It’s kind of hard for me to believe that it’s fifteen years ago this week that I reported for my three-month internship deep in the research department at Apple Computer, down in One Infinite Loop.
It was 1995, and it’s beyond understatement to say that Apple was a totally different place then. (I just read an article by a tech pundit who really should have known better that Apple’s marketing has always been great. Not true — the general awfulness of Apple’s marketing circa 1995 was a constant frustration for Apple fans of the time.) The vibe was a little downtrodden and nervous. The stock, I remember pretty clearly, was in the 20s. And I think it has split since then.
I’m still not completely sure what I was doing there. I was in Apple’s educational research arm, which doesn’t exist now, but at the time education was a big market for Apple, and they were a player in research as well as the actually putting computers in classrooms part. The overall goal of this project, if I recall, was to create an ecosystem of dynamic educational objects or models that could be grabbed by teachers to use in various lessons.
In practice, we were working with an experimental Apple programming environment called SK8, which was kind of an object-oriented HyperCard, with a Smalltalk like “live” programming environment. SK8 took 32 MB, that’s M for Mega not G for Giga, of RAM, which was a crazy luxury at the time. Apple’s laptops maxed out at 36 MB at the time. It was a serious problem — I couldn’t take my work back to Georgia Tech to demo because they did not have a single Macintosh in the lab with that much memory.
There were about 15 of us, mixed between contractors and grad students from various educational technology programs. We were in a long, narrow room, with basically a narrow aisle separating the sides. Our perk for being placed in the long room was a bunch of Nerf toys that the admin assistant attached to our group would occasionally refresh (“I’m going on a Toys R Us run, who wants something”). Nerf fights would occasionally break out along the room.
Some specific things I remember.
A manager attached to the team saying that it was inevitable that Apple Computer would one day drop the “Computer” from its name. Why? Because “this” is not a computer, he said, holding up his Newton. That manager went to Netscape shortly thereafter. Netscape was a big deal that summer, their IPO, which was the start of what became the dot-com boom, happened in August. It was a front-page story in the San Jose paper, and I remember feeling weird to be in an industry town and be in that industry.
This was the summer that Windows 95 came out, effectively ending an era in which Apple was visibly different from Microsoft’s OS. I won a t-shirt that said “Windows 95 = Mac 89” for making suggestions about how to market Apple’s products.
Day of Win95 launch, Apple had an anti-launch party in the courtyard of Infinite Loop, which I remember included a guy demonstrating broken features of Win95, to a crowd that was perhaps a bit over-enthused by the fact that Win95 acted badly when a directory path length exceeded 255 characters. It was a weird vibe.
There were a lot of company parties of one kind or another, probably about one every other week or so — this week, the latest QuickTime version went golden master, that week, a general overview of upcoming stuff. People who had been there a while said that it was nothing compared to what things had been like in the late 80s, so I can’t imagine what they do there these days.
The cafeteria on site was pretty good, but I most strongly remember the museum that had a running version of every thing Apple had put out to that point, from the Apple I, through the current Mac, and including things like the Lisa.
Apple has a company store on-site, at the time it was their only retail outlet, and it had something that you still can’t get in current Apple stores — Apple-branded merch. Though, they gave out t-shirts like candy (I wound up with something like ten in three months), so I didn’t have to buy very much.
Biggest difference between then and now is probably that, even though I had a laptop, I literally never went online outside of work. (Which would have been via dial-up). The programming tool I was using voluntarily was Smalltalk Agents.
I sort-of met Don Norman, who took over as head of research during that summer, I think. Ditto for Woz, who I’m pretty sure gave some kind of talk to all the assembled interns throughout the company. I’m pretty sure the Smalltalk guys who eventually released Squeak (Dan Ingalls, Alan Kay) were at Apple at the time, but I can’t remember if I saw Squeak then or later.
We gave our final team demo and report in one of the Town Hall rooms at Infinite Loop in front of a smallish group of other demos, all of us wearing matching white t-shirts with the rainbow Apple logo.
It was a fun summer. I was there for a short enough time that it didn’t stop being cool to be working at Apple.