On behalf of the Mac faithful

Those of us who have been following Apple for more than a decade have been dealing with a bit of cognitive dissonance in the last couple of years, and I feel inclined to give a few words on behalf of the long-term Mac-heads.

Apple is acting pretty much like the Evil Empire these days, everything they railed against in the famed “1984” commercial, locking down their systems and creating the “walled garden.” I am hardly the first and probably not even the millionth to point this out. And Apple faithful have been accused, with a certain amount of validity, of a certain cult-like devotion to everything the Maximum Leader says, as if Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field had been extended to millions of people at once.

Why is this? I cannot speak for the new folks, by which I mean anyone whose first Apple product was post-1997. I’m thinking here of the lost tribe, the ones who made it through the 1990s and Apple’s dark period, the ones you can always tell from the way their eyes involuntarily twitch at the name “John Sculley.”

Here’s the deal. We still haven’t figured out, on an emotional level, that Apple is even in a position to BE the evil empire. Apple blew it in the mid-1980s when they let Windows take over pretty much the entire computing world and consigned themselves to an eternity as a third-class operating system, tolerated with bland amusement by the Microsoft masses and occasionally thrown a bone from the table in the form of an Apple port of Myst six months after everyone else had already played it. We watched the slow-motion train wreck over the course of the decade, starting not long after Steve Jobs’ ouster and continuing through the Sculley and Amelio eras and the interminable period where the question wasn’t whether Apple would go completely bankrupt, but how many months they could still hold out. These are the years where the Apple TV – not the little box you think of now, but an ugly console that merged a crappy computer with a crappier TV tuner – was an actual thing that actual executives thought would make money.

And in the midst of all this in the mid-1990s you had Steve Jobs doing his thing in what we all assumed to be a garage while mumbling to himself, because he was INSANE. Every so often some tech publication would do a sympathy interview with him that basically took the tack of “Silicon Valley chewed him up and spit him out and now he’s just a crazy man.” This would go double whenever Steve would go wild babble about integrated design and forcing mechanisms and the “internet appliance,” whatever the hell THAT was, because the only thing we could figure out was he was ranting about some magic device that would pick up the Internet from thin air and could be carried from room to room in your pocket.

Keep in mind that this is the same era when AOL was not entirely a joke, college students had to walk to the computer lab to log on, and the only people with cable modems were ph.d candidates in computer science who more often than not had to tutor the cable support guys in how they worked.

So in a way, we felt sorry for Steve, and we felt that things would have gone better with him rather than without him, but it was pretty clear he was just one bad day away from sitting on a street corner wearing a tinfoil hat and you wouldn’t put Mr. Internet Appliance in charge of a mall opening. So we contented ourselves with bitching about Amelio, resigned ourselves to the fact that Apple was doomed, and reminiscing about how great it might have been if Steve were still running things. If we got really drunk, we might spend some bull sessions talking about the wacky things Jobs was talking about and speculate how cool it would be if they actually existed, but even then the discussion would invariably turn to whether this kind of stuff was flat-out impossible or merely highly improbable.

Then came the big return of Jobs in 1997 and the iMac and the iBook and the iEra, and everything seemed right with the world. We bitched about OSX, because as Mac nerds we will always bitch about change, but in the end embraced it too. For several years we had the Apple we always wanted – doing quite well, but still the crazy renegade outsiders with their weird ideas.

And along comes the iPhone and the App Store and the iPod Touch and the iPad and in the course of a few short years – really, just since 2007 – Apple goes from a high-end luxury to a complete mainstream product that EVERYONE has to have. The Internet Appliance is a reality. Most valuable tech company on earth. Somewhere along the line, Apple became the evil empire, locking down their systems, showing a shockingly tone-deaf response to the Death Grip, and pretty much becoming the “1984” commercial. As above, I’m not the first one to say this – but I think for a lot of Mac devotees, this still hasn’t registered. We don’t know what it’s LIKE for our stuff to be popular.

In our minds we’re still the crazy ones in the wilderness. We always knew Apple was a fatally flawed thing; hell, the inherent tragedy of everything going back to Jobs vs. Sculley was part of the appeal for some of us. So certainly few balked when Jobs starting running things in a distinctly defensive manner that on some psychological level seemed to be an attempt to stick it to Sculley – “I can screw over the others before they screw me this time.” It made sense; it was the nerds taking over the high school and beating up the jocks. But there comes a point where you have to realize – hey, Apple really IS the most valuable tech company on earth. Even five years ago this seemed unthinkable, and in 1997 it was ridiculous to even speculate. And we have to deal with the fallout from things like Apple’s baldfaced lying with Antennagate (“Turns out all along we showed the wrong number of bars” – really, guys? REALLY?) and the current disaster of the 30 percent subscription cut that still might accidentally hamstring the App Store.

After all this time, Apple really has changed the world, and we have no idea what to make of it.

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~ by poguesrun on February 22, 2011.

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