For me, Apple means Wozniak, Alexan, and Obet

Doing piegraph on Apple ][ clone
An Apple II clone used two external floppy disk drives – one for the system or program disk, the other for the data files. The monitor could be a plain TV set or a green monochromatic CRT display.

Let me get this straight. Like the rest of the world touched by Apple computers and devices, I mourn the loss of Steve Jobs, as a very intelligent person, and as a visionary designer and marketing guru. But much of the tributes I read coming out after his death are too effusive and at the same time generic, mostly saying nothing new and simply repeating what has already been said in recent years.

To be honest, within a few hours after his death was announced, I had started to suffer a surfeit of tributes to Jobs. At the same time, these tributes lead me to think about how my own computer philosophy was shaped by Apple, however indirectly and incompletely.

If I may focus on just one point about Steve Jobs, let me make this correction: It is so wrong for people to say that Jobs gave the world the Apple computer. Read your Apple history, guys. It was Steve Wozniak (the “other Steve” who co-founded Apple) who engineered Apple I and later Apple II into existence—almost single-handedly if we go by certain accounts. Steve Jobs was also a techie, a programmer who knew enough about hardware, and of course was also involved in building the first Apple computers. But he was more focused on the overall design and marketing.

Without dwelling too much on the division of labor and honor between the two Steves, my point is that the original Apple philosophy was, for its originators as well as for the first Apple computer users, a mass-oriented philosophy. It taught that techies can pioneer a new technology or a new application of an old technology in their bedroom or garage, and offer this new product cheaply on the market so that it becomes accessible to millions of people.

Remember: the first Apple I and Apple II were very garage-friendly. They worked with external CRT monitors (you could even use your TV set) and external floppy drives (you could even use casette tapes if you couldn’t afford a floppy drive). They were so grungy, so ad hoc, and so enormously different from the philosophy of the Mac or iPad, which is one of sleek integration and glamor.

That original Apple vision fired us all up, inspiring many young engineers and techies not just in the US but worldwide to try to duplicate Apple’s success by building their own personal computer in their own garage and hopefully developing a local market for it. My Kuya Obet (older brother, Roberto Verzola) actually went the same initial route by building a PC of his own design based on the Z80 microprocessor, in his cluttered living room literally—in a project funded by the National Science Development Board. He so graciously allowed us to use one unit, with which I learned the most basic sense of computer use—I still remember groping with the BLOAD and BSAVE commands on a clunky tape drive, and getting excited with what BASIC programs could do. That was around 1981 or 1982, if I remember right.

It was a pity my brother apparently didn’t have an ounce of corporate culture in him. (Or maybe the NSDB didn’t have enough public capital to invest in further developing his Z80-based computer design.) And so my brother’s computer product faded away after the first batch of deliveries. The two Apple founders were a lot luckier for finding themselves already located in California’s Silicon Valley and perhaps for having such a precocious pragmatism that made them dive right into its business ethos and culture. Their decision to go public gradually changed the original garage-computer philosophy, especially with the entrance into Apple of corporate gnomes like John Sculley, and the onset of Apple’s own secretive and often ruthless internal culture. (And Steve Jobs was secretive to a fault!)

As the Apple computer became commercially successful and available at increasing prices, most computer enthusiasts in underdeveloped Third World countries like the Philippines could no longer hope to compete by building and trying to sell their own “garage computers,” or even to buy Apple ][s or Macs for their own personal use.

But for Filipino geeks, there was a remedy: Alexan, a small local electronics supplies shop based in Manila’s Binondo Chinatown district that decided to build and sell Apple ][ clones, including simple office programs on floppies such as Magic Window and Visicalc, and plug-in cards that enhanced memory and monitor capacity, enabling the clones to run non-native operating systems such as CP/M (the precursor of DOS) and applications such as Wordstar and Lotus 1-2-3.

That was how, in 1984, the activist group I belonged to was able to start using Apple ][ clone technology to enhance our work. Some of us even taught ourselves to use its native BASIC language to be able to create some useful utility programs. We also took advantage of a semi-underground market of floppy-disk software running on Apple ][ and later IBM-PC compatibles that started to proliferate in and around Virra Mall. Later, around 1986 or 1987, I started using an IBM-PC compatible, which was more powerful but had enough similarities with an Apple ][ for me to make the transition quickly enough.

Apple computers became increasingly expensive locally, especially with DPSI maximizing its profits from its sole distributorship in the country, on top of the highly proprietary nature of its hardware, firmware and software, thus making repairs and upgrades an immense headache. The decision was thus ready-made for the bulk of Filipino computer users: they chose the much cheaper, mix-and-match, and quick-and-dirty-upgradeable IBM-compatible computers. That included me, of course. From 1987 until the present, I haven’t owned or used any Apple product—whether it’s a Mac or iPod or iPhone or iPad. I’ve remained fiercely grungy, plebeian and Asian in my desktop, netbook, and cellphone tastes.

So, did Steve Jobs have anything to do with my own computer philosophy, knowhow and usage habits? The answer is yes, very indirectly and incompletely. Jobs’ influence came to me during the early Apple years, when Woz still had a big role. The answer is therefore: yes, as mediated by the Apple ][ clones thanks to Alexan (which, by the way, is still based in Binondo churning out a wide range of computerized devices), as encouraged by older brother Obet (who, by the way, still writes about information technology and information economy), and with the help of the Pirates of Virra Mall (if you know what I mean).

Steve Jobs helped define the era, yes. But hey, guys, let’s also remember the many hardware and software engineers and ordinary workers (including those in east Asian sweatshops) who helped bring Apple or Apple-like products into your homes. Apart from Wozniak and Alexan, of course. So, before we post yet another inane tribute in Jobs’ honor, let’s have a better sense of recent history and present-day realities, shall we? #

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