My 400th birthday

In my regular commentary written in August 2011, I clocked up my 400th Help section in MacUser. Here is my momentarily smug reflection, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 20, 2011.

Over the last 20 years or so, I have written 400 of these Help sections, formerly ‘The Works’, and crave your indulgence to reflect on that anniversary.

I had not come to Macs with the intention of writing about them; in 1988, I was commissioned to develop CAD/CAM software, in addition to my daytime job as a doctor in medical research.

My first Mac was an SE, maxed out to 4 MB of memory with a built-in 20 MB SCSI hard disk, running System 5. There was no such thing as the Internet then: I joined ‘bulletin boards’, and became one of the early members of CIX. When I registered with Apple as a developer, I used its worldwide email system, also accessed via dial-up modem.

The early 90s were exciting years, with the launch of Adobe Photoshop, writing much of a new but sadly short-lived magazine The Mac, as well as tackling your questions in the pages of MacUser.

Apple progressed to the pinnacle of its ‘classic’ operating systems, System 7, and I equipped myself with the seemingly unlimited power of a Mac IIfx. Its Motorola 68030 processor ran at a breakneck 40 MHz, driving SCSI hard disks as large as 160 MB, and it gained an external CD-ROM drive.

Apple’s shift from ‘floppy’ to optical disks was slow, but many considered it reckless and doomed. However it proved its value when the first developer CDs arrived, and we discovered how much could be moved around on cheap disks.

Apple dealers were few and far between, but provided full support from training to repairs by in-house engineers, as has been recently reinvented by Apple’s stores. A few retailers slashed prices, sometimes using grey imports, and their glossy advertising inserts were more inspiring than the most flash of current websites. The better booklets also smelled so good, a sensory experience the Internet has failed to replicate.

Apple has had many bright ideas, many of which fell by the wayside in the headlong rush towards the impending doom of ‘Y2K’. OpenDoc tried to break the hegemony of monolithic applications into smaller software components: CyberDog illustrated it wonderfully, with a modular blend of browser, mail, news clients, and more. Inevitably the software giants shunned it, seeing how negatively it would affect their market control and profits.

HyperCard soared, then faded as development engineers in Cupertino switched to the next big idea. Newton arrived prematurely in 1993, but gave Apple unique understanding of what the mobile market wanted, which they would deliver in iOS (2007).

We underwent seismic shifts in hardware, to PowerPC processors in 1994, then Intel in 2006. Mac OS X arrived in March 2001, just afterwards these pages settling into their current form. Your questions have often reflected the anguish and problems resulting from loss of your ‘classic’ applications, and now with Lion’s lack of Rosetta, of your PowerPC software too.

We have moved from the tight, consistent and efficient interface in ‘classic’ Mac OS to the more liberal and ever-evolving face of Mac OS X. Our input devices have grown from the original ‘strictly come mousing’ one-button version, through the Magic Mouse, to taps and flicks on a trackpad.

I hope that I have helped guide you through this extraordinary journey, with comment that has sometimes been prescient, but never predictable. Whilst I may not have answered every question correctly the first time, I thank those who take the trouble to better inform me, and look forward to continuing to help and entertain for the next hundred.

Sadly I never made the next century in print, attaining a mere 459 in the final issue of MacUser; perhaps I can keep it going here, though. This is, after all, the 300th article that I have posted here.