Sunday, January 26, 2014

Remembering the Mac after 30 Years - So What's Next?

Can Apple reinvent the future or is it still imprisoned by its past? 
(And how do they find the next Jobs? Seriously.)

That’s the big question and the 30th Anniversary of the Mac because everything Apple has accomplished stems from the introduction of that cute little computer. The one the business world laughed at. The one that got Jobs fired.

Photo: On the 30th Anniversary of the Mac - this is all that remains of mine!
I remember the exact moment when the Mac arrived in our consciousness, during Superbowl. Between inane soda and beer ads, up popped this: a woman athlete breaking into a meeting of zombies in pajamas and proclaiming that, with the Macintosh: “you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

In the same way that people laughingly thought 2012 would somehow end the world, in 1984, people thought some type of Orwellian mind control conspiracy would blanket the planet. Then along came that ad as a breath of fresh air. The computer was no longer just about IBM mainframe technopriests and hobbyist wonks – it was about something creative and tangible, something a generation that was nervous about being left behind by technology could embrace. Something they actually loved – visualizing thoughts on a computer.

The core of this breakthrough was the visual analogy of a desktop. Just as important was the way you navigated it - with a mouse – and for the first time, computing became a tactile experience and all those mind-numbing text commands were gone.  Now you could you see what you were actually doing instead of waiting for the computer to compile your commands and render out results. The watchword was WYSIG – What you See is What You Get. Idea visualization and mind augmentation -fancy names for things we take for granted today - were still years away but every Mac owner could imagine a whole newkind of visual world.

Steve Jobs went form being a young hero of the personal computer revolution to its head visionary. Suddenly, young urban professionals and creative types were part of the dronish computer world. What was once fearsomely dull was all cool now. Jobs bought an apartment in Manhattan and even dated Madonna.

Then it began to unravel. Not all creatives loved the Mac – Madonna was turned off by Jobs’ computer obsession and businesspeople considered “those little pictures” insulting. The lovable Mac had serious performance issues – sluggish, inadequate memory, few applications and no hard drive. It was also way too expensive for starving artists although a surprising number acquired one anyway. Eventually, Laser printers, hard drives. Excel and the Adobe visual products appeared, but not fast enough.

When the Apple board ejected Jobs, they replaced him with his co-CEO, John Sculley - Hollywood’s idea of a cool-looking exec. For a while, Sculley seemed like the savior. He even convinced people he was a visionary, at one point claiming to invent some part of color TV and presenting a device that looks a lot like today’s iPhone - the Knowledge Navigator, which eventually appeared as the Newton. Sculley became an almost Shakespearean character who, having “killed” the prodigal young King seemed, at first to be playing him one better, only to flounder.

Once Sculley got past the task of improving the Mac it came apart when he introduced the “next big thing.”  Channeling Jobs penchant for shapeshifting that his colleagues called “reality field distortion,” Sculley even appeared on the cover of Forbes holding up the model of visionary miniature laptop when Apple didn’t even have a regular laptop to sell. Readers began ordering anyway and Apple looked out of touch. (Sculley even had me fired from my column at MACWEEK for pointing that out, such was the media control in vogue at Apple.)

Apple’s downhill spiral accelerated with Sculley’s overweight laptop (16lbs!) and bottomed with his charming but impractical Newton, the productized version of his visionary Knowledge Navigator. Sculley was replaced by a succession of CEOs who dragged the company down to where the last one, Gil Amelio, was so lost, he told a reporter that Apple was “a leaking ship and his job was to steer it straight.” Titanic, anyone?

What the Mac had stumbled upon in those exuberant early years was something called “high tech, high touch”. But there was much, much more that was not obvious at the time although people cold sense it – the Mac was also the beginning of a new communication medium. You could easily see what once, only experts could.  Interviews with the creators like Larry Tessler who raided the world of semiotics to come up with icons and Alan Kay, who created the underlying software structure revealed just how serious these pioneers were, having sunk over a decade into the product's evolution.

To users, the Mac generated pure social excitement in the form of user groups, fantastic conventions, edgy tech magazines and most of all, a sense of belonging to a special class. The idea of say, a taxi driver checking his smart phone for information and directions was inconceivable at the time, but only because we could not imagine the increase in computing power and mobility.

Popular as he was, Jobs was not the first visionary to face a coup back home. There was a time when Walt Disney was forced out of his company because he really wasn’t an artist. His partners assumed that, Ub Iwerks who actually drew a rabbit character that was popular at the time was the essential person who could run the company, so out young Walt went.

He responded by inventing Mickey Mouse. Jobs's road back took longer - about 10 years - but even more dramatic.

After departing Apple and dumping all his stock, Jobs invented a more powerful Mac that was too expensive for its intended market, education. Although he floundered, Jobs had actually developed a more robust Mac operating system – something the boardroom suits could neither envision nor have the audacity to accomplish. Their bottom line was always rational improvements and taking incremental steps is always safer – until the paradigm shifts, that is.

To truly understand the meaning of the Mac you would have to see what Jobs really was:  an impresario. He invented none of these products and he wrote no code. But it took the impresario's ability to see how this complex technology could come together in a simple way that could change the World. Instead of seeing it as a better business tool that Xerox could never sell to corporate America, he saw it as the revolutionary visualization tool it was. One that could unlock a scary new world too complex for oldthink.

He also had the moxie to ride herd with a gaggle of libertarian programmers. Most of all, it was only a crazy young company that could talk about computing as a kind of magical state of mind, bringing  hieroglyphics back to life as hip icons and throwing around kanji images and Zen references long before sushi came to replace fish fingers.

It was hardly surprising that when Jobs and his improved operating system was brought back to a dying Apple in 1995, the world had caught up with the true significance of his vision. Microsoft had knocked off the Mac interface with Windows and had pretty much taken over the world, making Bill Gates one of the richest people on the planet. The Web had caught fire with Netscape’s visual browser that blew away the old command-line Internet and was driving a revolution that echoced the Mac’s of 1984.

To Jobs, the Web was now just a giant Mac and all it needed was the original Apple Impresario to bring civilization to this medium, not unlike the way Disney’s world tamed Hollywood.

First, with a massive “Think Different” ad campaign, the iMac changed the look of boring computers, then the Ipod changed music listening and iTunes changed the way we bought music and content. Then the iPhone changed the way we communicate. Totally.

So what’s next? That depends on what you make of Jobs’ Mac legacy. Apple managers have tended to drive the product down, creating improvements but lacking the imagination to hit a home run. Newton is one of the few breakaway products during Jobs’ missing, wilderness years. It failed because the power wasn’t there and the software was just too limited to be really useful.  Under Jobs the “Apple Way” was all about something the original Apple Evangelist, Guy Kawasaki called DICEE: Deep, Indulgent, Complete, Elegant, Emotive. All good to know but it took more than that. You had to know where to find the fire - one that relates to the Mac DNA and the suits rarely get that..

So what really made the Mac so special? Technically, they had developed a semiotics machine - something that enabled you to deconstruct knowledge and display it in simple visuals. You only have to look at TV footage and newspapers from the 70's to see how everything has changed. The underlying technology of object oriented software embodied in SmallTalk  enabled all functions on the Mac to be expressed via a library of essential shapes and functions which could be combined, scaled and otherwise manipulated. You could label any functions or expression with intuitive images – icons – acting as an analogy of the real work. The desktop, workflow, spreadsheet ledgers, database files and so on. Today, it how you child can operate the most sophisticate computer or smartphone wihout ever having opened a manual. (Remember manuals?)

What Jobs did well, was to go after a complex, fractured and hard-to-envision worlds and make it understandable to anyone. That is why he defaulted to education and flourished in the disruptive early days of digital music and overcomplicated smartphones.

So what's next for Apple?

My rule of thumb isL if Apple goes after an emerging, highly diruputive and massively appealing but complicated marketplace, they can win. If it is wearable computing or watches that really have to use it in a way that enable a new paradigm of activity. Incremental moves won't work here.

The problem is, to make a breakthough, then we need to know they have a great leader otherwise all bets are off the table. Tim Cook is a great caretaker but he is not the visionary – and Wall Street is discounting Apple because of that.

Who is the next Jobs, everyone asks?

My advice is, don’t collect resumes, Apple HR. Do what the Tibetan Monks do and ago out looking for his reincarnation. You'll know him when you see him - or her. And they probably won’t be a nice guy. It is only their products we will love.

© 2014 Alan Brody

Friday, January 24, 2014

The 30th Anniversary of the Mac - and what remains.......

Photo: On the 30th Anniversary of the Mac - this is all that remains of mine!

On the 30th Anniversary of the Mac - this is all that remains of my original!