Macworld Magazine, January 1987

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy


A Shut and Open Case

How “unauthorized” modifications to the Mac became commonplace


For the next few months, everybody is going to be talking about the brand-new open Mac. This is the computer, not yet announced at press time, that will not only be more powerful than the existing model but will also be expandable. Just as happened with those computer classics the Apple II and the IBM PC, people will be encouraged to open the case and stick in all sorts of circuit boards to enhance their machines.


This new approach addresses a much criticized aspect of previous Macs—a closed architecture in which internal hardware modifications were deemed unnecessary.


But an irony lurks here. There already is an open Mac. Four of them, to be exact: the Macintosh 128K, the Macintosh 512K, the Macintosh 512K Enhanced, and the Mac Plus. The community of Mac owners, developers, and dealers has ignored the dire admonitions of the manufacturer and begun a lively trade in internal modifications. In essence, a grass roots movement has flipped the lid on the supposedly “closed” computer. The people have spoken: the Mac is open.


At last summer’s Macworld Expo in Boston, it was difficult to walk 20 feet in any direction without encountering a product that required installation inside the Mac, whether a memory board, a SCSI port, a coprocessor board, or a video hookup. If you hung around long enough, you could even see people standing by while technicians operated on their machines. The Mac owners had the same worried countenances as parents whose newborn sons were undergoing circumcision, but when the machine was reassembled and the happy face reappeared on the screen, the reaction was invariably joyous.


How common are these products becoming? Rick Green, a vice president of Dove Technologies, which makes memory boards, estimates that 60 to 65 percent of Mac owners will eventually subject their machines to internal modification.


This is especially remarkable in light of the fact that Apple Computer originally regarded an unauthorized incursion inside the Macintosh case as an unforgivable transgression. The penalty was emphasized with a nearly biblical fierceness: Shunning. Expulsion from the family. Termination of warranty End of service contract.


Though critics complained bitterly about the inaccessibility of the Mac s innards, Apple’s company line was that only hackers and weirdos would have an interest in prying the machine open. The rest of us would have our needs more than satisfied by software solutions.


Which of course did not prove to be true.




Opening Pandora’s Box

The first major incursion was made in late 1984 by General Computer Corporation, which introduced HyperDrive. By hooking to the motherboard, this internal hard disk ran much faster than any drive connected to the “approved” serial port on the back of the machine. Of course, violating the Mac’s innards was to many people a terrifying concept. GCC had to convince them that damnation would not be theirs if they bought HyperDrives. Since, for many, damnation was preferable to disk-swapping, GCC succeeded.


But the big movement came with memory boards. Apple originally charged $1000 to upgrade from 128K to 512K. (Even now, upgrading costs a pricey $449.) This price was so high that people figured taking a chance on a low-price, outlaw upgrade was worth the risk.


“When we started, the prevailing mentality was that an Apple dealer could open it up [for service or a motherboard switch], but no one else could,” says Doug Gilbert, a vice president at Levco, a company built on the premise of the liberated Mac. In true hacker spirit, Gilbert and two friends had opened their Mac (“the first one sold in southern California”) on the day they bought it, seeing where things hooked up, pulling chips out, and experimenting. They figured out how to add memory to the motherboard and decided to go into business.


Levco’s booth at the January 1985 Macworld Expo offered upgrades, but at first no one dared take the step. Then, one brave officer of a user group took the plunge. His upgrade attempt was successful, the owner told his friends, and the dam burst. “We spent all night long doing upgrades in our hotel room,” Greene recalls, and now Levco is a force in the market.


Still, opening the Mac was an act reserved for only the daring until about a year ago. “Two things happened to open things up,” explains Steve Edelman, president of DataFrame, a company that includes memory upgrades and SCSI ports among its products. “First was the clip—a device that goes around the 68000 microprocessor and accesses it without soldering. A dealer can now easily attach something to the motherboard. Then came the Mac Plus. With it came a SCSI port, which invited new hardware products. And the Plus had something called SIMMs.”


SIMMs work like slots; you simply plug in circuit boards that carry memory chips. Any company that has figured out how SIMMs work can make a product to boost the memory of a Mac Plus—a product that can be installed as easily as putting a plug into an electrical socket.


Of course, this requires unauthorized opening of the machine. But now, the previously unthinkable is fairly common. So, like other laws recognized mainly in the breach, the authority of Apple’s ban on hardware incursion has diminished. “The issue is respectability,” says Steve Edelman. “Now opening the machine is not only respectable, it’s considered good common sense.”




Do-It-Yourself Brain Surgery

Most often, the act itself is performed by a dealer or technician. But as more people become comfortable with the concept of opening the Mac, some companies are selling the idea that just plain users—even those fairly unsophisticated at computer tinkering—can do their own installations.


One such company is Human Touch, which includes an installation kit with its coprocessor boards. The kit consists of a long-handled hex wrench for unhooking the hard-to-reach screws under the Mac’s hand grip and a ½-inch putty knife (brand named the Red Devil) for prying open the case after the five screws are removed. Then it’s a matter of clipping, snapping, and screwing on a circuit board and a small fan.


“You don’t need to be a technical wizard or electrician,” says Gerry Grossman, an officer of Human Touch. “The most difficult thing to do is split open the security hole. And you don’t have to worry about doing something you can’t undo.” Before releasing its products, Human Touch asked some nonwizards on its staff to try them out. “I’m not a technical person; I’m an English major,” says Human Touch’s Suze Di Pietro. “I installed a board without any instruction in 15 minutes.”


Some people still come unhinged at the idea of plain users cracking open the Mac. “I don’t think users should be putting stuff in,” says SuperMac’s Steve Edelman (whose own products are strictly dealer-installed). “It’s too easy to do damage. The only tools a user needs are a pen and a credit card.”




Apple Relents—A Bit

It has not escaped Apple’s notice that thousands of Mac owners are voting with their credit cards—and in some cases, putty knives—to equip their machines with unauthorized hardware. For the record, company policy is unchanged. “Any product that makes a physical alteration to the Mac voids the warranty,” says Ed Colby, the Apple product manager for the Macintosh CPU. “If you put in a screw, solder, cut, draw power, or alter the flow of air—that’s a modification.”


Yet Colby admits that Apple no longer regards these products with the stern wrath of the past. ‘‘There’s been an evolution inside Apple,” he says, tying this shift in attitude to “a greater appreciation for the desires of customers.” Whereas before, he explains, Apple’s attitude was, “No, you absolutely must not do this,” now it’s more like, “Well, if you want to do this, that’s great, but you’re on your own.”


The first signal of Apple’s change of heart was its grant of a warranty blessing to GCC’s HyperDrive. At the time, no other mass storage device ran nearly as fast, and Apple needed to recommend the HyperDrive solution to its business customers. Then came the Mac Plus and its SIMMs. Apple’s compromise was primarily a tacit admission that the closed-box approach wasn’t working and that, whether Apple liked it or not, users were going to improve their Macs with internal modifications. So, Apple decided to like it. At least a little.


The corporate benediction almost went further than that. Last year Apple considered granting the outlaw hardware market an official blessing and ran some tests on certain products. The tests checked things like power consumption, heat, and vibration tolerance. The result, as it turned out, was not exactly what Levco, SuperMac, and the rest were waiting to hear. “The fact is that Macintosh in the current [1986] configuration does not lend itself to internal physical alteration,” says Colby. “There may be an adverse impact on reliability with certain products.”


Despite this, Apple isn’t retreating to its earlier hard line. Colby even offers cautious praise for some of these products. For instance, he cites the Levco high-speed Prodigy upgrade as something that improves the Macintosh—and it couldn’t be done without some internal modification. He also knows that products like Radius’s full-page external monitor would not be workable without a warranty-voiding connection to the Mac’s innards. He’s happy that these devices exist to make the Mac more powerful.


Fortunately, as the outlaw hardware market growls, it becomes more established and experienced, and eventually loses some of the risky connotations chat outlaw implies. Many companies making products that require internal modifications will supply their own warranties; many also are developing reputations for reliability. Some products use technologies that require no permanent alteration to the computer, and so if service or an official upgrade is required, the user can simply remove the offending part before presenting the Mac to an authorized dealer.


As Apple has come to recognize, the de facto opening of the “closed” Mac is a positive phenomenon. I would go farther and call it an inspiring phenomenon as well. The spirit of Macintosh has always paralleled the best of the computer dream: productivity and creativity accessible to all. So it is poetically justifiable as well as natural that the Mac community should use its ingenuity not only to get at the machine’s innards but to learn to modify them to increase the power available to users. This whole episode is a testament to people’s belief in the Macintosh. They liked the computer so much that they refused to accept that it had a closed architecture—and by pretending it was open, they made it so.


Can you imagine what that kind of enterprise will bring when we really get an open Mac?