Pournelle: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Jerry says Apple is no longer toying around.

Jerry Pournelle, Contributor

July 21, 2011

6 Min Read

Apple's OS X 10.7 Lion update is out. Some reviewers are impressed . Others have their doubts. I'm going to be installing OS X Lion on at least one of my Macs soon, and I'll let you know what I think about it when I do.

Back in 1984, when it first came out, I had a lot to say about the Mac. I wrote that the Mac was a wonderful operating system attached to a toy computer. This was the 128K Mac, you may remember. (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs was furious with me! It was downhill from there for awhile, but I'll get to that in a minute.

When the Mac grew up and got some more memory, it became a great machine. But to me the original Mac and the Lisa really were just toys.

Photo Credit: David W. Martin

I remember when Microsoft was making more profit on every Mac sold than Apple!

At one point not so long ago, I was about to convert all my operations to the Mac platform. Then Microsoft dumped Vista for Windows 7 and I decided to stay with Windows after all.

But I do have my five Macs. I always carry my MacBook Air if I am going anywhere to write. And I regularly use a MacBook Pro for recording and doing SKYPE conferencing and video podcasts, like this interview I just did about the end of the US manned space program. You can view it right below.

I use a mix of Macs and PCs, so maybe my opinion won't matter much to you on this. But I do have advice for you. There’s no urgency here. Developers want to rush in, but Mac users are better off waiting a bit. Lion isn’t all that expensive, but some people are having trouble installing it. (Some editors at BYTE report installation issues -- and problems with Adobe Flash. BYTE is still weighing in.) I'd wait and see.

In the early days of personal computing, there was a real contest for market share between Apple systems and all the other computers running Something Else. That category included S-100 systems with CP/M and, later, the new IBM-compatible Microsoft DOS systems. PCs came in 1981.

Back then, it was a real race. The West Coast Computer Faire and even Comdex used to devote nearly equal space to DOS-based PCs and Apple computers.

Photo Credit: David W. Martin

I remember how everyone would excitedly look forward to the next Apple machine: would it be the Mac or would it be an Apple III? Funny. At BYTE, most of the editorial staff eagerly looked forward to the Mac.

In my case, I was playing with an Apple Lisa and worrying about how slow it was.

Then the Mac came out. I got one -- and the Apple Laser printer. The first Mac was certainly easy to use, but it cost $2500. Worse, it was limited to 128K -- K as in KILOBYTES -- of memory and its CPU did the visual processing. Boy, it was slow. Slow enough to induce misery if you wanted to get any real work done on it.

The Mac ran hot. It ran so hot that any work you did on it was in constant danger of vanishing. It was hot because it had no fan -- Steve Jobs had insisted on that. There was no mass storage except a single 3.5" floppy disk drive. But you booted the Mac from a floppy, then removed the root system disk if you needed an application or a data disk. You could buy an external disk, but it cost $500 or more.

Apple was adamant that the Mac didn't need improvement. It was wonderful, Jobs said. And 128K of memory was enough.

Photo Credit: David W. Martin

So that's how I reached the conclusion, back then, that the Mac was a wonderful operating system attached to a toy computer. And I said so. That enraged a number of Apple executives, including Steve Jobs, or so I heard. My relationship with the company then deteriorated to just about zero until Pepsi's John Scully replaced Steve Jobs as CEO.

Now, prior to the Mac, Apple had a lot of business users -- even though it didn't have a very good word-processor. The first successful spreadsheet program, Bob Franklin and Dan Bricklin’s VisiCalc, was written on an Apple computer.

People who had never even used a computer suddenly flocked to computer stores to "buy a VisiCalc." They didn’t care what the machine was. They wanted that spreadsheet.

The Mac lost many of those business users over time. The Mac operating system software was superior to Microsoft DOS and, later, Windows. Its text editor was better, too. But it was slow, overpriced and way underpowered.

By the time Apple set that right--and it did, eventually--IBM-compatible MS-DOS based systems gained a big lead in market share for business users. In the background, the Mac did continue to excel in a number of areas. Publishing. Graphics. And it had the best speech synthesis of just about anything available--up to and including big mini and mainframe computers.

Quietly, even Microsoft used Macs, though. I remember when Microsoft held a big future-themed conference to celebrate the opening of its new Redmond campus in the 1980s. Its press materials and presentation charts so obviously were Mac-created and Mac-printed.

Once the Mac got past its early hardware limitations, there was a lot to like about it. During the 1990s, Apple lost more and more market share and there was genuine concern that the company would go under. But then Jobs returned and soon the iPhone, iMac, iPad, and other iStuff began to appear. Fortune reversed.

There’s no danger that Apple will vanish now.

Apple's not going anywhere, so you have time to think about Apple OS X Lion. It looks to be a real advance, but from all reports I've seen, it's not quite finished. It doesn’t do anything that the average user has to have yet. I'm with Alexander Pope on this. Pope said: "Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to cast the old aside.

Wait for the update, I say. There will be one coming soon. I'll let you know what my thoughts on Lion are after I start testing it for BYTE.

ED NOTE: The pics in this piece were kindly provided by BYTE technologist David W. Martin. They are not original Macs, but they are the oldest Mac photos we had at press time. If you have vintage original Mac photos to send us, we'd love to hear from you. We're building up our photo archive and will give you full credit. gs

Jerry Pournelle is BYTE's senior technologist. An award-winning novelist and columnist, he's back at BYTE with Computing at Chaos Manor. Find more of Jerry's stuff at www.jerrypournelle.com. Email him at [email protected].

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