Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Perspective, An Aside

For RB

One of my friends is dying.

I’m not referring to the daily grind we each experience, the condition Pink Floyd once assuredly described as being “one day closer to death.”

I’m talking about someone – a peer, an equal, a person who might as well be me – slowly winding her way towards no longer living.

It’s not only sad – she’s really a sweet, funny, happy, unique person – but it’s, of course, also a reminder to us all that life is truly and genuinely fleeting. While we consciously understand this concept, when it affects someone who at ~ 35 is far too young to experience this indirectly, let alone directly, it’s a tragic if not cliched reminder that we take much too much for granted and savor each day far too little.

Far be it from me to wonder – aloud, anyway – as to why The Big Man allows this to happen. Good people shouldn’t suffer, and they shouldn’t die far too young. They should live their lives not knowing or worrying -- or being forced to care – about the finite aspect of life – they should spend their days bearing smiles, not burden. And they should be among us – alive – to radiate their positive, upbeat energy. They shouldn’t spend their youth, or whatever one can re-badge Middle Age, confined to a hospital bed, requiring assistance to walk, before the inevitable occurs and they’re no longer here to validate our memories of them.

But they do.

I’m not sure if Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young” got it right, nor am I certain that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey don’t sometimes regret their teen anthem “My Generation” bearing the lyric “I hope I die before I get old.” But I do know that as consciously as I can bear it, it still baffles and saddens me knowing the world is losing someone far too good and far too young.

To quote Donna Summer, that's not the way it should be.

Not at all.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

RIP Steve Jobs 1955-2011

It was 1983. I arrived home to find two large, brown boxes awaiting my arrival on our porch. Both were from an entity known as “Computer Factory,” located somewhere in midtown on Lexington Avenue. For me, this and other stores like it would in turn become akin to what most children deem to be toy stores.

I ripped open both boxes, despite warnings from my father, to find an Apple II+, an amber-tinted CRT monitor and a C. Itoh dot-matrix printer. While one of his law partners advised him that it would take hours to assemble everything and that I should not even open the boxes without my father there, I ignored both his and my father’s warnings and had the entire system up and running in about 45 minutes.

The next foray into Apple’s vision was in 1984, a new type of computer called a Macintosh. It featured a weird, wavy box covered in taupe, a 9’ inch black-and-white screen, a floppy disk drive and 128k of internal RAM. And a mouse!

The next Mac visitor to the Boogie household was the 512k version of the Macintosh, known as the “Fat Mac” – and it was largely identical to its skinnier sibling, except this impressive bump in internal memory.

Next up was a Macintosh SE, courtesy of the CIRC/US store through GW, which forced me to leave DC for Bethesda, Maryland, to pick up my latest bounty. After enjoying a few months with the dual-floppy model, I endeavored to have a Rodime 45MB hard drive installed. It was 1988.

Once I outgrew this model, next up was a Macintosh IIci – a nice yet antiseptic box covered in toothpaste white and with no built-in monitor. That lasted several years, equipped with varieties of software that were first making their impact in non-professional computing: photo editing, desktop publishing, and the earliest versions of actual email.

After this model began showing its age, I found myself researching its replacement. Several models had already reached the market as potential replacements, but what troubled me – both as a Mac user and a Mac evangelist – was that Apple had released a machine similar to mine (called the IIcx) that was a marginal step-up from mine, and then only several months later released a machine – if memory serves me right – called the IIce, which was essentially the same thing as the IIcx except in a different shell and with a price tag $400 lower. People who had purchased the IIcx were furious that their machine was both instantly replaced and obsolete, especially given the lower price. In fact, some people had purchased the IIcx only a week or so before the IIce was released and felt cheated and disenchanted by Apple’s behavior. They demanded some sort of restitution – either allow them to trade in their newly-purchased, soon-to-be doorstops, or offer some sort of refund as a show of good faith.

Apple, after all, was known for being the un-IBM. IBM was the faceless, corporate juggernaut that eschewed the “personal” in the term personal computer. Whereas Apple not only put a face on their computers (literally, with the Macs) they were not faceless people hidden behind huge steel girders. They were the non-corporation.

This move, however, changed many peoples’ opinion of Apple – including mine.

That year, I opted for a Toshiba Satellite notebook running Windows for Workgroups 3.31. Thereafter, I purchased a Dell Opti-Posi-Tronic Something-Or-Other running Windows 95, and have since not looked back at Apple in my rear view mirror, excepting those instances where Apple has taken similar, corporate stances in the face of these types of conflicts. Apple went from a two-man traveling show – Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak – to a corporate entity much akin to IBM, except for the relaxed dress code and the much-preferred campus-style office complex.

However, Apple’s vision of providing an alternative to IBM’s cold, hard dominance wasn’t so much akin to following a yellow brick road to a small man behind a curtain but moreso akin to Who’s Next – “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Steve Jobs was a singular genius – his products and the manner in which he took Apple’s reins upon his return to the company are legendary and, without question, impressive. However, while Apple’s designs are wonderful – the iPhone and the iPad alone are two of the most omnipresent items of the 21st Century, without a doubt – my problem with Apple has and will likely always be their need for control and exclusion.

Some time ago, I found a story online about how Apple has instituted a unique power connector for internal hard drives in its notebooks. In order to function, a hard drive needs to be connected to the system with both a conduit/cable for data and power. By controlling the way power is shared with the hard drive by the system, Apple – de facto – controlled who could make hard drives for Apple computers and who could install them. I assumed there was some sort of explanation for this: perhaps efficiency or reduction of heat or something similar. But no – this was simply a way for Apple to control who and how used and manipulated its products.

This type of controlling behavior is typical of a company like Apple – underdog mentality that knows its products are good but far outnumbered. It’s the hallmark move of a company that needs to be a bit underhanded – in plain sight.

The antenna-gate issue – which marred an otherwise typical cult-like devouring of the iPhone 4 – is another typical example of how Apple does its thing. Denial and control of a situation is the way a small upstart facing insurmountable odds manages to go from small and beatable to a multi-billion dollar cult-driven empire.

None of this denigrates or takes away from Steve Jobs or his legacy. The iPhone – regardless of the fact I’ll never own one – is a solid, respectable product that has shaped the current and future interaction between people and mobile communications. It’s also likely the sole reason why Blackberry (RIM) will be out of business within 36 months. Between that and the iPod, one can’t and shouldn’t criticize Steve Jobs.

Further, it should be noted that Jobs has changed the way we perceive computers – not simply as a result of the iPad, but how he has – coupled with digital cameras and their integration into cell phones – managed to change why we need or even want to use computers. His contribution can’t be minimized to one or two simple products or their impact on our culture. His contribution can, rightfully, be categorized as incredibly significant and as much so, if not moreso, than Bill Gates’ or the integration of Google into our on- and offline lexicon.

My only issues with him, which I would have happily addressed with him directly had I had the opportunity before his untimely passing yesterday, was why he was so quick to take Windows to task for copying the Apple OS when his company lifted the entirety of the idea of using a mouse from Xerox. The second, and more crucial, of these issues was why Apple took advantage of its legions of supporters so readily. To the first, it’s clear that fomenting a sense of “David versus Goliath” was key to Apple’s success. Claiming their good ideas were lifted was and continues to be paramount to Apple’s daily mantra. To wit, they have pushed back against every major company – IBM, Google, Samsung, Motorola, RIM, et al – that they deem to be their competition. Inasmuch as their behavior is more litigious than Tom Cruise attending a cross-dressing costume gala, one can only suspect their predilection to point fingers at their competition is a result of their interest in controlling and profiting from the market rather than advance technology for “the rest of us,” which makes far better ad copy than admitting their ulterior goal – which is to make as much damn money from the consumer as possible.

The second – whether it’s a hard drive power cable, a faulty antenna, injunctions and copyrights or simply rolling out new models to the detriment of its customers –no longer surprises me. I used to be one of the believers – that Apple was different, that their products were different, that their goal was different. I used to believe they were a company designed to advance the technology, that their products were better, and that their goal was to be better, not simply turn as much profit as possible. Those assumptions and beliefs were, in fact, wrong. Apple believers usually tell me that Macs are the best-built, highest-quality machines available on the market. When I advise them that Lenovo’s customer service ratings suggest otherwise, they balk. Facts trump belief.

When Mac users tell me their main reason for buying a Mac was the nearly universal absence of virus and malware designed to attack Macs, I mention that I’ve been using a PC without aftermarket virus/malware protection for six years and haven’t had virus or malware problems simply because I am careful with my online behavior. I also mention to them that I know a dozen Mac users who, in the past year, have had their google, yahoo, AOL and/or hotmail accounts compromised. I also remind them that the future of computing is not in user-installed software but interactive online applications, which are – largely speaking – ignorant of platform.

When I revise my response and clarify that I’d rather know how to use a computer safely in an otherwise unsafe Internet community, I rarely – if ever – receive a response that demonstrates any understanding – or interest – in knowing rather than putting one’s faith in the dearth of Mac-centric malware. Essentially, faith in Apple is better than knowledge.

I don’t bother discussing the differences in hardware performance and the disparity in the vast choices and options between the PC and Mac platforms because most Mac users seem content having less choices and fewer options in what’s available to them. To their credit, they have typically suggested that they would prefer quality over quantity. To that I agree – however, invariably, when asked how he or she would accomplish a task, the typical response is “I’d probably have someone with a PC do that for me.”

As his legacy, I don’t discount Steve Jobs’ contribution to personal computing or his significance going forward as to what we can accomplish with and without computers. I only hope that in the future, the one to which his legacy contributed greatly, is that we don’t eschew knowledge for ease nor do we misunderstand capability for efficiency. And finally, I hope the least of his accomplishments is the fact he took a two-man company and built an empire; rather, I hope the most lauded of his accomplishments is the fact he took his visions and, nearly single-handedly, changed the world.