Why an old-school Whiz Kid wants a 'toy' like the iPad

In the early 1980s I attended a BASIC programming contest in Philadelphia with some fellow "whiz kid" friends. For those of you who came up after that era, it was a colloquial term for computer geeks in the '80s. Our coding for the contest was on Apple IIe machines, which I remember fondly.

At the end of the contest, we gathered in the lecture hall auditorium for the awards ceremony. In the forefront, set out on display podiums like queen's jewels were something we had never seen before: Macintosh computers.

Unlike today, there had been no websites with leaked photos and we had only vague news of what this was from the magazines of the period. One thing was certain, we were in awe. Three of these "gems" (Mac 128s, pictured above) were for us to try, at the end of the awards presentation we were each allowed to briefly give one of them a test drive.

I opened up Mac Paint, I dragged and dropped, and I clicked on things for the very first time. I was in love.

The Whiz Kid Grows Up

After that, I went off to college and retired my beloved Mac 512. I have been working for over twenty years in IT, almost exclusively on PC-based platforms. I remember most of my personal work computers, in fact: from my first IBM clone 80286-16 MHz desktop computer running DOS 3.3 that I built myself to the Dell laptop I'm writing this article on. Both can trace their ancestry back to the IBM PC-type architecture. In the 1990s, Macs seemed to be relegated to artists who preferred the superior graphics abilities or young kids. So I barely saw them.

I've been lucky enough to work with some powerful and innovative systems over my career. I worked on NCR UNIX towers at several clients' sites, a powerful Dec-Alpha workstation at an electric utility in the mid-1990s, mainframes in banks and with SPARC stations and Solaris Sun servers in Fortune 50 manufacturing companies.

None of these have had the same special impact on me as a technology person than that first Mac delivered. Yet, even as Apple's platform matured alongside its PC counterparts, I still looked at Apple as "not for business." Not because the hardware or operating systems weren't good or as powerful, but because it seemed that there was less Apple software available. Also, at the time, there was a lack of Apple hardware in the business environments I worked with. I knew some tech-savvy friends who swore by them and others who shunned them. I guess you could say I had a respect at a distance, but that's it.

Apple After The Mac

The emergence of the iPod brought new focus on Apple products, even to those who previously shunned them. Still, the early iTunes software was a little flaky to me, and, in my experience, it didn't run as smoothly on a PC/Windows platform. As a technology-focused person I resented it, and it gave me another reason not to take it seriously. I also didn't like Apple's proprietary music format that you could only copy over a limited number of times.

When Apple released the first Nano, my wife told me that she really wanted one. After giving her several other brands of MP3 player over the years, I finally relented and bought her a Nano. Of course, she still shook her head at my stubbornness. Conversely, I shook my head at her as she downloaded iTunes.

I had been a Blackberry user since 2001, so when the iPhone emerged, I saw it as a really neat toy, but again, not for business. After all, it didn't even have a real keyboard or the encryption that the Blackberry had.

When the iPad was first released, same thing: I saw it as little more than an iPhone with more screen real-estate. I was ready to dismiss it. Then, a co-worker showed up with one at work and let me try it. It started up fast, had a super slick interface, and browsed the Web with the finesse of a PC without the overhead. I used his Bluetooth keyboard with it, and found it to be more than serviceable for extended typing.

I told my wife about it. She smiled in a smug kind of way and asked me if I wanted one. I had just purchased a Dell netbook and told her that I felt guilty about a "toy" I really didn't "need."

Courting The iPad

A month later, a friend brought his over to our house and really let me play with it. We used an astronomy app which showed the positions of the constellations in real time to the movement of the device, above or below the horizon. I even tried the touchscreen keyboard and found it was not too bad — not as nice as the Bluetooth one, but more than usable.

The whole device had a form factor I was beginning to like; my shell was cracking. Those of you who read my previous article on the generic Android tablet PC I had purchased will understand my attempt to quell this craving.

The iPad 2's release was shortly before my birthday this year and my wife said, in a skeptical tone, "Do you want one?"

I shocked her with a very quick, "I think I do," but I insisted on having the full Apple experience. I wanted to go to the Apple store — not to camp out in line, but I wanted to try one first.

It was so light compared to its predecessor, and the resolution was incredible. I had found love again.

My wife insists she is now an "iPad Widow." I'm still not crazy about iTunes, but the iPad itself is a real pleasure. The iPad 2 is probably enough computer for most people to use on a daily basis. The interface seems snappy and reliable. I purchased an Office clone, Office 2 HD, which serves well enough for my Word and Excel needs and for just $6. It has a decent version of the Safari browser (no Flash content yet, of course), email, movies and music.

Apple has once again leveled the playing field with a completely new and innovative computer platform that is as revolutionary as the first Mac. Like the original Mac, there have been many "clones," but, for me, Apple has broken new ground in computing once again.

One More Thing

One side note I think some you will find interesting:

I still have my 512kb Mac and also a Compaq "Portable" (running CP/M) from the same era. I fired both up. This actually says something: I doubt my Dell laptop will boot right up in 30 years.

I asked my wife (who is not in IT) to try both computers. She was able to use the Mac,
open a Document, etc. Forget the Compaq, which had Word Star. It stared at her with a green phosphorous prompt. She had no idea where to begin.

In retrospect, in my opinion Apple is clearly responsible for the basic design of the modern computing interface, then and now.

For the latest tech stories, follow us on Twitter at @dvice