“And that’s what we’re about”

Steve Jobs MWSF 2000  The Big Picture

I was watching Steve Jobs’s keynote at Macworld Expo in San Francisco in 2000, important because it’s when Jobs introduced Mac OS X, its architecture and Aqua interface, when he introduced iTools (basically iCloud’s great-grandfather), and when he announced as a ‘one more thing’ that he wouldn’t be ‘interim’ CEO anymore at Apple but would take the CEO role in a more permanent capacity.

There’s a bit of this keynote I’d forgotten about, though, and I think it’s just as important. At the end of the event, before the ‘one more thing’, when Steve is wrapping things up, he talks about ‘The big picture’ and about what makes Apple Apple. I have transcribed that bit and decided to publish it here because I think it’s still relevant:

I want to zoom out and talk about the big picture of how we see all of these things play together. You know, I remember two and a half years ago when I got back to Apple, there were people throwing spears saying “Apple is the last vertically integrated personal computer manufacturer, it should be broken up into a hardware company, a software company, what have you,” and— it’s true, that Apple is the last company in our industry that makes the whole widget, but what that also means [is that] if managed properly, it’s the last company in our industry that can take responsibility for customer experience. There’s nobody left!

And it also means that we don’t have to get ten companies in a room to agree on everything to innovate. We can decide ourselves to place our bets like we did for USB on the original iMac; hardware — let’s build it in; software — let’s build it in; marketing — let’s go evangelise it to the developers and tell our customers why it’s better. And let’s not wait three years for an agreement — and now Apple is leading in USB. Desktop movies — let’s take our hardware and put FireWire ports in iMac, let’s write applications called iMovie that take advantage of QuickTime and allow us to do these things, and let’s go market it, so people can understand this and see how easy it is to use. There’s no other company left in this industry that can bring innovation to the marketplace like Apple can.

So, we really care deeply about the hardware, we think this is where everything starts, and we got again the finest hardware lineup in Apple’s history. We’re so proud of these products. But we also do software at Apple. Again, we own the second-highest-volume operating system in the world and one of only two high-volume operating systems in the world. We make a lot of other software: Mac OS X coming, iMovie, et cetera. And the greatest thing is when we put them together, and we integrate them, like the examples I just gave you, like iMovie and the new iMacs, seamlessly integrated into desktop movies. Another example is AirPort, where we could seamlessly integrate this whole new wireless networking technology into our OS, so when you plug in an AirPort card in your iBook you don’t have to spend half an hour flipping settings. It just — boom! — pops to life and works.

This is the kind of innovation we can bring through this integration. And now we’re adding Internet stuff. We got our first four iTools today, that wouldn’t be possible if we couldn’t take unfair advantage of the fact that we supplied OS 9, the client operating system, and so that our servers and our clients could work together in a more intimate way than anyone else can do. And so we’re gonna integrate these things together in ways that no one else in this industry can do, to provide a seamless user experience where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And we’re the last guys left in this industry that can do it. And that’s what we’re about.

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‘It Just Works’ should be the next step

Knowing I like to talk about user interfaces, usability and operating systems, a few weeks ago my friend Michele Di Paola pointed me to this essay on Medium: macOS: It’s time to take the next step by Andrew Ambrosino, tacitly asking my opinion about it.

It’s a good essay, one that gives me the opportunity to discuss things that interest me, considering how lately it seems that Mac OS X and non-mobile operating systems have become a bit of the Cinderella of the tech debate.

A large part of Ambrosino’s contribution is devoted to big images showcasing how he imagines the next Mac OS interface, and I have to give him credit — for once, I’m presented with something that looks entirely possible and not just some designer’s abstract wet dream. It’s a very Apple-like direction towards an even more polished UI. I like the visual consistency of his proposal, and the idea of having Mac equivalents of certain iOS apps.

Some of Ambrosino’s UI touches also remind me of certain design choices I don’t particularly like when applied to a desktop operating system, such as the disappearance of chrome from application and Finder’s windows. Yosemite has brought to OS X the same kind of ‘flat revolution’ iOS 7 brought to iOS, and while I agree that a visual refresh was overdue (for both systems, but especially for OS X), the switch to a flatter design has also come with questionable decisions related to user interaction and usability. The extreme reduction of window chrome, coupled with the ability to resize a window from any side means an increased, unnecessary difficulty when moving windows around.

Sometimes you try grabbing a window from its title (an old habit for seasoned Mac users) and you accidentally resize it. Sometimes, when having multiple windows open in a text application, instead of moving a window away, you end up either resizing it or even inadvertently selecting text in it. This happens in particular — to me and to a few different people I spoke with — when using the trackpad as input device instead of the mouse. Small last-second movements of the fingertips, and the pointer is offset enough from the intended position that you end up mishandling a window in the ways just described.

I believe we can give windows some chrome back, or even a more visible, grabbable border, without losing in flatness or elegance. To tell you the truth, I find the old way of resizing a window by only having to drag the bottom right corner to be more comfortable and less error-prone.

The part I most disagree with in Ambrosino’s proposal, however, is when he talks about a new filesystem that would leave behind the old hierarchical model in favour of a ‘single bucket’ model, relying on “powerful search and self-organization” (?):

Last year I had the privilege of working at Upthere […]. Started by Bertrand Serlet and others a few years ago, the goal has been to introduce a brand new stack that forms a cloud filesystem and model for organizing content. The model is simple and the implementation complex — it lacks hierarchy and relies on powerful search and self-organization, along with building in sharing and collaboration into the filesystem itself. It’s about time for macOS to shift to this type of organization (or just buy them!)

This is not the first time I’ve heard this tune, that the hierarchical filesystem must die because— well, apparently because it’s an old model and not suited for our modern needs anymore. The ‘top highlight’ of the essay is: We produce far too much content and our work is too often collaborative to rely on a manual model that was designed many, many years ago.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. Am I the only one who sees the ‘single bucket’ model as being actually more impractical when applied outside of the cloud and at the local level? Why have to solely rely on search, when things can just as easily be found by browsing because in most cases you already know where to look? That’s why it’s called Finder. Even when Spotlight on the Mac worked better (under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.9 Mavericks, in my experience), I usually found what I was looking for by going to where I knew it would be — because I put it there in the first place — or where I at least expected it would be; this latter scenario happens when I don’t remember the exact file name (e.g. IMG_7918) but I’m pretty sure about the name of the folder I’ve put it in (e.g. Firefox iPad screenshots).

Also, with this proposed new ‘single bucket’ model, how would one manage operations like copying a bunch of files from the Mac to an external drive or USB key? Sure, one can look for the files first, or maybe they’re linked together by what Upthere calls loops, but unless I’m missing something obvious, this doesn’t strike me as a faster way to carry out what amounts to opening a couple of folders in the Finder and drag-and-dropping the relevant files on the destination drive.

I’ve nothing against searching, mind you. A powerful search is a great tool to have. For me, it works like this:

  • The Finder is my short-term memory search tool: all recently accessed files and projects are basically a click away. I’m usually faster at retrieving stuff by looking at my organised folders inside the Finder than accessing Spotlight, typing what I want to retrieve, and finally opening it.
  • Spotlight and (better) Find Any File, are my long-term memory search tools. I use them every time I need to look for something I filed long time ago and am not sure anymore where to look for it. If I feel I may have moved it on another volume, I connect my external hard drives to the Mac and perform a blanket search on all volumes. This is obviously much faster than fumbling about clicking on several folders down the wrong rabbit hole.
  • Then there’s Raskin, which is the tool I resort to especially when I’m looking for a certain image file or photo or PDF document and I have absolutely no idea what its filename is or where I put it, but I remember what it looks like. Raskin provides an unique bird’s-eye view on folders and files, and in several occasions I’ve been able to spot the image I was after by recognising it ‘from above’. Raskin is a rather ingenious tool that perhaps needs a bit of your time to become familiar, but once you get accustomed to its logic, it’s a handy solution to have in your arsenal.

My point is, why should the filesystem be tied to a single model at all? Why not have multiple ones? In other words, why not let people organise stuff with the method that’s most efficient for them, and then offer multiple models, multiple ways to search and retrieve information? Macs are powerful enough to handle this, and certainly powerful enough to manage underlying complexity while offering user-friendliness on the surface. The seeds are there: just imagine a more efficient Finder with a more efficient Spotlight engine, plus a better way to display search results and ways to interact with such results; plus an added capability to perform visual/spatial bird’s-eye view searches the way Raskin does. Not to mention Siri as a search tool. All built in OS X (or MacOS, whatever it’s going to be called next). Things simply need to work more seamlessly, more coherently, and more reliably.

Let’s get back to that ‘top highlight’ in the essay: We produce far too much content and our work is too often collaborative to rely on a manual model that was designed many, many years ago.

What does this mean? In what ways the hierarchical filesystem is inadequate to handle far too much content and collaborative work? It’s a genuine question. You file content gradually anyway, you don’t usually produce 250,000 files overnight and have to organise them the day after. While doing research for Low Fidelity, the science fiction novel I’m publishing in serialised form on my magazine Vantage Point, I recently downloaded a lot of PDFs from the Web. I hadn’t planned that — I started finding interesting materials online, one thing led to another, and when I realised my Downloads folder was getting crowded, I created three new folders to organise the files I had downloaded; then I put everything in the Research folder inside my Low Fidelity project folder. Doing this is simple, it keeps my stuff tidily organised, and keeps me organised and efficient when I need to retrieve information.

As for the collaborative work — I honestly don’t know. I have done little collaborative work in my professional career. The little I’ve done never involved working with other people on the same file at the same time. We simply agreed to share a dedicated Dropbox folder.

On a similar note, I haven’t much to say about The People Thread, the last section of Ambrosino’s essay. I guess it’s a smart thing to create ‘an advanced common thread for people,’ considering how obsessed the present technological era is getting on the social aspect of everything. I still view the Mac as a personal computer first — as a local, private, personal space first, and a means to share slash collaborative device second. So if I were to design a new model for the Mac operating system, I would still favour the personal over the social, but of course I’d give the users with more social/collaborative needs all the necessary tools to carry out whatever they want to carry out.

In the end, I think that what the next ‘MacOS’ needs most is focus. Focus on what it has historically done best — ‘just working’. I don’t think that the current problems of OS X have much to do with its old age or its old models. It’s more a matter of identity. I feel that recent versions of OS X have tried to ‘look friendly’, as if to say Hey folks, I can be simple like iOS! Look, I too can have big app icons taking up the whole screen! I too can go full-screen with apps, and I can do split-view just as well! And I have Notification Centre like on iOS! and so on. This path of convergence with iOS hasn’t been all bad, but the process has involved an accumulation of new features which not always have brought more value or functionality, and often have introduced bugs or annoyances; all this has ultimately undermined the most important aspect of using a Mac — the ‘it just works’ aspect.

OS X shouldn’t present its simplicity by dressing up as ‘the iOS for the desktop’. It should present its simplicity through its powerfulness and versatility, through a coherent, cohesive system that ‘just works’. A system that is more than just the sum of its parts. A system where — to make an example already mentioned above — people can organise their documents and files any way they like, and then search and retrieve them in many different ways: through the Finder, or a more reliable version of Spotlight, or by looking at the entire filesystem from a bird’s-eye perspective like in Raskin, or by performing dictation search through Siri. What makes people love iOS, what makes people think iOS is much simpler than OS X is, I believe, its reliability. iOS feels positively predictable, dependable. This kind of reliability should become the main focus for the next ‘MacOS’, not just a continued aggregation of old, newer, and borrowed features swept under the carpet of a translucent, attractive UI.

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From standalone utility to service

Ever since Smile Software introduced their new service for TextExpander, and switched to a subscription model for pricing, it seems that everyone in tech had an opinion about it. Bless you, Michael Tsai, for collecting the most interesting contributions.

Before getting to Tsai’s, the first opinion piece I read on the matter has been TextExpander goes Subscription Only by Joe Cieplinski. While I’m not a software developer, I share Joe’s perspective:

As a developer, I completely understand and support Smile’s decision. I’m sure there are a number of hard-core TextExpander junkies who use the software several times a day. For these folks, it should be a no-brainer to fork over $5 a month.

As a customer, it gets harder for me personally. I’ve been using TextExpander for many, many years. I’ve upgraded to the latest version up until now. But I’ve never been what you’d call a “power” user. Basically, everything I do with it I could probably pull off with the built-in text shortcuts in iOS and OS X. TextExpander does way more than that, obviously, but I personally don’t use those extra powerful abilities.

I understand Smile Software’s decision and wish the company all the best because I, too, offer a subscription-based product, my Vantage Point magazine. As a TextExpander user, again, I’m in a similar position as Joe’s. I’m probably an ever more casual user than he is. I have TextExpander only on my Mac. I don’t need it on iOS because I don’t write enough on my iPad or iPhone to have to resort to a tool such as TextExpander, and I also don’t need to synchronise the snippets I have accumulated on the Mac. There are several snippets that are simply a quick way to correctly type certain often-used words, like iPhone, iCloud, iTunes, MacBook Pro, and for those both iOS’s autocorrect and predictive keyboard are a surprisingly useful alternative. I write on the Mac, I write a lot, so TextExpander is a nice aid there. But still, I’m basically only using TextExpander’s core feature: text snippets that get automagically entered when triggered by the designated abbreviation. The fact that I’m still on version 4.3.6 should be telling enough: I’m happy with it as it is.

Michael Tsai makes a good point here:

The new service makes it really easy to share snippets with other people, and it sounds like there are big plans for more team/collaborative features in future versions. This is really cool, but I have no personal interest in using those features. It seems like the product is being refocused for a different audience. There is essentially nothing new aside from the sharing.

I won’t be subscribing to TextExpander-as-a-service because I’m not interested in the extra features it would provide, and because for how I use TextExpander, investing about $50 per year is too much. Before you think What a cheapskate!, let me rephrase that: investing another $50 — in addition to what I already pay yearly (or monthly) for other services, and considering my low budget — is too much.

Since I followed the debate, one theme I’ve often seen popping up is something that Joe Cieplinski has articulated best:

Subscriptions are going to be the primary way we pay for productivity apps eventually. It’s going to happen. It has to happen. Upgrade pricing has been rejected by most consumers, and many businesses tend to prefer the predictable monthly costs of a subscription. As Adobe and Microsoft have shown, subscriptions may be a hard sell at first, but the long-term benefits to the health of products based on subscription are obvious. At least for pro apps.

I wouldn’t use the ‘pro’ versus ‘consumer’ (or ‘casual’) differentiator here, though. I’d use the phrase At least for apps where a subscription makes sense. Or For apps for which becoming a service makes sense. This is the differentiator for me. This is what has felt off for me since Smile announced the switch to a subscription-based service for TextExpander. I’m a long-time Mac user, I’m old school, I’ve been paying for software since it came in big boxes with a dozen floppies and hefty printed manuals inside. To me, TextExpander is a standalone utility. This switch to service feels forced, feels more like renting an app than paying for the kind of availability and convenience deployed on a large scale that’s provided by an entity like Spotify, if you know what I mean.

Tsai:

It is said that customers don’t like to pay for upgrades. I wonder how much of this is because Apple has conditioned them, through the App Store and its own app and OS updates, to expect all updates to be free.

I always try to educate people to pay for apps and upgrades. Subscriptions make me nervous and I tend to view them as something that is more beneficial to the provider than the final user. Mind you, there are many contexts where a subscription model makes sense: cloud services, music streaming, video/movie/TV streaming, and so on. But just as I think that the patronage model isn’t sustainable for a single user because such user cannot possibly support more than a few developers offering it, the same is going to be true should more developers follow Smile’s steps, refocussing their apps and utilities to work more like ‘services’ — maybe in the name of ‘social’ or ‘syncing’ features not all users may find useful or compelling.

The various App Stores and the poisoning, infamous ‘race to the bottom’ in app pricing has certainly done a lot of harm to the perceived value of software. I still believe that people can be educated to pay premium prices for good-quality software. I don’t know if a subscription model could be an answer to the problem of paid upgrades — how can those people who are averse to paying for the occasional major update be keen on paying for an app on a monthly basis?

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40 years of Apple: some personal moments

2 kinds of people

Apple has been in my life for a long time, years before actually owning an Apple computer. I got interested in computers after I was given a Commodore VIC-20 as a Christmas gift. I started reading computer magazines immediately afterwards: those were the years when news stands were getting crowded with technology-related magazines, and lots, lots of publications offering games on cassettes for 8-bit computers like my VIC-20 or the Sinclair Spectrum, TI-99/4A, Tandy, BBC Acorn, etc. — and of course the Apple ][. I remember wanting an Apple computer since I saw an Apple ][e in person at the home of a family friend. Her son, just a few years older than me, was a real tinkerer, and showed me a lot of cool things he had done with the Apple ][e (sometimes helped by his uncle, who was an engineer.)

I was definitely hooked, but alas, Apple computers were expensive at the time, and my family couldn’t afford to get one for me. So I waited and waited, using more affordable machines, but mostly buying computer magazines to keep myself up-to-date with that fascinating world. I talked with my friends about Apple in such a knowledgeable way they thought I actually owned an Apple computer. I had to wait until 1989 to start using a Macintosh, and late 1990 to own one. It’s been — and still is — a wonderful ride. Here are a few meaningful personal ‘moments’ involving Apple I have experienced over the years that I would like to share with you.

The first Mac I used

Macintosh SE + LaserWriter
This is not a personal photo, but one I’ve found on the Web on a Japanese blog and decided to borrow to show you how my first workstation looked like. As I wrote in Celebrating 30 years of the Mac, My first Mac wasn’t a Mac I owned, but a Mac I worked on while apprenticing in a small ad agency in 1989. It was a Macintosh SE FDHD (so called because it had a 1.44MB floppy drive and a hard drive, instead of two 800K floppy drives), with 4MB RAM and a 40MB hard drive. The other part of my first Mac workstation was a LaserWriter IINT printer connected to that Macintosh SE. I spent a lot of time working in Quark XPress 2.1. That’s how I got introduced to Desktop Publishing.

When one of the agency’s founders told me I could have the small corner desk with that Mac and that printer all to myself — that is one of the most intense moments in my personal history with Apple’s products. After seven years or so reading about Apple computers, devouring review after review of the various models in the Apple II family, then the Lisa, the first Macintosh, dreaming about having one of these beautiful machines, and finally sitting at a desk with one… It was awesome. It was also amusing seeing the faces of my co-workers when they saw how well I was familiar with the Macintosh despite not having one at home.

The first Mac I owned

Macintosh Classic and SQ5200
A Macintosh Classic, purchased second-hand in Milan in 1990, with (at the time) 4 MB RAM and a 40 MB hard drive, later replaced with an 80 MB unit. The photo above is of that very Mac, but taken at the end of December 2014. Yes, it still works. I’m sure you can understand how finally being able to purchase your first Mac may have felt. I was truly happy that rainy November day. I remember that all the guys at the second-hand shop were incredibly nice with me: the owner made me a discount on the spot once I told him I was a student, and on a budget, and gave me several copies of old magazines with extra floppies, plus a box of 10 empty floppies “to get me started”.

The trip home was also memorable: they had put the Classic, mouse, keyboard, cables, floppies and magazines in a cardboard box that was too big for the duffel bag I had brought with me, so they used stick tape to create a pair of handles on the box for me to carry. When I left the shop it was raining hard, so I put the duffel bag over the box to try to protect it. When I finally got on the train home, it was crowded with commuters. I managed to secure a seat for me and the adjacent seat for the Macintosh (it was too heavy and the box too fragile to place it on the luggage rack overhead), and when a woman asked me if she could sit there and remove the box, I said Sorry, no. There are important materials inside. But you can have my seat. My first Mac made the trip home much more comfortably than myself!

The first laptops

PowerBook 150  SoA
My first Macintosh laptop was the PowerBook 150 (image above by Shrine of Apple), purchased second-hand in late 1995 with an external 2x SCSI CD-ROM drive. It’s probably one of the most underrated Macs due to its limited expandability (it notably lacked an external ADB port and a video out port, and had only one serial port and a SCSI port), but I loved its crisp 9.5-inch greyscale display, and it was a little workhorse overall. It’s also one of the very few Macs I sold. On the one hand, I’ve often regretted selling it; on the other it helped me raise funds to purchase a PowerBook Duo 280c with an external 14-inch Apple Color Monitor and DuoDock II unit for a complete Duo workstation.

PowerBook 280c

The man who sold me the Duo lived 200 kilometres or so away, and I didn’t own a car yet, so bringing a whole Duo workstation home was another adventure. This time it didn’t rain, and the train wasn’t so full of people, but I was carrying two heavy, bulky bags, and I actually had to change trains: one from the town of the seller to Milan, the other from Milan to the town I was living in. The connecting train was leaving in five minutes when I got to Milan on the return trip, so picture me running from one end of the station to the other with my backpack and two big bags — one carrying the PowerBook Duo, the Duo Dock, the Duo MiniDock, a spare battery, cables and a few manuals, the other carrying the 12-kilogram Display… Not that the stuff was impossibly heavy in and of itself, it was just extremely impractical and uncomfortable to carry in duffel bags. They kept swinging as I ran, hitting my legs in the process, and twice I risked stumbling and falling down. But I managed to catch the train home. I was so exhausted I slept most of the trip!

But it was worth it. The Duo system was awesome and served me well from 1995 to 2005, when the Duo Dock broke down. I kept using the PowerBook with the MiniDock until it sadly stopped working in December 2014. However, thanks to a generous donor, I have now another PowerBook Duo 280c in working condition, together with a Duo Dock. After twenty years the Duo workstation is back, and I still love its concept.

Going online — the iMac G3

The Future of the Internet  iMac G3
I loved the iMac since day one. That was a time when there wasn’t an Apple keynote being livestreamed worldwide, so I saw it first in photos on Macworld Italia and Applicando, the two Italian Apple magazines I was following then. If memory serves, the first bondi blue iMac I saw in person was in Milan at SMAU ’98 (a computer expo). Like many, I was blown away.

At the time my main machines were the aforementioned PowerBook Duo 280c, the old Macintosh Classic, and a recently-purchased Quadra 700. Believe it or not, I still hadn’t an Internet connection at home (Internet was still somewhat a luxury in Italy at the time. It has just started to really take off, and there weren’t many affordable service providers). When it became clear that having an email and connecting to the Internet was an important step to take, I thought I should have an adequate computer as well. The only Mac I had with a modem was the Duo, and it was in the Duo Dock. I don’t remember the speed, but I guess it was a 14.4K modem or something. The iMac was an attractive computer. I especially loved its all-in-one form factor, and I didn’t mind the absence of a floppy drive. I had the Quadra and the Duo to handle floppies and SCSI peripherals. (I gave the Macintosh Classic to my dad). And what’s more, the iMac had a 56K modem. In the dial-up era, that was fast.

I had to wait until late 1999 before I could buy an iMac, and therefore access the Internet, but it was worth the wait. The purchase of the slot-loading iMac G3/350 (Blueberry) was another important moment in my personal history with Apple products — it was the first Mac I purchased new and paid in full up-front with the money saved from decent-paying jobs I’d previously done. The funny thing is — I got a better model than the one I had preordered at the shop. That’s because when I decided to purchase the iMac, the first generation of the iMac in 5 flavours (with the tray loading optical drive) was still available. So at the end of September 1999 I ordered a 333 MHz Grape iMac G3, with 32 MB RAM and Mac OS 8.5 included. The shop took my order but told me they were out of stock and I had to wait 2-3 weeks. What I didn’t know was that meanwhile the new and faster slot-loading iMacs were introduced, so yes, I waited almost a month, but for the same money I brought home a Blueberry 350 MHz iMac with 64 MB RAM and Mac OS 8.6.

With that iMac I discovered Internet and started using email. By the way, my very first email address still works today, 17 years later.

The Newton

MacUser 1993
I don’t remember exactly what got me interested in the Newton back around 2000. I didn’t know anyone who owned a MessagePad, nor had I seen one in the wild. Maybe it was some article I read in a magazine, or an old advertisement I saw on the Web. But once I started gathering information, I was fascinated. Then I discovered Grant Hutchinson’s website (its Newton section is still as it was back then) and followed many of the suggested Newton-related links. In short, I had to have a Newton. And I got one, after a long hunt. A nice MessagePad 2000, very well looked after, with lots of accessories. It came in its original box and with the original manuals. For all that, it didn’t come exactly cheap, but again it was worth it.

It wasn’t collecting what made me seek out the Newton — I really wanted to use it as I would use an iPhone or iPad today. I wanted to have a very portable computer with me when I was out and about. I patiently learnt to write on it to fully take advantage of the handwriting recognition, and once I did that, the Newton has been an inseparable device. I’ve connected to the Internet via dial-up with it, sent faxes, managed email and my calendar, read books, wrote a couple of stories on it; but most of all I’ve taken lots and lots of handwritten notes. I still use it today. (Well, that MessagePad 2000 is now with my wife; I’ve since upgraded to a 2100 and I also have an eMate and an Original MessagePad.)

I could tell many funny Newton-related anecdotes, but in the end they all involve someone in a public place spotting my MessagePad, approaching me, and mistaking the device for something else: “Ooh, is that the new ebook reader Apple has introduced?”, “Excuse me, is that an iPad prototype?”, “How can Apple make notebooks that small?” [This was a guy who saw me on the train with the MessagePad in landscape orientation and the Newton Keyboard connected to it], “Cool, a black iBook!” [a student at a local library, sitting across the table from me, who saw my eMate 300 open from behind, but then got confused when he saw the green-backlit greyscale screen] — and so on and so forth.

Collaborating with Macworld Italia

Through common acquaintances, around 2001 I met Enrico Lotti, then chief editor of Macworld Italia magazine, and the editorial staff. It was truly great to finally meet people I had been reading for years, and giving faces to names. It was even better when I was given the opportunity to collaborate with the magazine, mainly by translating/adapting articles published on Macworld USA and UK, and writing the occasional software or gadget review.

The single product I’m most proud of is a special Extra issue that was published in Autumn 2002. It was about 100 pages, and I took care of it almost entirely. It came with a CD-ROM full of essential shareware.

Macworld Extra 2002

It was basically the Italian version of Total OS X, a Special Spring Issue of Macworld USA.

Another small publication I’m proud of is a book I co-authored in 2005 with a major name in the Italian Mac community, Luca Accomazzi; someone I had been reading since about 1984 and had always held in high esteem. The book was a Macworld guide on Apple laptops, Il Libro dei Portatili Macintosh, and included tips on their care and maintenance:

Libro portatili

The Book on Macintosh Notebooks — All you need to know about the PowerBook and iBook: Accessories, Software, Maintenance, Wireless solutions, Upgrades.

The 2000s were an unforgettable era for me, for many reasons. It’s indirectly thanks to Apple that I got to meet many interesting people in the Italian tech publishing press and environs. I remember many conversations, late night sessions, the experience in the PowerBook Owners Club; I remember people — like Lucio Bragagnolo — whose name I had only seen in magazine articles or books, now chatting with me and considering the idea of writing stuff together.

My first iPhone was the second iPhone

I’ve said it countless times: my favourite Steve Jobs’s keynote is when he introduced the iPhone in January 2007. The unveiling was memorable and, thanks to Jobs’s effective secretiveness at the time, people didn’t have much of a clue about the iPhone’s shape or features until Jobs showed it and demoed them on stage. The moment I saw what the iPhone could do, I knew it had to be my next phone. But the wait was excruciating. The original iPhone, which went on sale in the United States in June 2007, only came to Europe in November 2007 — and only in France, Germany, and the UK. Ireland and Austria followed in early 2008. I hoped Spain and Italy would be next, instead I had to wait for the next iPhone, the iPhone 3G.

It was another memorable hunt. Some units arrived in Spain in mid-July 2008, but people assaulted the few Movistar shops which had some units in stock (Movistar was the mobile provider exclusively offering the iPhone at the time). I remember visiting dozens of places to ask for availability information and whether it was possible to preorder. I eventually got my iPhone in September 2008 after finally being able to preorder one — and having no choice but to opt for the white one if I wanted 16 GB of storage. Apparently, everyone wanted the black one, no matter if it was an 8 GB or 16 GB model. After all the paperwork was checked and all my signatures were on the right dotted lines, when they finally gave me the white box with the iPhone, I was so happy I did something I don’t normally do — I asked my wife to take a picture of me holding the box:

iPhone 3G purchase

That iPhone 3G lasted me quite a while, from September 2008 to May 2011, when I got an iPhone 4 which in turn lasted me even longer, until March 2015. What can I say? In my experience, iPhones have been as long-lasting and reliable as the sheer majority of Macs I’ve owned over the years.

When I eventually got some Mac models I had wanted for years

If you’re a long-time Mac user like me, you surely know the feeling. A new Mac is introduced, and you’d love to get it right away, but you can’t. Maybe because it’s out of your budget, or because you really don’t have the space, or maybe there are other expenses demanding priority… Time passes, and that Mac becomes your little Moby Dick. “One day I’ll get you,” you mumble to yourself when you see it in an old ad, or mentioned in an article, or when another Mac collector friend brags about purchasing it for a song at a local garage sale.

You also know the feeling when you finally get that ‘dream’ machine. The three Mac models I’ve looked to obtain for a long time have been the Macintosh Colour Classic, the Power Mac G4 Cube, and the iMac G4.

Colour Classic B&W
I had wanted a Colour Classic since seeing one at an Apple authorised reseller in late 1993. I acquired one… in 2001. There was a retrocomputing fair outside Milan, with a lot of people selling vintage computers and accessories. After looking around for a while, I found a nice seller who had a Colour Classic in perfect condition. He didn’t want much because he was not sure the Mac was working properly. “I think it doesn’t turn on anymore,” he said. I imagined it was a faulty power supply; I asked him if we could connect the Mac to a power outlet anyway, and he agreed. We brought the computer to another stall with a few free power outlets, connected it, flipped the power switch on the back and nothing happened. At that point I still wanted it, because it was in great condition, and I knew a guy who could repair it, but I asked the seller to lower the price further because “now it’s clear the Mac doesn’t work”. Just as those words came out of my mouth, a suspicion entered my mind. Something I’d verify after returning home with my conquest. Long story short: I purchased the Colour Classic at a fairly cheap price, brought it home, and found out that my suspicion was true — the Mac did work. You see, it’s not enough to flip the switch on the back of that Mac to turn it on, like on other compact Macs. To power on a Colour Classic you also have to attach a keyboard with a soft power switch… I was understandably ecstatic to find out that the Mac worked perfectly after all.

Power Mac G4 Cube system
As for the Cube, well, I didn’t care much about performance or limitations. I wanted one since its introduction in July 2000, but it was definitely out of my budget. While you could attach a Cube to a VGA monitor, the ideal thing was to have the complete system as shown in the image above. Finally, in 2006, my wish would come true — but piece by piece. It took me a long time, and now I’m almost there. I first purchased on eBay a good Cube unit for a low price, but it came without power supply. I got it a month later. As for keyboard and display, I used an old 17-inch CRT VGA display, and my old iMac G3’s keyboard and round mouse. Finally, in early 2008, I added a wonderful 22-inch Cinema Display, and the proper black Pro Keyboard and Pro Mouse only came very recently. I’m still looking for the Cube speakers, though.

IMac G4
I’ve talked about my personal history with the iMac G4 and how much it has meant to me to finally receive one on my System Folder blog. Read the whole story there, if you’re interested.

The kindness of strangers

As a final chapter of this long (but still incomplete) walk down memory lane, I wanted to thank all the people, all the Apple enthusiasts I’ve crossed paths with in these last thirty years or so. You are too many to be mentioned by name, but you know who you are. The Apple community has been so kind and great with me — people who helped me offering technical assistance or advice, people who helped me find Mac accessories I needed, people who very kindly donated me entire systems or devices, people who gave me opportunities like translating Apple-related books (I did part of the Italian translation of David Pogue’s Mac OS X: the Missing Manual [Jaguar edition], among other things), or contributing to guides and books on Apple’s history, or even to work at the Italian branch of Apple Computer Inc. (!)

I have developed a few good friendships with some of these kindred spirits, and that — geeky tales and anecdotes apart — is what matters most to me in the end. So cheers, Apple. Thank you for everything, and here’s to 40 years more of that!

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The Macs Apple was selling in 1996

In recent times I have often seen mentioned a specific moment in Apple’s history — when Steve Jobs came back in 1997 and started streamlining the Macintosh product line as part of the plan to save the company from bankruptcy. This bit tends to surface every time Apple introduces new hardware; there’s always someone pointing out how today’s Apple is slowly reverting to the chaotic product line the company had around 1996, before being simplified by Steve Jobs.

But just how chaotic was the Macintosh offering in 1996? I was already a Mac user then, and keeping up-to-date with Apple and tech news in general. I remember product announcements and various reviews in computer magazines. It’s easy to see, in retrospect, the huge amount of Apple hardware that was available twenty years ago compared to the post-Jobs order in the early 2000s. At the time things felt a bit different, perhaps in part due to the fact that Apple kept discontinuing Mac models and introducing new ones at a sustained pace. Another thing to consider is that not all Mac models introduced at the time were available everywhere.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to offer an overview of the Macintosh models Apple was selling in 1996 and make a few related observations. In a nutshell: there was some level of organisation in what many have called the chaos of Macs available back then, and despite the long list of Mac models, the families and form factors were just a few; one of the main causes that generated confusion in the Macintosh product line was the frequent rebranding, and the progressive meaninglessness of the Performa line as the consumer choice versus the Power Macintosh as synonymous of ‘Pro’ machine.

The long list

The following is a list of Macintosh models that were available in 1996. Of course, very few of these were available throughout the whole year. As I said earlier, there was a lot of coming and going. Various models were discontinued in Spring 1996, others were introduced at the same time, and so on. Still, if you keep in mind that many of these models came at least in two processor speed and storage flavours, that made for a lot of machines to produce.

(All Macintosh information was collected via the ever-useful Mactracker)

Desktops

LC
  • Macintosh LC 580 (discontinued April 1996)
Performa
  • Macintosh Performa 560 (discontinued April 1996)
  • Macintosh Performa 580/588CD (discontinued February and May 1996)
  • Macintosh Performa 5200 series (discontinued April 1996)
  • Macintosh Performa 5260/5270 (introduced April & October 1996, discontinued February 97)
  • Macintosh Performa 5280 (introduced November 1996, discontinued June 1997)
  • Macintosh Performa 5300 series (discontinued between May and August 1996)
  • Macintosh Performa 5400 series (introduced April 1996, discontinued Feb/Sept/Dec 1997)
  • Macintosh Performa 6200 series (discontinued August 1996)
  • Macintosh Performa 6300 series (discontinued between September and October 1996)
  • Macintosh Performa 6360 (introduced October 1996, discontinued October 1997)
  • Macintosh Performa 6400 series (introduced August 1996, discontinued August 1997)
Power Macintosh
  • Power Macintosh 4400 (introduced November 1996, discontinued February 1998)
  • Power Macintosh 5200 (discontinued April 1996)
  • Power Macintosh 5260 (introduced April 1996, discontinued March 1997)
  • Power Macintosh 5400 (introduced April 1996, discontinued March 1998)
  • Power Macintosh 6100 (discontinued May 1996)
  • Power Macintosh 6200 (discontinued July 1996)
  • Power Macintosh 6300 (Only sold in Asia, while the consumer equivalent, the Performa 6300, was sold in North America. Introduced July 1996, discontinued October 1997)
  • Power Macintosh 6400 (introduced October 1996, discontinued August 1997)
  • Power Macintosh 7200 (discontinued March 1996)
  • Power Macintosh 7215 (introduced January 1996, discontinued February 1997)
  • Power Macintosh 7500 (introduced August 1995, discontinued May 1996)
  • Power Macintosh 7600 (introduced April 1996, discontinued November 1997)
  • Power Macintosh 8200 (introduced April 1996, discontinued March 1997)
  • Power Macintosh 8500 (introduced August 1995, discontinued February 1997)
  • Power Macintosh 9500 (introduced May 1995, discontinued February 1997)

Laptops

  • PowerBook 190/190cs (discontinued June/October 1996)
  • PowerBook 550c (Released only in Japan. Discontinued April 1996)
  • PowerBook 5300 series (introduced August 1995, discontinued October 1996)
  • PowerBook 1400c/cs (introduced October 1996, discontinued November 1997)
  • PowerBook Duo 2300c (introduced August 1995, discontinued February 1997)
  • PowerBook Duo 280c (discontinued January 1996)

Servers

  • Workgroup Server 6150 (discontinued April 1996)
  • Workgroup Server 7250 (discontinued March 1996)
  • Workgroup Server 8550 (introduced February 1996, discontinued April 1997)
  • Network Server 500 (introduced April 1996, discontinued April 1997)
  • Network Server 700 (introduced September 1996, discontinued April 1997)

By form factor

Here are the same Macintosh models, but divided by form factor. As you can see, things look a bit less chaotic:

1996 Macs by form factor

A few observations

  1. Looking at the image above, you’ll see that desktop Macs (I’ve included the towers to simplify things) came in nine different form factors, while today there are only three: the Mac mini, iMac and Mac Pro. But it’s fair to point out that the Apple Network Server was a niche, short-lived product[1], and that the form factors of the Macintosh LC 580, Performa 560/580/588, Power Macintosh 6100/Workgroup Server 6150 were on the way out, all discontinued between February and May 1996.
  2. Therefore we could group the remaining Mac models — and give a bit of a structure to the whole offering — like this:
    • A desktop all-in-one solution (Performa 52xx/53xx/54xx series; Power Macintosh 52xx/54xx)
    • A desktop, more expandable solution, with a ‘Consumer’ variant (Performa 62xx/63xx; Power Macintosh 62xx/63xx), and a ‘Prosumer’ variant (Power Macintosh 72xx/7500/7600; Workgroup Server 7250)
    • An even more expandable solution, in tower form factor, again offered in a consumer/mid-range variant (Performa and Power Macintosh 6400), and in an even more expandable ‘Pro’ variant (Power Macintosh 8200/8500/9500; Workgroup Server 8550)
    • A much less varied portable solution, with a single entry-level model (the PowerBook 190, one of the last Motorola 680×0 machines), and the PowerBook 2300c and PowerBook 5300 line positioned as the ‘Pro’ machines, with the 5300 replaced by the better, more powerful 1400 in late 1996.
  3. Yes, it is a crowded space. The strategy behind this offering seems to be “Let’s try to cover every possible point of the spectrum, with regard to form factor, expandability, target audience, etc.” This of course led to confusion, because there were some Macintosh models just as powerful as others, but coming in a different shape, or with one less card slot or expansion bay. And also because there were many Macintosh models delivering a similar performance. There was a lot of differentiation and little differentiation at the same time, so to speak.
  4. The Performa line wasn’t a bad idea on paper: “Let’s make a clear, recognisable, affordable consumer product line”.[2] The disaster came in the execution, especially around this era, 1995-1997, with entire series of ‘Performa’ and ‘Power Macintosh’ machines that were essentially the same, but with different labels, e.g. the 5200/5400 series and the 6200/6300/6400 series. There were even Performas, like the 6200/100 (with the faster PowerPC 603e CPU at 100MHz), that were slightly more powerful than their Power Macintosh counterparts (6200/75). Or take the Power Macintosh 6400, that was a rebranded Macintosh Performa 6400 that was sold to education markets only — one would expect the Performa to be the education model, and the Power Macintosh to be the ‘pro’ model. Instead of helping people figure out what was the best Macintosh for their needs, names were becoming meaningless, and form factors not distinctive enough.
  5. By the way, today’s Mac product line — while definitely more simplified, with very distinct form factors — has a somewhat similar blurring of the lines with regard to performance. The Mac mini may be positioned as the entry-level desktop Mac, but the current top-of-the-line 2.8GHz model can definitely be used for professional applications, and if configured with the 3GHz i7 processor can be more powerful than a 21.5-inch iMac. Similarly, the Retina 5K 27-inch iMac in its best configuration reaches Mac Pro-comparable performance (though it offers less expandability). If we move to the portable sphere, we have a slightly more defined space, with the MacBook Air and MacBook being consumer machines in different ways (the Air has more CPU power, but not a retina display; the 12-inch MacBook is the exact opposite, a bit less powerful but with a retina display), and then we have the MacBook Pro line. In 1996, the Duo 2300c was the MacBook Air of the time, while the PowerBook 5300, and especially the 1400 that came after, were the MacBook Pros.
  6. Lastly, another thing that contributed to the chaos of Apple’s product offerings, in my opinion, was the slew of other hardware Apple was selling:
    • The Newton family of products
    • The QuickTake line of digital cameras
    • Two different lines of monitors (Multiple Scan and AppleVision)
    • Printers: the StyleWriter and Color StyleWriter line of inkjet printers, and the LaserWriter/Color LaserWriter line of laser printers
    • The Color OneScanner line of flatbed scanners

    That is a lot of hardware to manage.

  7. Today, Apple doesn’t sell printers, scanners or digital cameras, and as for the monitor, the choice is rather limited. Still, if you count how many iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch models and colour combinations Apple offers, well, it’s just another chaos, albeit much more organised and purposeful. More importantly, it’s a ‘chaos’ which today’s Apple can absolutely afford.

 


  • 1. Yes, pedants out there, the Apple Network Server was not a Macintosh, I know that. I added it anyway because, despite not running Mac OS, it was still a computer Apple was selling at the time. ↩︎
  • 2. Though I always wondered about that silly name: Performa suggests performance, something more ‘pro’ than an entry-level product. At least the Macintosh LC family was more honest as a consumer proposition: dependable, affordable machines, with LC meaning low cost. ↩︎

 

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