is a real fear of not being "backwards compatible", meaning the files from 1982 should still somehow run in the word-processor from 1982, even if it is 1995. This kind of uncertainty scares people with really big pockets, people who have thousands of employees and can spend thousands o