Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Steve Jobs demonstrates a superpower at a party

In 1997, Apple was beleaguered and struggling. But Steve Jobs was back, and there was hope that things might change. Part of that hope came from arch-rival Microsoft, which had shockingly invested in Apple and was working on a sparkling new version of Microsoft Office that would give the Mac an instant shot of renewed credibility. I was working on the team that built Internet Explorer for Mac, which was closely related to the Mac Office team, and I knew that our new Mac software was pretty cool.

Microsoft called the new version Office 97, because there was already a Windows version by that name. But then Steve Jobs convinced Microsoft to change the Mac version name to Office 98 so it could be shinier and newer than what Windows had.

Microsoft rolled out Office 98 at Macworld Expo in January 1998. To celebrate, we held a massive party at the San Francisco Gift Center. The place was overflowing with people. Food and drinks were being served. There was loud music. And up on a balcony that overhung the party, people from Microsoft were trying to talk to the crowd about Office 98. Nobody was listening. The music stopped, but people kept partying, because it was a party. The speakers tried desperately to get everyone to quiet down and listen to them, but it wasn't working.

And then, suddenly, Steve Jobs arrived at the party with a small entourage. Steve walked out on the balcony to join the Microsoft folks who were running the show. Party-goers seemed to notice Steve's arrival, but it was a small distraction at best. The noise continued. Then something remarkable happened. Steve faced the crowd and held up his index fingers to his mouth. He said "shh". Turning his head side to side to reach the whole crowd, he said "shh" again. That was it. The room fell silent. Steve Jobs had turned off a party.

Steve spoke for a few minutes about how awesome Office 98 was and how it could only be done on the Mac. And then he was gone, and the party started up again.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

MacHack was the strangest and best conference ever

Once upon a time, every year from 1986 to 2004, there was an amazing annual programming conference called MacHack.

Some of the key features of MacHack were:
  • It took place at a crappy Holiday Inn in Dearborn, Michigan. There was little to do but hack.
  • The conference started at midnight with a keynote, and the keynote always lasted several hours. I was part of one that ended at 6:50 AM.
  • Every attendee, technical or not, was encouraged to create a hack. All hacks were presented at a hack show on the third night of the conference.
  • Hacks didn't have to involve technology. One recurring hack (executed by +Adam Engst) was to hide a wooden stake in the hotel so well that it would still be in the same place the following year.
  • Hacks were supposed to be cool but impractical. When someone presented a practical hack, the audience derisively shouted "Useful!" .
Conference program from guess which year
One of my favorite MacHack moments took place in 2003. I was in the conference lounge around 3:00 am, eating dinner and trading instant messages with +Chris Page. Chris was at home in Silicon Valley, and I was giving him a hard time because he didn't come to the conference. I went to sleep for a few hours (even though MacHack's motto was "Sleep is for the weak and sickly").

I woke up around 8:00 am and headed to the lounge for breakfast. As I sat eating my sugary cereal, I glanced to my left and was astonished to see Chris Page himself ambling into the room. Somehow he had traveled 2300 miles in a few hours in the middle of the night. I tried to say something, but all I could do was laugh. Chris smiled and started laughing too. He had just pulled it off: he hacked MacHack.

If you want to know more about MacHack, you can read this article I wrote about the 2004 conference.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The first Apple II ad

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the classic issue of Scientific American on "microelectronics" that included the first ad for the Apple II. Because I never throw anything (interesting) away, I found my copy of that four-page color brochure at home. Here's the cover:

Brochure courtesy of ComputerLand of Denver (defunct)

36 years later, Apple still worries a lot about simplicity. That's pretty cool. The inside looks like this:

A completely typical Apple II setup.

The copy is kind of crude compared to today's Apple, but you can see the germ of the Apple style being developed. Most of it is pretty geeky by modern standards, but this was absolutely mainstream next to pretty much every other hobby computer being sold at the time. I mean, come on! Those are actual real normal non-nerds discussing game controllers over a cup of tea and a sliced apple on tasteful dinnerware. Throughout all the ad copy, only one application is mentioned and depicted: STARTREK. The rest is all about things like writing your own programs in BASIC, using a cassette recorder for storage, and all the great peripherals that will be coming out.

Finally, here's the back of the brochure:

Moore's law at work.
Posting detailed specs on the back was pretty standard for the time. The Apple II included a 280x192 high resolution graphics mode, a 1 MHz CPU (that's megahertz with an "M"), a maximum of 48K RAM (but who could afford that?), and a pretty nifty ROM filled with +Steve Wozniak magic that included a monitor (command shell), Integer BASIC, the SWEET 16 virtual machine, a mini-assembler that was the first assembler I ever used, and more goodies.

The Apple II was an amazing machine, and this brochure was my first hint that something special was going on. But I almost didn't buy one because it was too expensive. Almost didn't, glad I did.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Working for Microsoft at Macworld Expo was no picnic

Believe it or not, there was a time when Microsoft dominated and everybody else hated them (only half of which is true now). The Internet in its role as Great Disruptor helped turn that all around, starting in the late 1990s. As Netscape, Apple, and other companies were using the Internet to move forward, Microsoft was working on how it could own the Internet like it owned personal computing.

In the middle of all that, I ended up working on Mac stuff at Microsoft with a ragtag band of Apple refugees deep in the heart of Silicon Valley. These folks built Internet Explorer for Macintosh. It was hand-crafted for Mac OS, by experienced Mac developers, and supported virtually every important native Mac technology, unlike Netscape, which looked and worked a lot like its Windows version and was (I assume) the product of a cross-platform development strategy. Oh, the irony.

What amazing packaging we had back then.
N.B. "Designed for
the Mac".
(Photo courtesy of +Louis Gray)
My job was to write docs and do technical evangelism. In 1996, the Macworld Expo keynote consisted of Apple über-Evangelist +Guy Kawasaki showcasing some great Mac apps. Guy loved Internet Explorer because it was a wonderful Mac app, which really twisted his brain in knots, but he gave us a slot in the keynote. So I got to do a five-minute demo of Mac IE in front of thousands of Mac fans. Although I tried to be ingratiating and self-deprecating, and I worked hard to establish that I was a Mac nerd just like them, nobody was buying what I was selling. After Guy introduced me and the boos died down, I did my little demo, then finished up with the pièce de résistance: a t-shirt with the IE logo and the words

Internet Explorer for Macintosh
Guy says it's OK to try it

Guy laughed. Nobody else did. The keynote moved along.

Although I'd been to almost every Macworld Expo, I never really noticed the Microsoft presence before. Now I was about to find out what that was like (spoiler alert: it's not awesome). Our booth was essentially empty all the time. People used it as a shortcut to avoid the busy aisles around the jam-packed Apple and Adobe booths. As they walked through they sometimes muttered darkly about Microsoft, or chuckled at how empty the booth was. One guy who actually stopped in the booth looked at the stack of IE CDs (yes, as depicted above, companies really used to give out software on CD, even web browsers; downloads at 56K took a long time) and started picking up a few copies. I walked over and said he must have tried and liked IE, because he was taking copies for his friends. He grinned and replied no, he would never use our goddamn software, but he liked to put the CDs in his microwave and watch them crackle. I just nodded and backed away.

On the last day of the expo, I did an interview with KCBS radio in San Francisco. They asked the important question: what in the world was Microsoft doing at Macworld? As I explained that we were a Mac-loving bunch who had created and were giving away a really good web browser for free,  I heard laughter behind me and the reporter cryptically said that the Apple – Microsoft "rivalry" appeared to still be going strong. It turns out that during the interview, people behind me were making all sorts of fun gestures including rabbit ears, throat-slits, and middle fingers. 

Those were the days.