The Matrix: MEME 2.07

MEME 2.07


"I can wear blue jeans with the rest of them." Ellen Hancock, Chief Technology Officer, Apple Computer.

The incredible shrinking Apple Computer, now as big as it was in 1987, might consider boiling itself down to what it was twenty-five years ago: two people with excellent skills in network communications with a prescient vision of the future. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple's founders, designed exquisite "blue-boxes" for surfing AT&T's world-wide telecommunications network. Like two peripatetic Fuller-Brush men, or Avon ladies to the nerds, Steve 'n Woz would peddle their "warez" to college students, paying Bay Area dormitories a visit, blue-boxes in hand.

"I was happy to be at UC Berkeley in 1972 but unlucky enough to be a resident of one of the dormitories, filled with freshmen away from home for the first time," Rick Prelinger, the owner of one authentic pre-Apple blue-box, writes. "One night, acting on a lead from a mutual friend, two young men known by the names 'Hans' and 'Gribble' came to my room for a visit. ('Gribble' also went under the name Oaf Tobar.) They were really named Jobs and Wozniak, and they were selling blue boxes."

Through the night, Hans 'n Gribble took the assembled UC Berkeley students on a wild ride, surfing the tendrils of Ma Bell's network. "I recall Jobs using the box to call Dr. Arthur Janov (therapist and author of _The Primal Scream_) and leave some kind of message, and calling Pioneer Electronics in Tokyo only to say, 'Is this Pioneer Electronics? Yes? Thank you.'" Prelinger dropped $80 for an original Hans 'n Gribble box (since donated to the Boston Computer museum), a box designed with utmost precision, the kind of work that later defined the elegance of Apple Computer. It was, as Prelinger explains, "a user-friendly and well-thought-out, plug-and-play appliance."

With arrival of low-cost microprocessors, Hans 'n Gribble shifted their well-honed technical skills towards another project: creating personal computers. The result is history; a computer company which more than any other institution represented the possibility of two words modifying each other -- "personal computer" -- computers by the people, for the people. Blue jeans, long hair, Spacewar T-Shirts, bad hygiene and printers nicknamed after Tolkein characters embodied a new "corporate culture." Well, the blue-boxes are long gone, so are Hans 'n Gribble, but the challenge facing Apple computer is whether it can foster the same kind of innovation and, ironically, construct a street-legal descendant of the blue-box.

The thrill of the blue-box was twofold: it let you make free phone calls and explore information. Freed from cost, people exulted in dialing far-away places and talking to strangers, calling pay-phones in London's Waterloo station, speaking with people at the American embassy in Moscow. Much as people surf the Net aimlessly, clicking their way through a world-wide system, the blue-box offered people an earlier version of info-surfing. Everyone at Apple knows that the Internet is both the company's curse and destiny. A curse because people thinking of what computer to buy for getting wired now choose Windows-based PCs. Destiny because the Internet, or open computer networks, are the foundation of a new wave o