Saturday October 8, 2011

WASHINGTON, MA.

Since his death, there have been many tributes to Steve Jobs in the media, with an outpouring of grief and, yes, love in comments posted online. I was there at a key moment in his evolution from computer nerd to marketing wizard to visionary. It was Jan. 24, 1984, the day he introduced the Apple Macintosh. Or, I should say, it introduced him.

Two months earlier I was in Las Vegas attending Comdex, the giant computer tradeshow. The young PC industry was growing explosively, and everyone in the business was at the show, where you could chat with a not-very-famous Bill Gates.

At Comdex I ran into Andrew Singer, my brother Peter’s best friend when they were high school science whizzes. I hadn’t seen Andrew since he was living in Housatonic in the early ‘70s.

When he learned I was doing software marketing, he insisted I meet him right after Comdex to discuss a project of his. I was really busy and not terribly interested, but Andrew persisted. Since I lived near his office on the North Shore of Boston, I relented.

At the office of his software company, Think Technologies, Andrew sat me down in a conference room, had me sign an agreement not to disclose what I was about to see, and left the room. A minute later he rolled in a cart with something on it covered by a cloth. OK, he said, I want you to tell me what you’re looking at, and removed the cloth with a flourish.


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I was puzzled by what I saw, a plastic box with a small screen. It had a keyboard, plus an object the size of my palm connected to the box with a cable. It was sort of like a computer but then it wasn’t, since PCs had a case for the electronics and a separate monitor, and not one of those little objects.

Ending my confusion, Andrew announced that this was a new computer called Macintosh which Apple was about to introduce, and gave me a demo. Think was developing programming languages for it, and he wanted me to help promote the company and its software, which will be part of the event launching the Mac in January in California. How could I refuse?

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It’s Jan. 24, 1984. We’re in a large auditorium near Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. for the company’s annual shareholders meeting, where the launch will happen. The place is packed with thousands of people, most of them Apple employees eagerly awaiting the big moment. Steve Jobs opens the meeting reading some lines from Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changin’".

After other executives deal with corporate matters, Steve comes back on-stage, where a boxy canvas case sits on a pedestal. He gives a bullet-point history of the computer business and, like a revival preacher, grows increasingly frenetic as he leads up to the current year, 1984.

Then a video projector plays the "1984" TV spot which aired two days earlier during the Super Bowl. In it, a young woman in bright red track shorts runs past a gray horde of skinheads watching a Big Brother image on a large screen. She hurls a sledge hammer at it, and it explodes.

The crowd is now totally pumped up, but still has not seen a Macintosh, which did not appear in the spot. Now Steve unveils it, taking it out of its canvas case and turning it on. The video projector shows the Mac’s monitor and, at a time when computers silently displayed fixed text and numbers, we watch the word Macintosh write across the screen as the computer speaks: "Hello, I am Macintosh." We’re applauding wildly.

After a little dig at IBM, the Mac goes on to say: "It is with considerable pride that I introduce a man who has been like a father to me -- Steve Jobs!" We all rise, clapping and yelling for several minutes, like it’s a rock concert. And that’s how the Macintosh introduced Steve Jobs, at the first of the many theatrical product launches which became his signature.

Steve had X-ray vision. Not to see through walls, like an ordinary Superman, but to see through time. When he first encountered a graphical computer interface and mouse in a research lab, he knew he was seeing the future of computing, and created the Mac. His magnetism drew brilliant people into the Apple orbit like Andrew Singer, who later invented a monitor which tilted from landscape to portrait mode, a feature now familiar to iPhone and iPad users.

Steve Nelson is an occasional Eagle contributor.