One of the fun aspects of a year ending and a new one beginning is thinking back on times past and how technology has evolved. As I sit in front of my 27″ iMac this morning — a computer I paid $2,500 for in August, which is a bargain compared to what you’re about to read — I’m struck by all the technology experiences I’ve had.
The sad part? It seems most of us are always looking for that “next, big thing” without appreciating how far we’ve come and knowing how far we’ve come might give you some insight in to what’s coming next.
For any of you readers (or my own kids) who might read this and think, “Oh…he’s just an old guy reminiscing” just know that you will some day look back and be stunned by the funny, cute and quaint little smartphone you own and the expensive and slow mobile network you use. I guarantee it!
HOW IT STARTED
My buddies and I used to sneak in to the high school computer lab to use the teletype (it was a terminal connected to a mainframe at the University of Minnesota) and used it primarily to print out “images” like an ASCII character Snoopy or Playboy pinup. Not terribly useful, but it helped us to appreciate what it took to create the tape that you fed in to the teletype to get it to work.
One night during college my girlfriend and I were walking through a mall and there was a Commodore Store. In it were rows of “PET” computers ($795) and I could demo games by inserting a cassette tape and letting it load for a few minutes. Adventure games, a text-based genre, were about all they had along with a few crappy little “productivity” applications. I thought most of what the PET could do was boring but the machine was so compelling and cool I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and my girlfriend had to tear me away!
At my first job out of college I used an Atari 400 and 800 ($550 to $1,000, respectively). I was a sales rep for a manufacturers representative firm and we sold a bunch of consumer electronic lines including Atari games and computers (when Atari was THE video gaming company). These were cool, but felt like toys, yet I often stayed late at the office to play with them after everyone was gone (for hours, I might add).
Fortunately around 1980 a buddy whom I worked with at that firm went to a different firm, Clothier Herold Company. CHC were manufacturer’s representatives for a little line of computers they sold to dealers called “Apple”, a manufacturer that had to use reps since it couldn’t yet afford its own direct sales force! Their “Apple II” ($1,298 to $2,638) was pretty cool and I could see tons of uses for it, but it still wasn’t compelling enough for me personally to get too excited about and plunk down my own money to buy since I had very limited funds.
Amusingly the other side of that rep business sold PC computer products as well as products from some goofy little software company called “Microsoft” and another one called “Visicorp.” Visicorp had the first ‘killer app‘ for a computer, the Apple II, which was this new thing called a “spreadsheet” and named “Visicalc.” As a side note, when Microsoft went public at $25.50/share — and went to $28 the very first day — I thought it was horribly overpriced and never bought any. Sniff.
But I’m not complaining since, the next year at the age of 25, my Apple sales commissions and salary were over $50,000 (roughly $130,000 in today’s dollars) so I could, as my Dad always said, “…toss it away on all that technology stuff.” To say that I was now totally focused on technology as a career was an understatement.
At CHC we sold the Apple III ($3,495 to $3,815 and widely seen as Apple’s biggest failure) and used it for all our reports and correspondence. I liked it but realized that computers still had a long way to go when one day I simply couldn’t figure out how to print from it. Asking one of my buddies at the firm sitting near me how to do it, he responded, “Oh. Just type in the pathname to the printer and that is .Qume.”
“What the…“, I responded. “What is “.Qume” and why in the hell would that be the pathname to enter to print?” Turns out Qume was the maker of the printer that Apple slapped their name on and resold so the driver was the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) pathname. This was the kind of esoteric, non-intuitive crap that we had to deal with in the early days of personal computing.
Yikes. There had to be a better way and the introduction of the Lisa made the light bulb flicker on in my head. With its “interface” and “mouse” it gave me an extremely strong idea of what was certain to be coming next.
The graphical user interface (GUI) was amazing! I could double-click on a document, select “File > Print” and it would print! No pathnames, no command lines, just an intuitive way to get work done that was fast, easy and fluid. I was blown away, but then taken aback, when I discovered the price was (gulp) $10,000.
Luckily it got better when the rep firm team all went out to Hawaii for the international sales meeting in 1983 (see my post about that cool event here) and the new Apple Macintosh was introduced for what, at the time, was a good price of $2,495 (compared to the Lisa, of course). We all had time to use the machine and be trained on it and, after seeing it in action, I instantly knew this was going to revolutionize everything we did with personal computers (though didn’t know the struggles to come with Microsoft and its “Windows” knocking off the GUI, of course). I had to have one and, luckily, we were all provided one to use and demo during our sales trips and presentations to our dealers and distributors.
Now fast forward a few years to 1989 and I’m with Pioneer New Media (now part of parent company Pioneer Electronics) selling interactive LaserDisc, CD-ROM and videodisc replication. Of course, since I’d grown up with the Macintosh it was only natural I’d purchase a Macintosh SE/30 ($6,500), one of my favorite computers ever. Coupled with Hypercard, an amazing “everyman” software builder I’m still sad went away, the amazing presentations I could make, “stacks” for driving LaserDiscs and pulling up still frames or video, was incredible.
But it was a coupling of two other technologies with the Macintosh that changed everything: The Apple Laserwriter printer ($6,995) and Aldus Pagemaker debuted and desktop publishing (DTP) was born. I can’t emphasize enough how revolutionary this was at the time and how it truly did change (and democratized) publishing. Since Apple folks I knew helped me buy Apple products and third party software at great discounts, I could actually afford to buy these technologies and use them.
Because of them and DTP, we started our business because of these three technology advancements and we couldn’t have our business if they hadn’t been invented.
We were living in Chicago and my wife was a trend expert for home furnishings and was traveling like crazy working with companies all over the U.S. After moving back to Minnesota she continued that consulting adventure, but then she became pregnant with our first child and we had to make a decision: Would she continue traveling like mad or would we find a way to put her knowledge in to a product? Since DTP was now possible for proofing and I climbed the learning curve to figure out how to make a publication press-ready, I subsequently bought all the publishing, typography and creative publications I could and developed some newsletter possibilities from which she could choose. The Trend Curve newsletter was born (and is now 22 years old) and has been the bedrock of our business for over two decades.
ARE YOU TAKING TECH FOR GRANTED?
Now I look at what we have now, most of which I’ll bet you take for granted and simply expect major advances to just appear every 3-6 months or so (I know my expectations are that innovation will continue to accelerate!):
- Desktop computers with 8GB of RAM, 1TB hard drives and fast CPUs for $800 – $1,300
- Laptops that range from $400 – $3,000
- Smartphones you can get for $99 on a two year contract
- Tablets which are inexpensive and getting less so by the quarter
- Fast mobile networks for data and “internet everywhere”
- Ubiquitous Wifi in coffee shops, schools, airports, and our homes
- Cars that are getting “smarter” and “connected”
- Web and mobile applications for video, audio, screencasting, collaboration, you name it.
“WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY”
Though Voltaire is actually credited with that saying, it was writer, editor and comic book legend Stan Lee who used it in the original Spider-Man story. It’s become a cultural meme since being used in the Spiderman movie as a warning from Peter Parker’s uncle Ben.
What is your great reponsibility? In my view its understanding all the technology and services at-your-fingertips today (many of which are free, like YouTube), what can you leverage with all of it and how it could vault you in to a new, multiple decades long business or career. Besides, if you don’t appreciate what we have today, and the accelerating changes you’re living through right now, it will be tougher for you to be grateful for what we enjoy now and what amazing technology you’ll be using in years to come.