A week of anniversaries

Matthew JC. Powell
2 May, 2008
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As I type this it’s the second of May 2008, and just a few days after the release of Apple’s updated iMacs with Intel Penryn processors. While much has been said on various sites about how the changes to the new models are fairly minor, the timing inevitably puts me in mind of the sixth of May 1998 — the day, ten years ago, when Apple first unveiled the iMac. The changes since then are, to put it mildly, pretty radical.

Ten years ago there was only one iMac model. It was made of blue translucent plastic, incorporated a 15-inch CRT display, and had a PowerPC 750 (G3) processor manufactured by Motorola, running at 233MHz. It came with 32MB of RAM standard, and a massive 4GB hard drive — that’s right, 4GB! How could you ever hope to fill all that? The operating system was a modified version of Mac OS 8.1, amended to include support for this newfangled USB thingy. It cost $US1299 (I don’t recall the Australian price, but when I find it I’ll update this).

This week’s entry-level iMac is made of aluminium and includes a 20-inch TFT display. It has an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.4GHz, 1GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive. It runs Mac OS X 10.5 and costs, in the USA, $US1199 (it’s $1599 in Australia but without the starting price for the original that’s not really useful for comparison).

Think about that for a second. Aside from the radically different exterior, you’re looking at a completely different hardware architecture with no lineage connecting one to the other. The operating system is a version of Unix — its similarity to the Mac OS that the original iMac ran is in name only. There is no common code between the two. The new iMac has 62 times the hard drive capacity. It has 32 times the RAM (and, to be honest, you ought to upgrade that to 2GB to run Leopard effectively). Barring for a moment the difficulty in comparing performance between two vastly different and unrelated processor architectures, the CPU in this week’s iMac runs at more than nine times the number of cycles per second that that original processor executed.

Heck, it’s even a different font on the outside.

Ten years ago Apple was a computer company struggling to be seen as relevant. Adored by a fanatical user base, it was largely written off by the rest of the industry, which observed its activities mainly for the car-crash value of watching a once-great company destroy itself.

The changes in the company since then are no less dramatic than the changes to its flagship product. It still makes computers, but digital media — particularly music — is an increasingly important part of what it does. No longer struggling to be seen as relevant, it now has competitors complaining about its dominance of the market. No longer shrinking towards the drain, it’s growing at three times the pace of the rest of the industry.

What a difference ten years makes.

Less auspicious. Another anniversary hit this week. The first of May marked 30 years since Gary Thuerk from Digital sent an unsolicited marketing message to all 393 members of ARPANET — the first ever spam. Now, it’s estimated that up to 95 percent of the world’s e-mail traffic is unsolicited commercial messages (that includes phishing attacks designed to make you hand over passwords and financial details).

We talk a lot about the communication revolution that e-mail has brought about, but if 95 percent of it is spam, how much of a revolution is that? For a sense of perspective on this, the May issue of Australian Macworld magazine (available now at all good newsagents) includes 50 pages of editorial content, the remainder being advertising. Quality advertising, I hasten to add — not a bit of it spam-like in any way. Check out that TechTools ad on page 65 for the USb turntable — I didn’t know that thing existed, but I know at least half a dozen people who want exactly that product. Cool.

Imagine that issue, expanded to 1680 pages — what a revolution! What heft! What value for money!

But what if, in that 1680 pages, you still only had the same 50 pages of editorial? Not only would it be frustrating trying to find the non-commercial content, but it would be difficult to sort out the interesting advertising from the bulk of the stuff that wasn’t interesting to you. The entire medium would be less useful, even for the legitimate advertisers with their high-quality messages about products you are genuinely interested in. You’d never find an ad for a USB turntable in amongst all the, erm, "enhancement" ads.

That’s what’s happened to e-mail. Some revolution.

So while we’re blowing out candles and toasting the transfoprmative decade of the iMac, bear a thought that not all of the revolutionary changes that have taken place in this industry have been so edifying.

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