40 years of Apple: some personal moments

Tech Life

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!

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!