By Mick O’Neil
Special Agent Wolf Mutter sat on the park bench overlooking the Potomac River and fidgeted with his Washington Post. Though the sun was bright, the early morning September chill was penetrating. Mutter had already read the paper thoroughly before he had left his apartment and so he was bored. Special Agent Sulky was late and Mutter looked again at his Timex Data Watch. Joggers, cyclists, walkers, and even a few skateboarders had already passed. Each time he heard someone coming from around the bend in the river, he expected Sulky to show up in her pale gray jogging suit. The steady flow of people distracted him and made it even harder to appear that he was engaged with his paper. Mutter looked again at the front page – a small story at the bottom:
As he finished this story for the third time, he once again asked himself why? Why would a first class company like Apple with a world-beating technology have trouble attracting a new CEO? He had been thinking about Apple’s problems for some weeks now and he had drawn some alarming conclusions. His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Agent Nada Sulky and, as he had predicted, she arrived in her dumpy gray jogging suit. He also wondered why such a depressing, uncharismatic agent had been assigned as his partner. She sat down next to him on the bench.
“Why are we meeting here, Mutter?” asked Sulky.
“We had to get out of the office. This is important. Did you bring the file I asked you to download?”
“Sorry, Mutter. My home computer went belly up last night. It keeps asking me to insert my installation CD and I can’t find it. Why is it so important anyway?”
“Sulky, how many people in our office have been having problems with their computers lately?”
“Oh, I don’t know…. I suppose several… maybe more than several. Why?” she asked.
“I’ve been putting a few pieces together,” said Mutter, “and I don’t like what I see. It’s a little ironic but the file I asked you to download from the net was the DOJ’s antitrust action against one of the major players in the industry.”
“I don’t get it Mutter, what are you talking about?”
“Okay, Sulky, I’ll spell it out for you, but if you listen to this scenario, I may be putting you in great jeopardy.”
“Go for it, Mutter.’ she said, her body language indicated just a passing interest.”
“All right… It’s the early 80s and Alan Kay and the folks at Xerox Parc have come up with a computer operating system based on icons and pointers and the like – a precursor to the Macintosh. The new interface is so intuitive and so easy to use that it could make every citizen with two attached dendrites into a computer user. And it could serve as a major boost to the military industrial complex – perhaps advancing research and development by years.”
“Let’s get to the point, Mutter.”
“You can call me Wolf. After all, we’ve worked together for two years now.”
“I’ll stick with Mutter, thanks.”
“Anyway, to get back to business, the interface was adopted by Apple Computer who released first the Lisa and later the Macintosh. Though the Lisa and the initial Macs were not a roaring success, the company eventually released powerful computers that were easy to use and to a large extent delivered on that early promise.”
“Go on Mutter,” said Sulky trying to appear REALLY concerned.
“But Apple lost the operating system war. Over 90% of computer users work with an operating system that is a pale comparison to the Mac OS. But even with the latest version, systems are crashing everywhere. There’s mass confusion out there and there’s no simple way out of the morass.”
“If Apple technology was so superior, why did this happen?”
“In order to determine that, Sulky, you have to analyze exactly who benefits from this world-wide chaos and confusion.”
“Mutter, I’m not sure what you’re suggesting but let’s get out of here… I’m getting chilled and I’m starving.”
Mutter drives to a Dunkin’ Donuts off of the highway and they sit in a booth overlooking the parking lot. Two glazed donuts later, Sulky has enough energy to pursue Mutter’s latest fantasy.
“Okay Mutter, tell me more.”
“Apple never positioned the Macintosh OS competitively. That is, in what the Wall Street Journal called ‘one of the greatest marketing blunders of all time,’ the company never licensed the operating system until it was too late. Apple professed it wanted to change the world, but instead, was content with high profit margins and the intellectual/moral high ground. Meanwhile ‘the rest of us’ had to settle for a cheap imitation.”
“Mutter, why did people buy the inferior system? After all, 90% of the people aren’t stupid. Didn’t the computer press point out the difference between the two systems?”
“To a large extent the computer press is controlled by money, Sulky. The press abhorred Apple’s proprietary approach to technology because it meant less competition, higher prices and fewer boxes shipped. On the other hand, when IBM let other companies license its technology the competition pushed down prices. The increase in volume could be translated directly into more advertising revenue from PC companies, more magazines sold, and more anti-Mac editorial content. The PC press virtually ignored the fact that the Mac OS was vastly superior to anything available on the PC and did their readers an enormous disservice. The Mac press tried to be more even handed, but in pointing out the blunders that Apple was making, played into the hands of the PC lobby.”
“C’mon Mutter, the OS on my home machine isn’t that bad and besides it really was cheap.”
“That’s the common myth, Sulky. Your OS is worse than bad… it’s frustrating users in the millions and when you consider the support you need, it’s terrifically expensive – much more expensive than today’s Macs.”
“So that’s an interesting story, but it’s all about capitalism. I don’t see where you’re going with it, Mutter.”
“There are two popular theories about why the Mac hasn’t dominated the industry. One references the major marketing blunders made by Apple that I’ve already talked about. The other suggests the sheer genius of the competition. I don’t believe either – nor does a combination of the two fully explain things.”
“I’m waiting Mutter… let’s get to the point. If neither theory is right, then why do so many people use PCs instead of Macs?”
“Because THEY want us to.”
Sulky dropped her third glazed donut on the floor and glared up at Mutter. “Now you’ve done it, Mutter. That third donut was free… now I’ll have to buy another.”
“No thanks, Mutter, I prefer donuts.”
“No, I mean cookies on your computer.”
“I never use food around my system.”
“A cookie is a small program that jumps down on your system from the Net, gathers information, and reports back to whomever sent it. What if a cookie is built into everyone’s operating system and reports back to THEM periodically about software you’re using, time you spend on your system, and maybe even the content of your documents. Would that scare you, Sulky?”
“That would give someone enormous power.”
“Take it a bit farther. Every user has their own keyboarding style – as unique as a fingerprint. What if users are identified every time they log in – no matter what computer they’re using?”
“Now that is scary, Mutter.”
“Let’s go for a little ride,” said Mutter.
“Where are we going?” asked Sulky.
“The journey is the reward,” replied Mutter.
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Sulky.
“You and a whole lot of others, Sulky.”
Mutter and Sulky get into Mutter’s green, ’71 Ford Falcon and head down the highway towards town. Sulky pulls out her laptop and begins taking notes.
“Let me get this right,” said Sulky, “because I’ll have to explain yet another wild theory to the section chief. You think that aliens took over the largest software outfit in the country, somehow caused Apple to make a series of blunders, introduced a crippled operating system, and spies on users?”
“Well, when you eliminate all logical explanations, you’re left with the preposterous, Sulky. Can you think of ANY logical reason why someone would intentionally choose a PC over a Mac – particularly today when Mac prices are more than competitive? And take a look at THEIR chairman.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look at his glasses,” said Mutter. “Would a human being wear glasses like that in 1998?”
“Well… you know,” said Sulky, “even I have wondered about that.”
“Then there are little slips that he’s made over the years. Like the ‘Ignore, Retry, or Abort’ error message in DOS. Clearly that was never meant for humans and may have referred to interstellar travel. And how about that Caps Lock function where the shift key does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. That sure ain’t human.”
“You might mention the File Manager, but then I guess you could go on and on.”
Mutter glances away from traffic and down at Sulky’s PowerBook computer.
“Are you on the Net?” he asks – his voice showing considerable alarm.
“Yes, but I was just sending my notes to my office mailbox… and besides this is an Apple computer.”
Just then a large black sedan with shaded windows pulled out in front of their car, causing Mutter to brake and frantically turn the steering wheel hard to the left. Mutter’s car missed a stop sign, cut across traffic, and came to a screeching halt partly up on a curb, while the black sedan fled down the highway. Sulky and Mutter were clearly flustered – their adrenaline pumping through their veins.
“Do you understand the implications, Sulky?” whispered Mutter – trying to regain his composure. Sulky sat upright and brushed the hair out of her eyes. “Too many journeys, Mutter, too few destinations.”
Author’s note: Apologies to any company or individual that might be offended by this parody. I have to go as someone is knocking at…
Mick O’Neil (firstname.lastname@example.org)