A million Windows users have apparently switched to the Mac. That means there are a lot of people experiencing the joys of Apple for the first time. That fact reminded me of my first experience of a Mac. It wasn't that obvious at the time, but my relationship with the Mac was a turning point for me.
It was 1988, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, at a company called Wam Bam Singing Telegram. The story of how I came to be working at a company in the Midwest that specialised in singing telegrams and “male and female adult entertainers”, shall, for now, remain untold. The computer was a Mac Plus sporting a 9-inch mono screen (521 x 342 pixels), an 8MHz processor and a single megabyte of RAM. Those are pretty low specs, but it is no exaggeration that this tiny machine changed the course of my life. Not that my life had a particular course up to that point, but my interest in the Mac was sparked and look where it got me.
The system was used at Wam Bam to book the acts, keep track of finances and print invoices on the laser printer. It was all done on a custom HyperCard application made by local Mac head Nathan Ivanov. I was left in the office to play about with the computer, and gradually learned the basics of clicking & dragging, copying & pasting. Before long I was the in-house expert with the computer. Nathan helped me understand the workings of the computer, and supplied me old MacWeek issues to get me up to speed with the gossip and industry news. He could hardly have known what he started, and he sadly died a couple of years after he set me on this odyssey.
My fascination with the Mac progressed and the owner of Wam Bam, one Larry Zamba, was looking for other ways to make money out of being a Mac owner. I had a background in television graphics, and the Mac looked set to revolutionise that market, so Larry shelled out some serious cash for a Mac IIci to launch Immaculate Concepts, a computer-animation company. The plan was fine, but the technology was lagging behind slightly. I did a ten-second ident animation for SnapOn Tools – it took 48 hours to render the 300 frames, and a week to design it. That year I learned more about the Mac than I have since, though the business was basically doomed due to technology not quite being there, and there being a limited market for television graphics in a small Midwestern city. So I shipped back to London, with my new wife (something else unlikely to have happened if I hadn't been in the US, messing with Macs).
I looked for a job that could use my high level of Mac expertise. I applied for the post of sales person at MacWarehouse, a company I was familiar with in the US. I didn't get the sales job, but my Mac knowledge got me in the hot seat for the tech support desk. I lasted about two and a half years, most of which I did as the only support guy there. It was extremely intense work, a techie boot camp that toughened me up for the world of consulting, which eventually led me to the next stage in my career. That was becoming technical editor at Macworld ten years ago.
So my Mac epiphany was gradual. I'm not sure if I even noticed it happening. But for the last 17 years the Mac has played a big part in my life, and I find it hard to imagine not relying on the Mac on some level in my daily work life.
I wonder what direction the Mac might pull its new crop of converts. I was basically wandering around the US looking for something interesting to do when the Mac came my way. I heard a story from FileMaker that illustrated somebody's life changing Mac experience. It was a dentist (or perhaps an architect) that had been using a Mac to build a custom database to keep track of his business. The end result was so good that he changed career, and became a FileMaker developer.
I suppose that's an extreme example, and Mac usage is more likely to result in more minor enhancements to life in general. I think having a Mac gives more freedom to be creative; something that modern life tends to squeeze out of us if we're not careful. Whether it is tinkering with photographs in iPhoto, or creating home movies with iMovie and iDVD, modern Macs are begging to be used creatively. In the old days, a copy of Photoshop and a scanner was required to let your creativity flow. Now the Mac is pre-equipped with all you need.
It's not just music, pictures and movies that the Mac makes easy. With the tools available you can find innovative solutions to work-related things. I know I'm in a minority when it comes to appreciating the complex beauty of a big spreadsheet, but who doesn't love those extra Photoshop plug-ins that make life easier, or the AppleScripts that take the drudgery out of repetitive tasks.
I suppose not all the effects of Apple products are so significant. Take the iPod for example. I keep hearing people say it's changed their life, and if it leads you into a life of using a Mac then perhaps that's true. But I'm of an age when I can remember the launch of the Sony Walkman in 1979, which was the iPod of its time. It was outrageously priced at around £100. I remember wanting one so bad it hurt and I would have sold anything (bar my skateboard) to get my hands on one. I firmly believed my life would be complete if only I owned a Walkman. I suspect there are a lot of youngsters, and for that matter oldsters, that feel similarly about the iPod.
The fact is, however, that once I got my Sony Walkman, (or more likely my Aiwa copycat) it didn't really change my life. It just meant I could listen to tapes as I walked around. It didn't make me more creative, or more productive. But if an iPod brings a person to the Mac platform, it could make them more productive and more creative; it really could change your life.