Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Restoration of Sanity

In the first half of 2002, I bought a Macintosh computer. A titanium PowerBook G4, to be specific. This is the story of how Steve Jobs and Apple restored my sanity.

For years I hated Macintosh computers.
I grew up on Atari hardware. I started with an Atari 800 (with a cassette drive), moved to the Atari 1200XL and then to the Atari 130XE; next came the Atari 520ST, a Mega ST4, and ultimately the Atari Falcon030.
I hated Macintosh computers because they were too expensive.
I could not afford a Macintosh.
I grew up hating anything I could not afford or which I could not coerce my parents into giving me for my birthday. Sad, but true, and probably prototypical of the middle class in the middle Eighties.
But it wasn't really hate.
Macintosh computers actually scared me. Everything I dreamed of doing with computers was sitting right there on screen. I was scared of where such a machine might take me, in much the same way as receiving a driver's license was scary. It bestowed the power to explore. It bestowed freedom. As Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman once sang: "Liberty in new dimensions, ruthless and spectacular."
After my Atari Days came to a close, I spent quite a few years in the PC wilderness. I had to let go of my Falcon 030 and buy a Pentium-based Dell PC. I loved that beige machine. I really did. But really, no, I hated it. I loathed Windows 3.1. That's when this hideous dance of self-deception truly began.
I spent years claiming PCs could do anything a Mac could do, whilst constantly trying to keep Apple's growing influence on society out of my conscious mind.
I was so happy when it looked like the Macintosh line would wither and vanish when Steve Jobs left Apple. It meant I could stop worrying about Macintosh computers.
So we all moved forward, didn't we? The Apple fanatics kept loving their machines, whilst the PC folks appeared to do the same, moving further ahead. But was it really moving ahead? A new version of Windows. Terrible and buggy, slow. Drivers missing. IRQs? Why is there no sound? How do I uninstall something? Registry? You want me to edit my registry? Books. Countless volumes of Windows Bibles. $69 because it has a CD-ROM with it? Wait, what? Each year? Updated! In step with each new version of Windows. Terrible and buggy, slow. Drivers missing. IRQs? Why is there no sound? How do I uninstall something? Registry? You want me to...
What a nightmare!
Which isn't to say I wasn't achieving things on my PC. I was. I created lots of great things, but it was a struggle, and I was doing it out of spite. I was fighting against the profoundly shitty experience of owning a Windows PC by dishonoring the creative urge. Rolling that boulder up, as far as it would go (Windows 3.1). Letting it roll back down (Windows for Workgroups). Pushing it up the other side (Windows ME). Yes, it sucked that the boulder kept rolling back, but at least I had control of it, right? Right?
Flash forward. College graduate. Couple of shitty jobs under my belt, a decent design portfolio the only thing to show for it, but it was enough to score the ubiquitous (and hideous) corporate job with a real salary. Thus, I settled in with my work PC (boulder == Windows NT).
Then the new boulder arrived on the horizon. It was a big one. They called it Windows XP. I purchased it on launch day, and my entire hard drive became corrupted when the install disc failed half-way through the installation. The distribution media itself was defective, or at least that's what the poorly worded Microsoft error message suggested. A damaged CD-ROM had scrambled my system, rendering it unbootable.
Still, I was hopeful. All that boulder rolling had to be good for something, right? Perhaps one of the new Windows XP Bibles could help? I rushed to the store (the internet was worthless at this point, at least as far as information from Microsoft was concerned). On the way there, however, my mind was coming to terms with everything that I had lost. Most of my work was backed up to ZIP discs (adored those; still do), but I had gone through so many careful pre-install checks. I had made sure my hardware could run Windows XP. I had read article after article about performing this upgrade. I was armed. With knowledge. All of it worthless in the face of a defective Windows XP CD-ROM.
Haunted by Sisyphean imagery, I realized I was basically suffering from a form of insanity, rolling a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and then doing it again. And again. These were the actions of a crazy person. So I went home. I ignored my dead computer. The next day at work, I found myself on Apple's web site. Something called OSX was in beta. It looked interesting. As I read about its Unix core, I finally realized the truth. It took a few months, but I decided to jettison my fear once and for all.
Eventually, bored at work, I configured a loaded titanium PowerBook G4 and placed the order.
I used the months of down time at home without a computer to purge my experiences with my PC and Windows. I boxed up Windows books. I piled all the PC games I thought were so great (they weren't) into the closet. And I waited, secretly wondering what I had gotten myself into (though I did play a lot of console games). I then received an email, which indicated that my recent order was being cancelled, because Apple had just upgraded the entire Powerbook line. Cancelled, of course, was the wrong word. It was actually a surprise upgrade. I was being given the same price on my computer, but it had a faster CPU (667 MHz G4 replaced with an 800 MHz G4), more RAM, a larger hard drive, and a better video chip. This was my first encounter (as a consumer) with Apple as a corporation. Shortly after I received this amazing new computer, I was invited to participate in a "switcher" survey that Apple had sent me. They wanted to know my story. They wanted to know why I left the PC world and chose a Macintosh computer. And I basically told them everything you just read. In some weird way, when I completed that survey, I felt like I was communicating directly with Steve Jobs. The bottom line was that it was incredibly cathartic to abandon the PC and Microsoft's poorly designed horror-spawn-of-an-OS.
My co-workers were shocked when I explained I'd just spent $2800 on a laptop. During a time when high-end PCs could be cobbled together at Fry's Electronics for $900. But here's the thing: I could afford it. I wasn't afraid any more. And fuck it if Raimi and his people didn't pre-steal the line that I can't avoid using here: "...with great power comes great responsibility." I was finally ready to accept that responsibility, since that's what a hideous corporate job enables: it allows you to buy stuff which other people are convinced you don't need.
Except in my case, I needed this thing more than food, water or even sex. I needed a computer in my life, one that wasn't going to require an endless education on how to get it to work right. I would waste no more money on tech bibles. I would no longer study for a certifications. I would no longer avoid my responsibility to the creative urge. I would equip myself with the best tools. From then on, I would only create.
This was a path I was placed on in 1983 when my dad bought me that Atari 800. I knew back then that a computer would always be sewn into the fabric of my life. The tyranny of the Windows PC was akin to an alien abduction, and that's the best I can say about it. The Windows PC represents missing time, lost years, and nothing more.
Though I can only claim the years 2002 to present as my Apple Years, I have never had one regret. The titanium PowerBook G4 I purchased in 2002 is still going strong. True, it's trapped in OSX Tiger (10.4), but it's the primary general purpose computer in my home. It holds a permanent spot on the kitchen counter. Email, web browsing, word processing, iTunes, and more. It's still doing it all. I know this fact would make Steve Jobs proud.
I just wish he was still around. We need people like him to protect our sanity, especially when technology is often at odds with the people who use it. Steve Jobs humanized computers, and in the process he kept a lot of creative people from losing their minds.
Rest in peace, Mr. Jobs. I will be forever grateful to you.