The Blog of Ken.

from March 30, 2006

Apple Turns 30

Sometimes I forget how bound up my entire adult life has been with this one company.

With one exception, every company I’ve worked for as an adult has either been Apple, or had a direct connection to Apple. On several occasions, I’ve gotten jobs based soley on who I knew at Apple.

Even WebTV, which was bought by Microsoft (leading to my brief forray over to the Dark Side) was started by a group of Apple engineers.

Looking at the history of the company, I’m reminded of how many times I was part of something far ahead of its time, or at least in the cubicle next door.

There was HyperCard. Imagine PowerPoint and PhotoShop in one package with basic video and audio editing added in to boot. Plus, it had a “simple” programming language. Basically, it was the Web without the Web. It was a way to present information using hyperlinks years before the Web existed. You could make incredibly sophisticated apps with it in relatively little time. Eventually, it sort of morphed/imploded into QuickTime.

There was the Untitled Apple Video project, which I killed by telling the CEO (John Sculley) “Homer Simpson won’t buy this.” It was before QuickTime, before DVD’s. The project was meant to make a video player / “info appliance” that would only play at 15 frames per second (TV is 30) and with only an 8-bit color depth (TV is 16-bit.) The internal Apple folks thought it was an amazing leap forward, which it was at the time, but it wasn’t as good as regular TV. Nobody would have bought it.

During this period, I told anyone who would listen that TV was going to change. The time listed for a show in TV Guide would merely be the earliest time you could view it. The show itself would be stored on a hard drive and could be viewed whenever you desired. And this would lead to the networks making available ad-free shows, paid for by per-show fees, or a full season subscription. And they thought I was mad… MAD!

Well, now Tivos and other DVR’s are popping up everywhere. You can now buy individual episodes of “Desperate Housewives” on the iTunes Store. Or you can buy a full “Season Pass” of all this year’s episodes, past and future, downloadable when you wish. Who’s mad NOW??? Bwahaha!

I worked on the Newton, the first PDA (like a Palm Pilot.) This was another case where our ideas were just a little beyond the state-of-the-art for computing power and miniaturization at the time. In Cupertino, I worked with several Russian engineers who had just come to the U.S. They had handwriting recognition algorithms that nobody here had ever thought of. I flew to Japan twice to teach engineers at Sharp how to program for the Newton, as it was a joint venture between Apple and Sharp. The Newton ended up being far too heavy and too slow. I managed to avoid the layoff bloodbath that followed.

I was there when Apple introduced a whopping 20 megabyte hard disk. For a brief period, I was one of the foremost data recovery experts for that old monster. (How big is 20 megabytes?A typical mp3 song is 3 megabytes. A typical Big News podcast is 20 megabytes.)

Using PhotoShop 1.0, I made a “swimsuit calendar” for our group. Tool and beefcake calendars where brought in. People chose the individual swimsuit photo they liked, and I took a Polaroid of their head in the same position as the original photo. Then I scanned the Polaroids and the original pictures, fooled around in PhotoShop, and created the equivalent of Big News graphics in 1990.

For a brief, one month period, my ex-wife and I worked in the same cubicle. My advice: don’t do that.

I saw so many advanced research projects go by that made my jaw drop. Some of them are still percolating away, waiting for computing power to catch up to them. My favorite is a speech/gesture recognition interface. No mouse or keyboard. Just tell the computer what to do, and/or point at the button you want to press. “There was a web page about muskrats I was looking at last week. Can you bring that up?”

What’s the next step? Eyeglass monitors. You wear them like normal glasses. But with a gesture or voice command, one or both become semi-opaque or opaque, filling your vision with the contents of a vast computer desktop. If you look left or right, the desktop tracks with your vision and moves. Besides all the stuff you would normally use a computer for, you’ll have access to high-def movies and TV that will look far better in these tiny glasses than they would on any large screen.

And after that? Well, we’ll just have to wait until next month…

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