How a memorable part of computer history -- which almost didn't happen -- got saved for posterity.+ READ ARTICLE
It’s January, 1984. Steve Jobs, nattily attired in a double-breasted suit, is demonstrating Apple’s breakthrough personal computer, Macintosh, before a packed room. He speaks alarmingly of a future controlled by IBM, and shows a dystopian commercial based on that theme. He says that the Mac is “insanely great” and plucks the diminutive machine from a bag; it talks for itself. Screens of a graphical user interface — something few people had seen at the time — swoop by. The theme from Chariots of Fire swells. Jobs beams, as only he could.
This presentation, at Apple’s annual shareholder meeting on January 24, is the stuff of tech-history legend. What’s not so well remembered: Jobs did it all twice, in less than a week. Six days after unveiling the Mac at the Flint Center on the De Anza College campus near the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., he performed his show all over again at the monthly general meeting of the Boston Computer Society. His host, Jonathan Rotenberg, was a 20-year-old student at Brown University who’d co-founded the BCS in 1977 at the age of 13.
Over at YouTube, you can watch the Cupertino presentation, along with a sort of a rough draft held as part of an Apple sales meeting in Hawaii in the fall of 1983. As for the BCS version, all 90 minutes of it are there in the video at the top of this post, available for the first time in their entirety since they were shot on January 30, 1984.
The Cupertino and Boston demos may have been based in part on the same script, but the audience, atmosphere and bonus materials were different. In Cupertino, Jobs spoke before investors, towards the end of a meeting which also included dreary matters such as an analysis of Apple’s cash flow. In Boston, he presented to the kind of people who Apple hoped would buy Macs. You didn’t even have to pay the BCS’s $24 annual membership fee to get in, which meant that the meeting was the closest thing the computer had to a launch event intended for the general public.
People who attended the shareholder meeting saw the more historic presentation — hey, it came first — but what they got was also, in effect, a rehearsal for the later Boston one, which came out more polished. The BCS version was also longer and meatier. After the unveiling, Jobs participated in demos and a Q&A session with members of the Macintosh team: Bill Atkinson, Steve Capps, Owen Densmore, Andy Hertzfeld, Bruce Horn, Rony Sebok, Burrell Smith and Randy Wigginton. (Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, not a Mac team member, crashed the panel and talked about the Apple II line of computers.) Even more than the shareholder meeting, the BCS one was a prototype for the media extravaganzas that we citizens of the 21st century call Stevenotes.
And I would have been there, if I hadn’t blown it. Though I had been a member of the club for five years and had already been eyewitness to history at its meetings, including demos of VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet) and the Lisa (Apple’s pricey proto-Mac), I didn’t attend the Mac event. What I was doing the night that Steve Jobs came to Boston I don’t remember, but I’ve been wincing about my misplaced priorities ever since. (I partially compensated a few years later when I attended the BCS meeting at which Jobs showed his NeXT computer; it remains the most dazzling tech demo I’ve ever witnessed in person.)
So many BCS meetings were so important that last year, I asked Jonathan — now a management consultant and executive coach — if any existed in video form. He referred me to Glenn Koenig, a Boston-area videographer who had recorded many of the proceedings. Glenn told me that he did have his vintage tapes — in storage, mostly on a now-obsolete format called U-matic.
Glenn also mentioned that Dan Bricklin might have more. Bricklin, the co-inventor of VisiCalc and co-founder of the company which produced it, Software Arts, had taped some meetings himself and then sponsored Koenig’s work. Back in the day, he had the foresight to realize that BCS meetings might be of lasting interest: “Saving these was important to me,” he says.
The matter slipped into the back of my mind until just recently, when I learned that my query had sparked Jonathan, Glenn and Dan to collaborate with Silicon Valley’s terrific Computer History Museum to digitize the videos of BCS meetings. Brad Feld, a venture capitalist who was a BCS member, gave generously to cover production costs and found others to chip in. (Bricklin has written about the preservation project and recorded a podcast interview with Jonathan.)
Jonathan’s team and the Computer History Museum graciously allowed the Mac meeting video to premiere here on TIME.com. (Excerpts were shown at the Mac@30 reunion event — held, appropriately, at the Flint Center in Cupertino — which took place on the night of January 25, 2014.) It’ll also be available shortly on the museum’s site, with more meeting videos to come, all available for free viewing. I’m not sure what I’m most looking forward to seeing: the meetings I attended decades ago, or the ones I missed.
One thing you need to know, assuming you didn’t happen to belong to the BCS in 1984: There was nothing the least bit odd about Steve Jobs showing up in Boston to court the members of a computer club run by a college student.
At the time, Jonathan was a noted industry educator/impresario, and it was pretty much a given that the East Coast premiere of any major new machine would happen before the BCS, which had thousands of members and dozens of special-interest groups. Apple was well acquainted with the organization, having shown off multiple earlier models at its meetings; both Jobs and Wozniak had attended Applefest, a BCS-produced shindig for Apple II users, in 1982.
In November of 1983, Apple flew Jonathan to its Cupertino campus, where he got a briefing on the Macintosh and began work on a 16-page review of the computer for the BCS’s slick bimonthly magazine. Plans began for the Mac meeting, to be held at New England Life Hall, the site of the BCS’s general meetings.
And then they almost fell apart. The Flint Center’s 2,600-person seating capacity turned out to be far too small for the crowd that showed up on January 24. “More than a thousand shareholders were not able to get in, and weren’t able to participate in shareholder voting and discussion,” Jonathan says. “They were really angry about that.” The PR crisis was so severe that the video of the meeting the company produced at the time opens with an abject apology by CEO John Sculley.
Jobs — as you already know if you know anything at all about Steve Jobs — was apoplectic over the botched crowd control. “The next day,” Jonathan says, “Steve Jobs said ‘We’re canceling Boston. We don’t want a repeat of all those people waiting outside and not being able to get in.’ This was now five days before the event.”
Miraculously, the BCS was able to secure a more spacious venue for the night of the meeting: John Hancock Hall. It had a room in which any overflow crowd could watch a video feed, and space for banks of Macs for hands-on demos. “After very, very tense negotiations, Steve finally relented and agreed to come to Boston,” Jonathan remembers.
“Ironically, his worst fear came true: There were more than 600 BCS members stuck outside who couldn’t get in. But at least they weren’t Apple shareholders.”
Fortunately for posterity, the production values on the video version of the meeting are quite good — far better than what Apple managed for the shareholder meeting. (In Cupertino, the lighting had been so murky at times that the only thing you can see clearly is Jobs’ white shirt gleaming from inside his jacket.) Apple sprung for multiple cameras, one of which was manned by the BCS’s Koenig. Moments with subpar camera work in the Cupertino video, such as when Jobs pulls the Mac out of its bag and boots it up, are nicely shot in this one.
As presented here, the video — which is a rough cut of the version that the Computer History Museum will preserve — has a few moments that have been reconstructed. The slides Jobs shows are the same ones he presented in Boston, but they’re borrowed from the video of the Cupertino event. And when Jobs shows a blurry slide of the IBM PC — provoking mirth from the audience and prompting him to say “Let’s be fair” — the blurring is a recreation of what really happened. (To this day, Rotenberg isn’t sure whether it was a prank on Apple’s part or a bona-fide technical glitch.)
“It’s so much more intimate,” Rotenberg says of the Boston version of the presentation. “It’s about the users, which is what you don’t get at the shareholder meeting.”
“This one was Steve really selling,” says Bricklin, who has shown clips of the presentation in talks to students for years, in the only instances of it being seen in public since it was recorded. “This is the Steve that we’ve now known for many years announcing other products. This is that Steve, giving the talk he’s given so many times that he knows it cold. It really makes a difference.”
“You get to see Steve when Steve became the Steve Jobs. Seeing him smiling up there is the way a lot of us would like to remember him.”
Though the first portion of the BCS video follows the same script as the Cupertino event, Jobs keeps going after first version concluded — and what he says is some of the most classic Jobs I’ve ever seen. Adopting a simile he later used in a 1985 Playboy interview, he compares text-oriented computers such as the IBM PC to telegraph machines, and the Mac to the telephone:
Now, if you go back about a hundred years, to the 1880s, there were approximately twenty, twenty-five thousand trained telegraph operators in the United States. And you really could send a telegram between Boston and San Francisco, and it’d take about three or four hours and go through the relay stations. It really worked. And it was a great breakthrough in technology that had been around for about thirty or forty years.
And there were some people that talked about putting a telegraph machine on every desk in America to improve productivity. Now what those people didn’t know was that about the same time, Alexander Graham Bell filed the original patents for the telephone — a breakthrough in technology. Because putting a telegraph on every desk in America to improve technology wouldn’t have worked. People wouldn’t have spent the twenty to forty to a hundred hours to learn Morse code. They just wouldn’t have done it.
But with the telephone, within ten years there were over 200,000 telephones on desks in America. It was a breakthrough, because people already knew how to use it. It performed the same basic function, but radical ease of use. And in addition to just letting you type in the words or click in the words, it let you sing. It let you intone your sentences to really get your meaning across.
We are at that juncture in our industry right now. There are people suggesting that we should put a current generation box on everyone’s desk to improve productivity. A telegraph, if you will. And we don’t believe that. We don’t think it’ll work. People will not read those damn 400-page WordStar manuals. They won’t carry around these cards in their pockets with 150 slash-W-Zs. They’re not going to do it.
And what we think we have here is the first telephone. And in addition to letting you do the old spreadsheets and word processing, it lets you sing. It lets you make pictures. It lets you make diagrams where you cut them and past them into your documents. It lets you put that sentence in Bold Helvetica or Old English, if that’s the way you want to express yourself.
What Jobs said reminds us that the Mac’s competition was less other computers of the time than it was no computer at all. It’s a hyper-dramatic, self-serving way to look at how the Mac compared to everything else available in January of 1984. But hindsight — and the fact that every other PC maker ended up following the Mac’s lead — confirms that he was right.
The audience is enthusiastic during Jobs’ splashy presentation, but it’s far more giddy during the live demos of Mac apps that follow. That didn’t surprise me: BCS members prided themselves on being discerning, demanding consumers, not gearheads or fanboys. Real software impressed them more than mere hoopla, and programs such as MacPaint and MacWrite were knockouts. When Atkinson pastes a sphere in MacPaint multiple times, there’s sustained applause — yes, cutting and pasting was impressive at the time — and he breaks out in a grin that’s a joy to behold.
“It was wonderful that he actually brought the team to share and bask in the glory — they weren’t there for the shareholders’ [meeting],” says Bricklin, who doesn’t see much difference between the flavor of their camaraderie and collaboration and what goes on today at a company such as Google or Facebook.
The questions from the audience neatly capture the most pressing questions that the computer users of 1984 had about Apple’s new machine. They ask about plans for more memory and disk expansion; how MacWrite compares to the era’s dominant word processor, WordStar; what programming tools will be available; what’s next for Apple’s best-selling computer of the time, the Apple IIe. Someone even asks about the fate of the already-moribund Apple III. (Jobs: “I wouldn’t have called on you if I’d known that was your question.”)
Then there’s the audience member who asks if the Mac can do animation. Jobs — in this pre-Pixar era — seems slightly taken aback by the subject, and hands the inquiry over to Andy Hertzfeld.
As Jobs answers other questions, he neatly ticks off most of the developments that kept Apple busy until the early 1990s. He talks about hard disks (then often called “Winchesters”), laser printers, color graphics and even the portable computers (“a Mac in a book”) the company will someday build. Today’s Apple may be famously close-mouthed about unreleased products, but back then, it had to assure skeptical buyers that its just-born platform had a future.
After the panel discussion, Jobs thanks the audience and pays tribute to the team. (“When you use a Macintosh, these are the people that did it. And they’re sort of hiding out in that ROM.”) In the video, you can see some attendees heading for the exits as the lights come up. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Jobs was supposed to introduce Jonathan, who, in the BCS meetings’ standard format, would normally have introduced Jobs but had agreed to flip the order. “I was pretty miffed,” says Jonathan. As he arrives onstage in the video, he makes a snarky reference to Big Brother controlling the audio-visual system, riffing on the “1984″ commercial.
Don’t make the same mistake as those 1984 audience members and tune out after Jobs finishes. Jonathan’s concluding remarks include mention of “insanely great” upcoming BCS meetings, including one featuring IBM’s famously bad PC Jr. — which, as you can tell from the snorts from the audience, was already a punchline — and another in which Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell will demonstrate his new startup’s robots. He also announces that the BCS is starting what may be the world’s first Mac user group.
It’s an evocative little snapshot of where technology was in early 1984, and you get to see enough of Jonathan at work to get a sense of why he was both respected and beloved by BCS members in particular and the industry in general.
Keep watching even after Jonathan wraps up. The very end of the video includes footage of attendees trying out Macs for themselves, plus snippets of them grilling Wozniak, Sebok, Hertzfeld and Capps with even more questions.
What are Rotenberg’s thoughts upon seeing Jobs, and himself, at the event after 30 years? He says it leaves him nostalgic for the era when personal computers were new. The BCS played an important role in demystifying them, and anything and everything seemed possible.
“It’s a time of life I feel a tremendous connection and affection for,” he says. “I think of what people talk about with the 60s or the Camelot era with JFK. It was an amazing time to be alive, and to be part of something. But there’s also a sadness that it’s gone.” (The BCS itself disbanded in 1996, at least in part because computers no longer required as much demystification as they once needed; I was dismayed to hear the news even though I’d let my own membership lapse.)
In September of 1985, Jobs was forced out of Apple. Jonathan went on to graduate from Brown, dial back his role in managing the BCS and enter Harvard Business School. The high of the Mac’s debut felt like part of the distant past. “All of these cottage industries got consolidated or run over by the next generation of companies, like Dell,” Jonathan says, still sounding pained by the memory.
“By the time I got to business school, Steve Jobs had become a model of inept business management. In ‘Introduction to Marketing,’ on the very first day, the example of how to do everything wrong was the Macintosh. It was held out as making a product based on some dreamy-eyed guy’s personal whims, with no relation to what the market or customers want.”
“That kind of thinking became vilified as the cause of why so many smaller companies had crashed in the technology world, and why you wanted big, capable companies like Digital Equipment and IBM and Xerox to lead the way. Everything that Steve Jobs had done that resonated so personally with me was like this disease that had to be destroyed.”
It was pretty depressing. But we now know that it wasn’t the end of the story.
In 1996, Jobs sold NeXT to Apple and began his second act at Apple. In the years that followed, Apple once again took on the clunky telegraph machines other companies manufactured with elegant, approachable telephones. (With the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, the part about the company’s products being telephones stopped being a metaphor.) And when Jobs was studied in business schools, it wasn’t for being a dreamy-eyed failure.
“As he got his momentum going, what was so powerful to me was just observing how we’d had a period of eleven years when Steve Jobs was in exile and we could see what was happening to the PC in that time,” says Rotenberg. After Jobs returned, “what he made possible left no doubt in my mind that a single person really could change the world.”