2014.08 Fiction: It's a Wonderful Machine

It's a Wonderful Machine
The Sweetest Christmas Movie Frank Capra Never Made

Guess I shouldn't have gone to a party where the eggnog was spiked, and maybe I shouldn't have watched the movie It's a Wonderful Life while leafing through MacWeek. But anyway, I had the weirdest dream last night — like a bizarre black-and-white movie that went just like this ...

Jimmy Stewart stars as Steve “Jobs” Bailey, who runs a beleaguered but beloved small-town computer company. For years, big monopolist Bill "Gates" Potter has been wielding his power and money to gain control of the town. And for years, Steve has fought for survival: "This town needs my measly, one-horse computer, if only to have something for people to use instead of Windows!"

But now an angry mob is banging on Apple's front door, panicking. "The press says your company is doomed!" yells one man. "You killed the clones! We're going to Windows!" calls another. "We want out of our investment!" they shout.

Steve, a master showman, calms them. "Don't do it! If Potter gets complete control of the desktop, you'll be forced to buy his bloatware and pay for his cruddy upgrades forever! We can get through this, but we've got to have faith and stick together!" The crowd decides to give him one more chance.

But the day before Christmas, something terrible happens: On his way to the bank, the company's financial man, Uncle Gilly, somehow manages to lose $1.7 billion. With eyes flashing, Steve grabs the befuddled Gilly by the lapels. “Where's that money, you stupid old fool? Don't you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal! Get out of my company — and don't come back!"

Desperate and afraid, Steve heads to Martini's, a local Internet café, and drowns his sorrows in an iced cappuccino. Surfing the Web at one of the café’s Macs, all he finds online is second-guessing, sniping by critics, and terrible market-share numbers.

As a blizzard rages, Steve drives his car crazily toward the river. "Oh, what's the use?!" he exclaims. "We've lost the war. Windows rules the world. After everything I've worked for, the Mac is going to be obliterated! Think of all the passion and effort these last 15 years — wasted! Think of the billions of dollars, hundreds of companies, millions of people ...” He stands on the bridge, staring at the freezing, roiling river below — and finally hurls himself over the railing.

After a moment of floundering in the chilly water, however, he’s pulled to safety by a bulbous-nosed oddball. "Who are you?!" Steve splutters angrily.

"Name's Clarence — I mean Claris," says the guy. "I'm your guardian angel. I've been sent down to help you — it's my last chance to earn my wings."

"Nobody can help me," says Steve bitterly. "If I hadn't created the Mac, everybody'd be a lot happier: Mr. Potter, the media, even our customers. Hell, we'd all be better off if the Mac had never been invented at all!”

Music swirls. The wind howls. The tattoo on Steve's right buttock — Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story — vanishes.

Steve pats the empty pocket where he usually carries his Newton. “What gives?"

"You've got your wish," says Claris. "You never invented the Mac. It never existed. You haven't a care in the world."

"Look, little fella, go off and haunt somebody else," Steve mutters. He heads over to Martini’s Internet café for a good stiff drink. But he’s shocked at the difference inside. "My God, look at the people using these computers! Both of them — they look like math professors!"

"They are," says Claris.

"What is this, a museum? It looks like those computers are running DOS!"

"Good eye!" says Claris, "DOS version 25.01, in fact — the very latest."

"I don't get it," Steve says.

"DOS is a lot better and faster these days, but it hasn't occurred to anybody to market a computer with icons and menus yet. There's no such thing as Windows — after all, there never was a Mac interface for Microsoft to copy."

"But this equipment is ancient!" Steve exclaims. "No sound, no CD-ROM drive, not even 3.5-inch floppies!"

"Those aren't antiques!" Claris says. "They're state-of-the-art Compaqs, complete with the latest 12x, 5-inch-floppy drives. Don't forget, Steve: The Mac introduced and standardized all that good stuff you named."

"But that's nuts!" Steve explodes. "You mean to tell me that the 46 percent of American households with computers are all using DOS?”

"Correction: All 9 percent of American households," Says Claris cheerfully. "Without a graphic interface, computers are still too complicated to be popular."

“Bartender!” shouts Steve. “You don’t have a copy of Wired here, do you? I’ve got to read up on this crazy reality!”

The bartender glares. “I don’t know what you’re wired up on, pal, but either stop talking crazy or get outta my shop.”

“No such thing as Wired,” whispers Claris. “Never was. Before you wished the Mac away, most magazines were produced entirely on the Mac. Besides, Wired would be awfully thin without the Web.”

“Without the — now, wait just a minute!” Horrified, Steve rushes over to one of the PCs and connects to the Internet. “You call this the Net? It looks like a text-only BBS — and there’s practically nobody on line! Where’s Navigator? Where’s Internet Explorer? Where’s the Web, for Pete’s sake?”

“Oh, I see,” Claris smiles sympathetically. “You must be referring to all those technologies that spun off from the concept of a graphic interface. Look, Steve. Until the Mac made the mouse standard, there was no such thing as point and click. And without clicking, there could be no Web ... and no Web companies. Believe it or not, Marc Andreesen works in a Burger King in Cincinnati.”

Steve scoffs. “Well, look, if you apply that logic, then PageMaker wouldn’t exist either. Photoshop, Illustrator, FreeHand, America Online, digital movies — all that stuff began life on the Mac.”

“You’re getting it,” Claris says. He holds up a copy of Time magazine. “Check out the cover price.”

Steve gasps. “Eight bucks? They’ve got a lot of nerve!”

“Labor costs. They’re still pasting type onto master pages with hot wax.”

“You’re crazy!” screams Steve. “I’m going back to my office at Apple!” He drives like a madman back to Cupertino — but the sign that greets him there doesn’t say “Welcome to Apple”, it says “Welcome to Microsoft South”.

“Sorry, Steve; Apple went out of business in 1985,” says Claris. “You see, you really did have a wonderful machine! See what a mistake it was to wish it away?”

Steve is sobbing, barely listening. “OK, then — I’ll go to my office at Pixar.”

“You don’t have an office at Pixar,” Claris reminds him. “There was no Mac to make you rich enough to buy Pixar!”

Steve has had enough. He rushes desperately back to the icy bridge over the river. “Please, God, bring it back! Bring it back! I don’t care about market share! Please! I want the Mac to live again!”

Music, wind, heavenly voices — and then snow begins softly falling.

“Hey, Steve! You all right?” calls out Steve’s friend Larry from a passing helicopter. Steve pats his pocket — the Newton is there again! It’s all back! Steve runs through the town, delirious with joy. “Merry Christmas, Wired! Merry Christmas, Internet! Merry Christmas, wonderful old Microsoft!”

And now his office is filled with smiling people whose lives the Mac has touched. There’s old Mr. Chiat/Day the adman. There’s Yanni the musician. And there’s Mr. Spielberg the moviemaker. As the Apple board starts singing “Auld Lang Syne”, somebody boots up a Power Mac.

Steve smiles at the startup sound. “You know what they say,” he tells the crowd. “Every time you hear a startup chime, an angel just got his wings.”

Originally printed in “The Desktop Critic” column by David Pogue, Macworld, 1998 January


2014.08 News: Out of the Closet

A little warmup for Nostalgia Night. Remember MacWrite, MacDraw, MacPaint, etc.? They came with the original Macintosh computer in 1984 and were simply Apple products. In 1987, Apple created a software division called Claris, which assumed control of these signature programs as well as the new AppleWorks integrated program, soon rebranded as ClarisWorks. (It eventually reverted to its original name and owner.) In 1988, Claris acquired a database-management program called FileMaker from Nashoba Systems; it too was the beneficiary of substantial upgrading. Thru the 1990s, FileMaker was the only Claris product that managed to hold its own in the face of increasing market domination by Microsoft, and by 1998 Claris had ended support for everything but FileMaker and renamed itself FileMaker Inc.

It was still a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple, but that aspect had been soft-pedaled since the release of the Windows-compatible FileMaker Pro 2 in 1992. The company knew that Windows had huge market share that it wanted to tap into, and it didn't want Microsoft snobs shopping elsewhere for no better reason than that FileMaker came from Apple.

That decision was made nearly a quarter century ago, and FileMaker has, ever since, presented itself publicly as just another software company, albeit one with a sterling reputation for quality, reliability, user-friendliness, regular updates, and 99% cross-platform compatibility. You can develop FMP databases on either Macs or Windows computers, and they'll run almost identically on the other platform.

But now, ever so softly, with Apple having been in the top 5 most admired brands in the world for over a decade, the company's coming out of the closet:


2014.08 Tip: New Keyboard

I love a story with a happy ending, and this is one.

I was chugging along on my iMac when I wanted to check my schedule to see what was coming up. I've got my desktop set up using Spaces, so all I have to do is type ctrl-→ to swap out the current display for a different one that shows my Calendar and Contacts. But nothing happened. Then I discovered that nothing happened when I tried typing anything else, either.

"Hmmm," I figured, "dead batteries in my wireless keyboard." So I installed new ones. Still nothing. Another pair of new ones. Still nothing. I tried turning the keyboard off and on again. No little green light. Conclusion: dead keyboard.

Those were, in fact, the 1st 2 words out of my mouth after I walked into the Apple Store at West Towne and one of the friendly blue-shirted associates asked what he could help me with. Less than 10 minutes later I was walking out of the store clutching a brand-new, still-in-plastic replacement keyboard, batteries already installed. $69 value. No charge. Yay, Apple!

Now we come to the "some assembly required" part. I set the new keyboard down in front of my iMac, pressed its IO button, waited for its little green light to start blinking, then waved my hands and said "You guys talk to each other now." Alas, they did not. And, of course, without a functional keyboard on which to type my log-in password, there was no way I could fire up my iMac and ask it to please begin the conversation.

Or was there? (Here comes the tip.) It turns out that your computer comes with a "Guest User" account pre-installed for your convenience. I suspect that the average user just ignores it and goes straight into her or his own personal account. But you can log in as "Guest User" without needing a password. I did that, then used my fully functional mouse to select "Bluetooth" from "System Preferences" and discovered that my new keyboard had been beseeching the computer all along for a hook-up. All I had to do was type in the 6 digits displayed on the screen, and presto! the deed was done. Logged out as "Guest User", logged in as "Richard S. Russell", and all was back to normal.

I guess the moral of the story (beyond merely "Yay, Apple!") is that you never know when that "Guest User" account may come in handy, so don't get carried away with your spring cleaning and decide to throw it out.


2014.08 Entertainment: Mr. PC Hits Town

Remember those "Get a Mac" TV commercials featuring Justin Long as the Mac and John Hodgman as the PC? Well, Hodgman has gone on to a further career as a comedian, notably as the senior millionaire correspondent on The Daily Show and, of particular interest to propellor-heads, the go-to expert on "Geeks vs. Nerds" for the YouTube series Geeking Out.

This is relevant locally because he's coming to Madison's Barrymore Theater Sun. Oct. 19 at 8:00 PM. You can buy tickets on line for $20 ($22 day of show).