The Matrix: MEME 2.07

MEME 2.07


"I can wear blue jeans with the rest of them." Ellen Hancock, Chief Technology Officer, Apple Computer.

The incredible shrinking Apple Computer, now as big as it was in 1987, might consider boiling itself down to what it was twenty-five years ago: two people with excellent skills in network communications with a prescient vision of the future. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple's founders, designed exquisite "blue-boxes" for surfing AT&T's world-wide telecommunications network. Like two peripatetic Fuller-Brush men, or Avon ladies to the nerds, Steve 'n Woz would peddle their "warez" to college students, paying Bay Area dormitories a visit, blue-boxes in hand.

"I was happy to be at UC Berkeley in 1972 but unlucky enough to be a resident of one of the dormitories, filled with freshmen away from home for the first time," Rick Prelinger, the owner of one authentic pre-Apple blue-box, writes. "One night, acting on a lead from a mutual friend, two young men known by the names 'Hans' and 'Gribble' came to my room for a visit. ('Gribble' also went under the name Oaf Tobar.) They were really named Jobs and Wozniak, and they were selling blue boxes."

Through the night, Hans 'n Gribble took the assembled UC Berkeley students on a wild ride, surfing the tendrils of Ma Bell's network. "I recall Jobs using the box to call Dr. Arthur Janov (therapist and author of _The Primal Scream_) and leave some kind of message, and calling Pioneer Electronics in Tokyo only to say, 'Is this Pioneer Electronics? Yes? Thank you.'" Prelinger dropped $80 for an original Hans 'n Gribble box (since donated to the Boston Computer museum), a box designed with utmost precision, the kind of work that later defined the elegance of Apple Computer. It was, as Prelinger explains, "a user-friendly and well-thought-out, plug-and-play appliance."

With arrival of low-cost microprocessors, Hans 'n Gribble shifted their well-honed technical skills towards another project: creating personal computers. The result is history; a computer company which more than any other institution represented the possibility of two words modifying each other -- "personal computer" -- computers by the people, for the people. Blue jeans, long hair, Spacewar T-Shirts, bad hygiene and printers nicknamed after Tolkein characters embodied a new "corporate culture." Well, the blue-boxes are long gone, so are Hans 'n Gribble, but the challenge facing Apple computer is whether it can foster the same kind of innovation and, ironically, construct a street-legal descendant of the blue-box.

The thrill of the blue-box was twofold: it let you make free phone calls and explore information. Freed from cost, people exulted in dialing far-away places and talking to strangers, calling pay-phones in London's Waterloo station, speaking with people at the American embassy in Moscow. Much as people surf the Net aimlessly, clicking their way through a world-wide system, the blue-box offered people an earlier version of info-surfing. Everyone at Apple knows that the Internet is both the company's curse and destiny. A curse because people thinking of what computer to buy for getting wired now choose Windows-based PCs. Destiny because the Internet, or open computer networks, are the foundation of a new wave of computing, a wave presenting an enormous opportunity for the first company to resonate with this zeitgeist. So far, the closest to come to this is Netscape -- but they present only a fragment of the picture -- and with each hastily-produced, bug-ridden, version of Netscape, their credibility shrinks, bedeviled by mediocrity and poor design.

This Winter I exchanged e-mail with folks at Apple, discussing the future of the company and the Internet. Proposals were circulating exhorting management to shift everything over towards a network-centric strategy. As a Mac-user, I was rooting for the change, believing Apple had the right ingredients to fuse hardware and software to deliver an innovative, unexpected computing metaphor, one which would transcend the hobbled patchwork of programs we currently use to navigate information. Seven months later, there's little chance of this happening. Core people versed in network solutions and Apple design are migrating. Steve Capps, a long-time Apple employee is going to Microsoft because, as he put it, "There were times I felt like a fish flopping on the dock and I finally realized I was burned out." After discussions with Apple's new CEO Gilbert F. Amelio he left for Microsoft to explore possibilities related to the Internet. Capps was central to the development of the Newton, a creature born before its time, but certainly a viable springboard towards mobile, ubiquitous network computing.

David Nagel, Apple's former chief technology officer, left for AT&T in April, to head AT&T Laboratories, the research arm of AT&T containing elements from Bell Laboratories, home to the first transistor, UNIX, and much of modern telephony. AT&T goal is to become digital, replacing current phone service with digital packets, the same technology behind the Internet, by 2005. Nagel's replacement, Ellen Hancock, must love a challenge. She left IBM after 28 years of service, where she rose to control one-third of the company's projects. She came to computing in the mid-sixties, the heyday of time-sharing, a time when wiring the world meant creating "inexpensive consoles" for under $15,000 and connecting them to mainframes. It was precisely this culture of shared computing that Gribble 'n Hans destroyed, replacing it with a one-person one-computer world. Now Hancock faces a stark choice: tinker with Apple or start fresh.

She doesn't have much time. Predators are circling, sensing a kill at $19 a share. We all might wake up tomorrow to read of a hostile takeover attempt. An era in computer history is over, and Nagel has a tiny window of opportunity to leap through. Internet-related software for non-experts is horribly designed, buggy, and must be given away for free because no one would accept such bad programming if they had to pay for it. The challenge for Apple is to exploit this situation. One possibility is to create a suite of Internet applications that are sterling in quality and design, so far superior from the expected that in one moment the world's perception shifts, and the experience of navigating information shifts from headache inducing to pleasurable. There are other possibilities (if enough people send them in to me at, I'll assemble them and forward them to Hancock). But the clock is ticking down. Even Steve Jobs, his Gribble moniker long-gone, won't buy an Apple. He just bought his college-bound daughter an IBM Thinkpad.

MEME and its contents copyright by David S. Bennahum. Duplication for non-commerical use is permitted. Contact me if you have questions. Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at

Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at