Monday, September 24, 2007

If Apple Never Existed

A great read, found it while searching Digg, enjoy!

Loyd Case - ExtremeTech Sun Sep 23, 8:20 PM ET

Back in 2005, I wrote a column depicting a day in a fictitious world without Microsoft. Now I want to turn the tables and imagine a world without Apple.


I arrive at the office, courier bag slung over one shoulder, Peet's coffee in one hand. It feels earlier than it is, probably because I'd been working on deadline until late in the evening.

The problem with writing about home computers is keeping track of all of them. There are times I wish a single home computer standard existed, but that's a pipe dream. Still, HC's have come a long way since the early days of the Altair and Compupro boxes.

When I arrive at the office, several large boxes are awaiting me. The new Harmon Kardon home entertainment computer is in one of the boxes. Harmon is trying to establish a new category, the "HEC". I say, to HEC with it. Who wants to get locked into one type of media, when the CD is perfectly adequate? The Harmon PR rep had spoken eloquently about how transferring the music from a CD to the magneto-optical drive built into the Harmon HEC meant you could have as many as thirty CDs on tap at any one time. But once in the HEC, you couldn't get the music out, locking you into Harmon gear forever.

I plopped myself down at my desk and pulled out the Tandy NB5000 portable computer. It's a neat device, not much bigger than a large paper notebook, with an 80-column LCD screen. It had been a long, arduous process getting the Ziff-Davis IT department to approve the Radio Shack NBCs. Apparently, buying the utility software to convert the text format to something the DEC minicomputers could recognize was expensive.

I found myself wishing that one of the big computer companies had dived into the market for HCs, but alas, they had ceded the territory to the big consumer electronics companies. Sony, Toshiba, NEC and others had gobbled up companies like Amiga, Atari, and the various CP/M hardware companies in the late 1980's, and proceeded to deliver dozens of different HCs. It was really a hobbyists dream and nightmare both. All the different devices were pretty cool—except that getting your data from one to another was a real mess.

This was all exacerbated by the dozen or so companies building microprocessors for HCs, all of which had different instruction sets, different word lengths and different bit order. But it was job security for writers like me, who could make sense of it all to end users. No one company had gained enough traction to set a single standard.

I read over my roundup on the latest 200MB magneto-optical drives, then transferred it to the 5MB floppy built into the side of the NBC. The NEC unit was clearly best, but Sony's was a close second, due to its support for both the standard 200MB format and a Sony proprietary format that was also 200MB. However, the proprietary format could store up to twenty minutes of video, making it a sort of poor man's Laserdisc. I popped out the floppy drive and walked over to our production team.

The roundup needed to be edited, then formatted for the various electronic mail blasts as well as the print version. We had four people dedicated to reformatting the text into formats that the various mail readers on the several dozen HCs could understand.

I returned to my office just as the phone rang. It was Steve, a PR rep from a new company starting up Santa Clara. "Hey, we have a pretty neat gadget. It's about the size of a cassette Walkman, but uses a tiny MO drive to hold three hours of music. It only weighs about eight ounces. Want to check it out?"

"Sure," I said. "Might be a cool gadget for our holiday gift guide."

"One other thing. I've picked up a new account. They're building these HCs using off-the-shelf components and the same magnetic disk technology used in minicomputers and mainframes. It even runs a kind of UNIX."

I sighed. "How much does it cost."

"That's the great part. It's under $10,000."

"Steve, that's too much for most families."

"Hey, it's really cool. You know, Loyd, you've got to learn to think different."

You might wonder how this rather bleak scenario might exist if Apple had never come to pass. Despite not being a Mac user, it's my belief that Apple acted as a catalyst for the industry. Prior to Apple, there were a host of home computers and business-oriented PCs, either running proprietary operating systems or some variant of CP/M. But even CP/M machines often couldn't talk to each other.

Had there never been an Apple, the IBM PC may never have emerged, which then set off the tidal wave of innovation + standardization that allows us to have cheap PC technology today. Apple has had a tremendous impact, both directly through its suberb industrial design and efforts to simplify technology, and indirectly, by stimulating competition that eventually resulted in the PC ecosystem we have today. What do you think?

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