This Week in Apple History: June 25 through July 1

The start of the personal computer

We're halfway through our year-long history celebrating Apple's 40th anniversary, and we've reached a milestone for the entire computer industry. These days, that really means a milestone for the world -- and yet, it's one that is barely remembered, hardly celebrated, and when you know what it is, our perspective from all these years later actually makes it hard to really comprehend how monumental it is.

This week of June 25 through July 1 across Apple's four decades, from 1976 to 2016, also includes another milestone that is recognized, though, and yet another that -- if Bill Gates had been given his way -- would probably have destroyed Apple. Not because he wanted that, though: he had plans for the company that he genuinely believed would be good for it.

That's the thing about Apple history: it's a business story and it's a technology story, but it's ultimately always about people. So as we start with a rare step further back than the formation of Apple Computer, don't picture the technology. Picture the man.

Steve Wozniak

It's after business hours on the evening of June 29, 1975, and Woz has returned to his cubicle at Hewlett Packard, where he works during the day. This evening, as on so many previous evenings though, he's working on own time, and on his own designs, for his own computer.

"I typed a few keys on the keyboard and I was shocked! The letters were displayed on the screen," he told Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs' biographer. "It was the first time in history anyone had typed a character on a keyboard and seen it shown up on their own computer's screen right in front of them."

This is what's hard to comprehend now, because we do this all day, and because we know that it's how computers have worked since long before Woz and his little machine. The key word is little. The key phrase is Woz and his machine. This was a personal computer. Instead of you typing at a terminal and the keypress being sent to a remote computer before teletype or any other kind of response comes back, this was all happening inside the machine right there, and using its own processor.

Again speaking to Isaacson, Woz says his thinking of processors after a Homebrew Computer Club meeting that led to this point. He had been mentally designing a terminal that would connect to a remote computer, just like others of the day, when instead: "This whole vision of a personal computer just popped into my head. That night, I started to sketch out what would later become known as the Apple I."

It's a strange thing to think, but Woz designed the Cream Soda Computer, then the Apple I, then the Apple II -- and none after that. As much as he worked on other computers like the Apple III, he didn't design any more. Yet he'd done enough: there is surely a straight line from June 29, 1975 to June 29, 2007. If you're having any trouble placing that date, this is one small thing that happened. David Pogue, then of The New York Times, summed up what had gone on sale at 6PM on that date.

Director of Marketing

The iPhone is now the defining product of the company, but go back to those earliest days, and to this week in 1976. The July issue of SCCS Interface magazine then had one of the first-ever advertisements for the Apple I computer. It also had an article about it, which labelled Woz the Director of Engineering and Jobs as just marketing. Nonetheless, Jobs gets a quote in the magazine.

Asked about computer clubs like Homebrew, he said: "You know, most of the real creative and innovative ideas come about by communicating with these people. If we can rap about their needs, feelings, and motivations, we can respond appropriately giving them what they want. Most of the companies that started in this market are now responding to industrial needs, and the hobbyist now has to yell louder than before.

"This hobby market may still only be a baby, but it's going to grow up fast, like the CB market did, and we plan to grow with it. We're here for the hobbyist, to give him the best performance system that makes sense economically."

Count the ways that quote dates Jobs in time, and also carbon-dates his age: rap and responding, he's young and trying to sound businesslike; hobbyist and him, Jobs is still a boy going to boys' clubs where they can't imagine women having any use for the electronic things. Then from our perspective, the reference to CB radios is so quaint.

To be fair, you can't tell how much is Steve Jobs's verbatim quotes and how much is the magazine's editing, but you can tell one thing about that mag. It wasn't produced on desktop publishing computers.

Write it down

Homebrew Computer Club leads to Woz thinking of personal computers, and that leads to Apple. Come further along the Apple history timeline to around this week and in July 1985, when Aldus PageMaker is launched.

It was an immediate hit -- PageMaker plus Mac plus LaserWriter -- but let's see that from the perspective of just a couple of years later. This is the BBC television series Micro Live, with a feature on the success of PageMaker which aired in 1987. Do try the whole thing but for the Desktop Publishing item, go to the 3:41 point into this clip.

May I tell you a quick personal story? While you were scrubbing through that clip, at 6:52 into it, that's Ian McNaught-Davis, who takes over presenting the item, and his first words here are "of course there were computers in publishing before ...". That half-sentence is mine. The first scripted words I ever wrote that anyone ever said were those eight. I was working as a programmer for a firm making DTP software -- it's such an obscure firm that even knowing the name I can't find a record of it online -- and had just had my first computer magazine pieces published.

That was somehow enough to make me sound like an expert, when I pitched to BBC and I got to spend some time at BBC Television Centre in London for the first time. Actually, if you happen to know the producer, Terry Marsh, do wave for me: I deeply admired her, and was so young I could barely say that.

None of which is terribly relevant to Apple History, but it shocked me to find that clip now and see that while I'd remembered it as being generally about DTP, it was at least sparked by Apple. I owe my media career to Apple. One other shock: you and I both knew that PageMaker was made for the Mac, but what I learned from another Micro Live clip is that it was also made for the BBC Micro. That computer is barely known in the US, but for a long time in the UK it was the main machine in schools everywhere.

PageMaker was also on PC

Schools went to PCs after a while and for a time the whole world seemed to move to PCs. Bill Gates can't be unhappy about that, but before the rise of Windows -- only just before, but still before -- he made an attempt this week to boost Apple and the Mac. Gates and Microsoft's Jeff Raikes wrote a memo, telling Apple's John Sculley and Jean-Louis Gassée to licence the Mac OS to other companies.

Gates wasn't hanging around, either: he was recommending Apple talk to various companies, and he was reportedly already setting up meetings. This was his thinking, as detailed in a memo, that lacks the later enormous length of Microsoft notes, but keeps its soporific content.

"The industry has reached the point where it is now impossible for Apple to create a standard out of their innovative technology without support from, and the resulting credibility of, other personal computer manufacturers. Microsoft is very willing to help Apple implement this strategy. We are familiar with the key manufacturers, their strategies, and strengths. We also have a great deal of experience in OEMing system software.

"These companies would broaden the available product offerings through their "Mac-compatible" product lines: they would each innovate and add features to the basic system: various memory configurations, video display, and keyboard alternatives, etc."

He and Raikes sent that on June 25, 1985, which was 148 days before the very first version of Windows was released. So Microsoft was deep into Windows development, deep into the plan to get the advantages of the Mac onto PCs, and specifically to do so under Microsoft control. Yet even as late in the game as this, Gates does often appear to be an Apple fan, and if success for the Mac would mean success for Microsoft's Apple software, still he seems genuine about wanting what was best for the company.

Hold that thought, though, and watch Steve Jobs describing Microsoft. This was in footage filmed for the television documentary Triumph of the Nerds, made in 1987 by America's PBS and the UK's Channel 4:

He claims that Microsoft has no taste, and that it doesn't innovate, it only takes other peoples' ideas. You can well argue that this is pretty rich coming from Apple, which borrowed thoroughly from Xerox PARC, and coming from a man who not only said "great artists steal", but he stole that very quote from Picasso. Yet it does explain a lot about Microsoft, it does give credence to the idea that a company is the embodiment of its people.

Now go back to Gates's memo. This is a man whose work would dominate the entire technology industry for decades, and he describes innovation as adding "various memory configurations, video display and keyboard alternatives."

But Windows 98 will be better

Windows 1.0 launched those 148 days after Gates's memo which, by the way, Apple ignored in every sense. The world was not shaken by Windows 1.0, nor by Windows 2.0, which was December 9, 1987, or 897 days after the memo. It wasn't until Windows 3.1 -- 2,477 days after the memo -- that things started to get interesting. Then there was Windows 95, which saw the greatest fuss in software launches ever, and so was clearly a superior product.

Fast forward a bit, though. Windows 98 was launched on June 28, 1998. David Bank, writer for the Wall Street Journal reports in his 2001 book Breaking Windows that maybe, just maybe, Microsoft had the same opinion about Windows 95 as all Mac users did.

"As I walked into the hall [for the Windows 98 launch] with a senior Microsoft executive, he looked around to see if anyone was listening and cupped a hand to my ear. 'Do you know the internal marketing pitch for Windows 98?' he asked. I leaned in close. 'Less shitty,' he whispered."

-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher)

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