October 6, 2011

Apple, Steve Jobs and me

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A star has fallen.  Steve Jobs is no longer with us.  He has shone so brightly over the years, and illuminated the lives of many - including me.  This post is my own little tribute to Steve - a great innovator and salesman who set out to change the world, and succeeded.

The first contact I had with Apple was back around 1981 or 1982... My cousin bought himself an Apple II - which I think was an Apple II Plus - and we were playing games on it.  It was, I think, the first computer I ever laid hands on.  I essentially saw it as a gaming console and not as something one can do productive work on.  But hey, what the hell did I know?  I was still in grade school and puberty hadn't hit.

A few years later, the Macintosh was born.  It was radically different and much, much cooler than the Commodore 64s we were playing around with at school.  I had no idea what GUI or WYSIWYG meant at the time, of course...  I was a little envious of my friends, because it seemed so expensive to me at the time, and ownership just wasn't in the cards.

Once I hit college, I came into full contact with the Mac.  Besides the Unix workstations - on which I spent many hours working and playing Netrek - most of my work was done on Macs.  I started on the Mac II when I arrived, and there were also Mac Classic II and the Mac Quadra line.  Macintosh was the way for me.

By this time, of course, Steve Jobs had been ousted from the company he co-founded.  When I arrived at my geek college, big posters were hung up all around campus computer clusters announcing the launch of NeXT Computer.  It was a very cool-looking black thing, instead of the usual white/beige boxes that we were so used to seeing.  We were selected as one of the first colleges to launch the product because of the high concentration of geeks, who were naturally the target customers.  I don't remember ever getting any use out of one...

I was actually a business major, so I followed the product launches and corporate development at Apple during the latter years in school.  I remember reading up on John Sculley, the marketing guy from Pepsi who gave Jobs the boot.  I also vaguely remember products like the Newton - Apple's first PDA which seemed innovative, but was ultimately too big and deemed inconvenient to carry around.  My roommate and I talked about how we wanted one, but in the end neither of us bought one.

The one and only Macintosh I did buy was the PowerBook 170.  When it was released alongside the PowerBook 100 and 140, they were the first "notebook" computers from Apple which were truly portable.  The earlier Macintosh Portable had been dubbed the "luggable" because of its size and weight.  My PowerBook featured a grey scale, active-matrix LCD screen that seemed so cool at the time.  The idea that each pixel on the screen was controlled by its own individual transistor, and each screen had to have less than 5 failed pixels out of 256,000 before shipping, was just really cool.

In 1993 I entered the real world - meaning I got a job on Wall Street and became gainfully employed.  The bank I worked for - like all financial institutions I know - was on the Wintel platform.  I can't remember exactly whether it was Windows 3.0 or 3.1 that we used at the time, but I remember looking at those "windows" and thinking they were clumsy and crappy.  I was forced to learn a new and inferior system.  I got rid of my PowerBook, because it just wasn't very easy to swap files and communicate with the Wintel world.  I left the fold completely.

I celebrated John Sculley's ouster and Steve Jobs' return to Apple.  Steve was, after all, a real techie; and he actually did have his hand on the consumer's pulse.  But it was still impractical for me to return to Mac world.

Fast-forward to 2005, and a few years after the first iPod was introduced, I finally got myself an iPod Photo.  It had 60GB of memory and a color screen.  I could upload photos and use it as a portable disk, which I found kinda helpful during long trips where I was taking a few hundred to a thousand photos at a time.  This marked my first Apple product purchase for more than a decade.  I still use this particular iPod because, as Steve said when he introduced the first iPod, this device contains my entire musical library.

Then I got myself a brush aluminum iPod Nano, the first version that was long and slim.  That got wet in the rain and short-circuited.  Its replacement was the short and stubby version with a bigger screen.  I didn't like it as much, but didn't have a choice.

I avoided the iPhone like the plague.  My biggest objection wasn't about all the typing errors I was prone to make on a touch screen.  I objected to the fact that, like all other i-xx devices, this was a one-piece and I couldn't open it up.  At the time of its release, I was a traveling salesman who was constantly on my mobile phone.  I needed my spare battery because one was never enough.  And I definitely didn't want to run the battery down even quicker by using my phone to listen to music.  I stubbornly carried my mobile phone, my iPod and my PDA - all as separate devices - wherever I went.  By the time I was assigned a crackberry from work, I had fortunately upgraded to a smartphone and gotten rid of the PDA, so I continued to carry 3 devices on a daily basis.

Last year I dipped my toes into iOS for the first time, with the launch of the first iPad.  I had been thinking about reducing the clutter in my life by reading books and magazines electronically.  I was looking at a Kindle when news broke about the iPad.  It was a no-brainer.  Why would I want to go with a monochrome display when I could get everything in color and zoom?  I decided that I couldn't wait for the thing to be officially released in Hong Kong, and asked a friend in the US to buy me one.  I couldn't get one with 3G, but it didn't matter.  I had my color reader in hand.

The iPad was responsible for introducing me to the AppStore, and the myriad of useful (and useless) items out in the iOS universe.  I soon found some of these apps indispensable.

A couple of months later playing with the iPad, I was a little too inebriated one night and dropped my crackberry in a cab.  By that time it had become my sole smartphone, and my immediate reaction was to get myself a new one.  (Un)fortunately, my mobile service provider didn't have the latest crackberry in stock, and I would have to wait a few weeks for stock to arrive.  Coincidentally, the iPhone 4 was being launched in Hong Kong just a week later, so for the next few days I seriously contemplated the idea of switching.  I went through my main objections regarding the iPhone in my head over and over, and managed to convince myself that I should give the thing a try.

A few days later, I managed to secure myself an iPhone 4 on the first day of its Hong Kong release.  I was a good customer of my service provider, having paid handsome fees each month for my long-distance calls and data roaming charges over the previous 2 years.  As a VIP, I got an allocation immediately.  I fell in love with my iPhone instantly.

A month later, I bought my second iPhone 4.  Yes, this one's for me, too, but carried my Taiwan number along with the ability to download data in Taiwan without paying roaming charges.  I started carrying two iPhones whenever I was in Taiwan - something I still do daily.

Another month or so later, I bought dad an iPhone 4 for his birthday.  He had been eyeing my new toys for the last couple of months, and I knew he wanted to play with one.  I showed him the advantages of iPhone for the elderly - such as the ability to display in large font size and zooming - and he felt very cool and hip to carry one.  Now we're a 3-iPhone family.

Lately my almost-four-year-old VAIO notebook has been a little cranky.  It's been dropped a few times too many, is slow to load up, and I'm feeling the itch to do something about it.  After much consideration, I finally ordered an 11" MacBook Air from the online Apple Store.  I placed the order online because I wanted to customize it a little.

The SuperDrive was shipped from Singapore and arrived within a couple of days.  The MacBook itself was being shipped from China, and got stuck at Pudong Airport over the last few days.  I was getting antsy.

Ironically, I woke up this morning to find that my MacBook will be delivered to my home this morning.  On the same day we learn of Steve's passing.  I felt a little sad that he left us on the day that I finally returned to the fold in full, after almost 20 years.

From the time the first Apple computers hit the market more than 30 years ago, Steve Jobs had been an influential force that challenged the way we think about computers and technology.  He has influenced the lives of millions of people around the world.  I never knew Steve personally, but my life has certainly changed because of him and the people at Apple.  Thank you, Steve.

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