Penman No. 85: The Mac@30

MBAPenman for Monday, February 10, 2014

ONLY DIEHARD geeks and the tech and business media would have noted the event’s passing, but late last month, the Apple Macintosh computer marked its 30th anniversary. January 24, 1984 was the date when Apple introduced the Macintosh in what became an iconic commercial aired at the Super Bowl—directed by no less than Ridley Scott, who had already done the cult classics Alien and Blade Runner. In that video (which you can still see on YouTube), a female runner carrying a hammer smashes a screen on which an Orwellian dictator has been haranguing a hypnotized audience, breaking the spell. The clear implication, of course, was that a new hero had arrived, prepared to challenge and to crush the hegemony of industry leaders like Microsoft.

Today, three decades later, Apple has become the hegemon in many domains of computing, even outstripped in some respects by upstarts such as Samsung and Google’s Android platform. It’s sitting on one of the world’s largest stashes of cold cash—almost $150 billion, larger than the GDP of two-thirds of the world’s countries. The challenger has become the challenged; and with the loss and absence of its founder Steve Jobs, Apple under Tim Cook has had to deal with the “vision question”: what’s next for the company that built its fortune and reputation as the world’s most innovative? After the iPhone, what will Cupertino’s wizards come up with to create loops of frenzied buyers around city blocks, waiting for the Apple Store’s doors to open? In an age when most consumers have a choice between buying and using a tablet and a smartphone for everyday computing and communication, is there still room for a desktop or even laptop with an old-fashioned keyboard?

Apple thinks so. Interviewing Apple’s new bosses recently, Macworld editor Jason Snell reported: “What’s clear when you talk to Apple’s executives is that the company believes that people don’t have to choose between a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone. Instead, Apple believes that every one of its products has particular strengths for particular tasks, and that people should be able to switch among them with ease. This is why the Mac is still relevant, 30 years on—because sometimes a device with a keyboard and a trackpad is the best tool for the job.”

(Okay, here, before anything else, let’s get our terms right: “Apple” is the company; “Macintosh” or “Mac” is the computer that Apple makes, in desktop and laptop versions; “iPhone” is the smartphone, “iPad” is the tablet, “iPod” is the music player; and no, there’s no such creature as the “iTouch”; it’s the “iPod Touch.” “MacOS” is the operating system that runs the Mac; “iOS” is the operating system that runs the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. The MacOS has increasingly begun to look and feel like the iOS, and people have begun talking of an ultimate point of convergence when the two might become one.)

I can certainly testify to the fact that, yes, you can have all of these devices at your disposal (resistance is futile—sooner or later, you’ll have them all, even if you have to beg, steal, or borrow), and yes, you will pick out the best one for the specific job: I use an iMac for surfing, a MacBook Air for all my writing, an iPad for lectures, books, and schoolwork, and an iPhone for calls, messages, and nearly all of the above. (I’ve trained myself to write on an iPhone in a pinch, although I miss the BlackBerry’s tactile keypad.)

This, of course, is nothing short of digital indulgence and downright excess, something our fathers and mothers never experienced (although my non-emailing mother has become a gaming freak on her iPhone, and uses it regularly to speak to her brood here and abroad via FaceTime). Ours is the generation caught between the analog past and the digital future; and while that future will surely be more technologically dazzling and perplexing than we can imagine, we want and will get as much of it as we can now, because we can’t afford to wait. The computer is the baby boomer’s ultimate toy, and I’ve often explained my obsession with new digital gadgets (the flipside of my analog obsession with old fountain pens) as my way of cheating time.

Macs and I go a long way back. Thirty years is exactly half my life, and for most of that half-life—since 1986, when I met, touched, and used my first Mac as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where they had a laser-printing Mac available 24/7 for every 10 of their 40,000 students—I’ve been an unabashed Apple fanboy. There were also some PCs on campus—and I’d eventually buy one, my first computer running on DOS 3.0 with a humongous 10-megabyte hard disk, because it was the only thing I could afford. But it was really the Mac I lusted after, for all the reasons Steve Jobs predicted people would flock to it—it was intuitive (I had brought my Olympia portable with me to the States, and had to be persuaded to give the Mac a chance), it was fun, and it was beautiful.

It wasn’t until I came home, in the early ‘90s, that I got my first Mac—a PowerBook 520c, beloved of Scully and Mulder in The X-Files—which was a gift from a benefactor, who at that moment might as well have been The Almighty. I haven’t looked back since, amassing a virtual museum of Macs, especially portables, from the PowerBook 100 to the MBA. I was glad to learn that, as few as we were like the early Christians, we were not alone. To be an Apple user then was to be a stubborn, persnickety, secretly happy but sometimes publicly sullen member of a distinct minority, derided by the Windows 95 herd (“Windows 95? Why, that’s just Apple 87,” we riposted.)

In the mid-1990s, I joined and later chaired the Philippine Macintosh Users Group or PhilMUG, a handful of Mac addicts—themselves descended from the Macky Mouse Club, an even earlier organization of Apple enthusiasts—who met for monthly get-togethers at Angelino’s on Pasay Road and then Nanbantei near Jupiter Street in Makati. I was part of the focus group Apple assembled for the local rollout of the original iMac, and seeing it in its full glory for the first time was like meeting the Ark of the Covenant. (And to push this semi-blasphemous analogy along, what could have been more mindblowing than meeting the Mac’s messiah himself, Steve Jobs, at MacWorld in San Francisco in 2006, albeit from about 20 feet away? That trip to MacWorld and to Apple headquarters was my visit to the digital Vatican and Holy Land combined.)

Cupertino

Today, PhilMUG has become one of the world’s most active and longest-running Apple User Groups and forums (www.philmug.ph), and I’ve become something of a village elder there, helping chairman Johannes Sia and the other moderators advise newbies on everything from upgrading their machines to choosing the best travel, fitness, and entertainment apps. Everyone, it seems, has an Apple device of one kind or other, or wants to have one. Apple is in commercial heaven, but we—its angels and avatars—aren’t necessarily OK and happy with everything Apple does. Apple’s staunchest supporters can also be its stiffest critics—and we should be, knowing the machines and having invested in them more than anybody else.

But as loudly as I might complain about the iPad’s inability to natively play Flash presentations, among other gripes, I’m resigned to the fact that when the next big Apple product comes around—maybe the iWatch (the precursor of which is the Pebble watch I got for myself and Beng for our 40th anniversary, along the corny theme of “more time together”)—I’ll be there in the front of the queue, asserting my senior citizen’s priority.

As for the Mac itself, I’m also fairly certain that no mobile device, however nifty, will replace a real keyboard and a big screen. At the end of this writer’s working day, a computer is still a glorified typewriter, and it just so happens that as digital Underwoods and Smith-Coronas go, there’s nothing better than a Macintosh. 

 

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