Macworld Magazine, November 1987

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy


The Plunge

You know you want a Macintosh II. But wouldn't it be wiser to wait?



Pity the pioneers. They’ve all heard the old chestnut about fools rushing in where wise men fear to tread. Yet, virtually barefoot, they eagerly propel themselves into the unknown—and tread, tread, tread. Not a sole remains unscathed. Those of us who consider ourselves wise men and women give those intrepid ones pleasant fare-thee-wells and hang out until they return from the frontiers. We watch them unravel the bandages from their feet. We listen to their tales, shudder at their travails, and make note of the trails they have blazed. Those are trails on which we will later travel. When they are paved, and there are no thorns and stones to bruise our Adidas.


And what do the pioneers get for their troubles? They get to be pioneers.


I interrupt this column to make a confession. When I chose the pioneer metaphor, I noticed that it was sadly tattered.


And I admit that there was a label reading “Avoid applying this metaphor to anything about personal computers...” But after exhaustive examination of the metaphor rack, I was forced to use the pioneer model—because it so neatly fit my subject.


You see, my concern here is the question that arises whenever a desirable new computer is introduced. Especially the Macintosh II, a computer with breathtaking power, hair-raising speed, an ample color display, and the ever-popular open architecture. Obviously, the machine ratchets up the conception of what a Macintosh is, maybe even what a personal computer is, by two or three notches. The very existence of an object like this can drive a certain kind of person wild. “But want to know why I want a Mac II now?” asks early buyer Lee Snover, in response to a query I posted on CompuServe, “it’s quite simple. PURE, UNADULTERATED, ILLOGICAL L-U-S-T.”


Lust has its price. History instructs us that computers are never so expensive as when they are first introduced. Price increases are almost unheard of in the personal computer business. But new computers are doubly expensive, since the first units reach the stores in a trickle, and stores seldom find it necessary to offer discounts on those early arrivals. The first Macintosh is a good example: people who bought the original 128K version at its $2495 list later had to spend as much as $2000 more to upgrade the machine to the level of a Macintosh Plus, which now has a street price of around $1700 new.


History also suggests that the first computers off a production line do not emerge as perfect objects. Flaws are inevitable. To the dismay of the manufacturer, those flaws are never apparent until the machines reach the eager hands of the first purchasers. Strike two against premature buying.


Finally, there is the danger that a freshly introduced computer will never find general acceptance. Instead of being able to outfit their prize with a cornucopia of innovative new software and peripherals, the orphaned owners might have to band together in die-hard groups. Witness the haunted minions whom you sometimes see wearing T-shirts that read “Lisa Lives.”


Treacherous ground, indeed. Much like the uncharted land that awaited our ancestors more than a century ago. This was land that would inevitably be explored and tamed—but somebody had to do it first. Thus the ineluctability of our metaphor. The Macintosh II will never be the success it deserves to be unless volunteers risk being early buyers. Their fortitude—or foolishness—will enable everyday power users and workstation jockeys to eventually buy their Mac IIs when the computer’s viability is beyond question.




How the Webb Was Won


By the time you read these words, that viability may well have been achieved. Stores should have ample inventories of Macintosh IIs—complete systems with color monitors, extra RAM, high-capacity hard disk drives, a selection of circuit boards to plug into the six internal slots, and shelves of updated software guaranteed to run on the computer. In other words, the Macintosh II world should be a bustling new outpost of civilization. But as I write this, in the heat of the summer, it is Frontier Days in Mac II land. Only in the past month has one been able to stroll into a computer store and examine a unit. Even so, at the Computerland I visited the other day, the salesperson kept referring to the thing as an “Apple II.” I chalked it up to unfamiliarity.


The first Macintosh IIs were shipped on April 29. The very first one was delivered in May to Dick Webb, an audit partner of the Peat, Marwick, Mitchell accounting firm. Peat Marwick earned its pioneer spurs long ago, having ordered 3500 Macintoshes before the original Mac first shipped. “We wanted them as quickly as we could get them,” says Webb, who is quite pleased with the 50 Mac IIs that had arrived by summer. He figures that the larger screen size alone makes the Macintosh II cost-effective for the computer scientists at Peat Marwick who have taken gleeful possession of the computers. Though the actual auditors at the firm will stick to the more portable Mac SEs, Webb says that the Mac IIs are seeing service not only as software development tools, but as secretarial workstations as well.


Still, it is perhaps instructional that Dick Webb’s own Mac II, the first one off the line, now rests at home, where Webb uses it mainly to monitor electronic mail. In his office, he relies on a trusty SE. This may be more because of Webb’s fondness for the original Macintosh’s compact design than because of any dissatisfaction with the new version’s capabilities: if there were risks to buying early, Webb has suffered them. Yet he says, “I don’t think we’ve had a machine fail.”





What Bugs Mac II


What, no downside? Could it be that the Mac II is domesticated upon release? Well, not exactly. There is, first of all, the price issue. True, since the Macintosh II runs many important programs of the industry’s most impressive software base with unprecedented power and speed, it begins earning its keep immediately. But that initial investment is quite steep.


Two of the three dealers I spoke to have received so few units of the Macintosh II that they have seen no need to budge a buck from a system price that runs between $6000 and $8000. The one store that did discount wound up shaving $700 off the price of a $7000 configuration. Not bad, but small change compared to the discounts that will arise during the competitive Christmas sale days. Of course, in a year or so, the retail price of a reasonably loaded Mac II system will undoubtedly approach the $5000 mark.


Still, for those who want a Mac II now, price is less a consideration than getting in on the ground floor. They want to sign up for the excitement of being a pioneer, which this powerful machine provides in spades. But it also provides some headaches.


Here are some of the biggest problems in the early days of the Macintosh II.


No one was able to buy the much-touted Apple color monitor. Apple had contracted with Sony to build these $1000 wonders, but months after the Mac II shipped, the monitors were not available for love or money. The reasons for this failure were subject to heated rumor, but at least part of the problem was a miscalculation on Apple’s part. The company somehow figured that most buyers of the Mac II (a machine so identified with full-color capability that some referred to it as “the color Mac”) would choose to configure their systems with black-and-white displays.


The initial orders, overwhelmingly for color monitors, put the lie to that assumption. Early Macintosh II buyers were told that they might have to wait months for their monitors. This dissuaded some, but others, with true pioneer verve, pressed on. Some chose to buy existing high-resolution monitors, some of which were built primarily for use with IBM PC-compatible computers. Most popular seemed to be the Sony Model 1302, which reputedly would use the same picture tube as the Apple model. The user-group networks were suddenly ablaze with hints on making custom cables to hook 1302s to Mac IIs.


But that approach might be a trail best not blazed, since the Sony 1302 has much less demanding specifications than the specially designed Apple monitor. Likewise, Apple engineers warn that those choosing another popular IBM-world monitor, the NEC MultiSync, are getting a product inferior to the Apple brand. Despite this, Apple—temporarily having no monitor of its own to sell—was sending its dealers instructions on how to hook up NEC MultiSyncs for Macintosh II customers. Only in August did Apple offer Mac II buyers the chance to take home monochrome monitors and then exchange them for color monitors when they eventually appear.


Apple was unable to supply adequate RAM to those who wanted to add to the measly megabyte supplied in the basic Mac II unit. One reason has something to do with the fact that Mac II memory chips run at a different speed from the chips used in the SE. In any case, I was interested to hear a dealer inform me that “if anyone tells you that they have RAM chips for the Mac II, they’re lying.” I felt bad for those power-hungry pioneers—a Mac II with only one megabyte is like viewing Apocalypse Now on a Watchman TV.


Some Macintosh software didn’t work on the Mac II. Nor did the drivers for some hard disks. In most cases the manufacturer of the program or hard disk was feverishly writing fixes that would remedy the problem. But again, why pay more to buy early when the machine may not run your favorite program, or even your hard disk?


Some people had trouble with—of all things—the battery. On previous Macintoshes, this would not have been a crisis: one would simply pop open the compartment on the back and replace the battery, for under $5. But the Macintosh II has an unorthodox approach to its lithium battery. It is actually soldered to the system board. Those without degrees in microcircuitry would be best advised not to mess with it.


Wait—it gets worse. On the Mac II, the battery’s tasks not only include keeping track of the time, date, and various settings while the power is off; a live battery is essential to the process of turning on the machine. So a dead battery means a dead computer. In theory a battery is good for seven years, but as one Apple engineer told me, “No one really knows how long it will last.” This fellow guessed that with the level of field service being what it is, eventually people with dead batteries will take their inert Mac IIs to their dealers, who will remedy the problem by replacing the entire system board—several hundred dollars for a worn-out, low-cost part.




No Pain, No Gain


You’re reading this in November, of course, and all but the last problem is expected to be resolved. (Apple has been holding firm to the contention that the soldered-in battery is more feature than failure.) But the pioneers had to cope! Some of them did it with a fervor that implied that overcoming hardships was as important to these folks as enjoying the pleasures of this neat new machine. For instance, one chap told me of a triumphant cross-country search that culminated in locating the one store in the country that provided a cable to connect a certain monitor to his Mac II. Or take the case of the enterprising hacker who sat down and wrote a patch that made Microsoft Works, previously a Mac II washout, work on the new machine. The patch was in circulation for some time before somebody told Microsoft of its existence.


So be grateful to the pioneers—but don’t worry too much about them. When the Macintosh II reaches its final perch on the pinnacle of the personal computer world, the early buyers will be sure to remind us of their perspicacity. Whether or not it was really worth the quick purchase, only they will be able to answer. But before you line up to be one of the first buyers of the Macintosh III, whenever that model shows up, please consider this electronic missive I received from Andy Reese, a candid pioneer from Texas:


“I ordered a Mac II one week [after its introduction and] took delivery of it in late June. As President of our user group, I have usually taken the leap on the latest technology, serving as a guinea pig for our members… the Mac II I bought had one floppy, no hard disk, and a monochrome monitor (on loan from the dealer until the color one comes in). The theory behind no hard disk was that I would get a 45MB MacBottom to connect to the Mac II at the office and then take home to use on the SE at night. Good theory... I soon discovered myself that the 45MB will not work on the Mac II [yet]. I set up the MacBottom and am using it on the SE for now.


“All this has put quite a damper on my enthusiasm for the Mac II. I use it as a terminal emulator at work. That is all it has been doing for the last two weeks.


“When I am asked for advice on what machine to buy, I find out what kind of user the person is. If they are first-time purchasers, I strongly steer them away from the Mac II toward the SE. If they are power users, I tell them that the machine is nice, but they should wait for the price to drop or for many of the problems to be resolved first.”


That was in July. I bet by now Reese is bragging to his friends what a smart purchase he made.