After checking in at the five-star Honolulu hotel on Waikiki beach, the view from my 11th-floor room had a travel brochure familiarity: white sand, coconut palms and North Pacific breakers rolling in. Floating in the hotel’s huge swimming pool, just metres from the beach, was an even more familiar sight: an enormous floral replica of the Apple logo in full rainbow colours.
Over the next four days that floating technicolour Apple, complete with its bite out, came to symbolise for me the company’s colourful futuristic energy and also its hyperbolic extravagance. It was October 1983 and, along with a handful of other executives from Australia, I was attending an international Apple annual sales conference for around 1000 employees.
We all knew that a game-changing new computer, named Macintosh after a popular variety of American apple, was about to be ‘rolled out’, just one of a number of new US expressions we’d take back to Australia.
The morning on day one of the conference was mostly taken up with presentations by Apple chairman Steve Jobs outlining the company’s phenomenal successes and predictions for an even rosier future with the advent of the revolutionary Macintosh. It was announced that several rooms had been set up with numerous machines and over the next three days everyone would have an opportunity to play with the new model.
Then Jobs introduced the new Apple CEO, John Sculley, who came on stage wearing the smart-looking new Macintosh soft backpack, highlighting the computer’s ‘all in one box’ portability, an almost laughable claim now, in these hi-tech days of iPads, smartphones and powerful tablet PCs.
Jobs, who was just 28 years of age, had appeared on the covers of Time magazine in 1982 and Fortune magazine in early 1983; he was worth over US$100 million at age 25. Jobs would be in charge of product development and Sculley, aged 44, was CEO with emphasis on marketing. The pair was shortly to be dubbed by US media as ‘the dynamic duo’.
Sculley had been President of Pepsi Cola, and Jobs had brought him into the Apple fold a few months earlier with the invitation: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or come with me and change the world?”
Jobs claimed that Sculley had the ability and track record needed to take the company to the next level. We were shown graphics of a huge mansion on acreage in California which, along with generous stock holdings and a lavish salary, had been included in Sculley’s income package.
When Apple employees learned of Sculley’s appointment many were skeptical, feeling that a business-suited corporate type might not fit the Apple image of casual non-conformity. Introducing Sculley, Jobs explained that what Apple needed now was superior marketing expertise, which he said Sculley had in abundance.
He pointed to Sculley’s success with a ‘Pepsi Challenge’ campaign which had made inroads against its top-selling rival Coca Cola. What Jobs didn’t say was that part of the high-flying Pepsi advertising push included TV ads of blind taste tests, based on Sculley’s research which told him that Pepsi tasted ‘better than Coke’. In the ads Coke drinkers took the blindfold test and invariably chose Pepsi, in what would later be claimed a biased result. When Sculley himself took the test, it was reported that he chose Coke instead of Pepsi.
In a fairly predictable introductory speech at the conference Sculley admitted he had a steep computer learning curve ahead of him but that he had enjoyed great success in his career in marketing, an experience that he looked forward to applying to Apple products. Of course those initial reservations about Sculley were vindicated only two years later when a struggle in the Apple boardroom resulted in Sculley forcing Jobs out of the company for the next 10 years.
Magic of the Mac
That afternoon at the conference I joined a large group waiting for a turn at the new machines that had brought us all to Honolulu. There were Apple ‘techies’ to teach us some basics about the Macintosh.
Most important was the Graphic User Interface (GUI) which was truly revolutionary. Invented by Xerox and first marketed by Apple, the GUI consisted of graphic icons depicting folders, a trash can, floppy discs, etc, and a device known as a mouse to point, click on, and drag them – all still familiar today. It also had a menu bar with pull-down menus, a 9in black-and-white screen, 128KB of memory (twice the Apple IIe’s) and the new, solid 3.5in ‘floppy’ disc holding 400KB of data.
PCs had advanced like the evolution from Morse code to telephony, but in one giant leap computing was dramatically changed forever. The Macintosh came with two applications: MacWrite and MacPaint, and we all had a great time drawing irregular shapes on the screen with the mouse using MacPaint, clicking on a pattern from a large palette and then clicking on the outline we’d drawn to see the selected pattern fill the shape perfectly.
With the MacWrite word processing software you could highlight words or whole passages and cut and paste them to another location, previously a tiresome and lengthy process.
Given the vastness of technological developments over the intervening years, it’s easy to forget just how primitive, yet at the same time groundbreaking, the new universe of personal computing was in 1983.
Since its invention by the two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak – in the legendary Jobs garage in 1976 the Apple I, little more than a motherboard, had evolved by 1983 into the hugely popular Apple IIe (for enhanced). With its 5.25in floppy discs
holding about 140KB each, and its 64KB memory (versus around 2GB-plus for modern laptops – over 31,000 times more capacity) the Apple IIe made big inroads in the education market, but there were problems with other applications.
Our sales people had difficulty answering the increasing number of private consumers who asked: “What can I use a computer for at home?” Some games existed, but there was no internet and very little useful application software, so the standard reply to questions about home use mainly consisted of: “Well you could keep a running total of your cheque butts.” Remember them?
There was also a word processing package called Zardax, a name that sounded like a command from a Dalek, but as there was no such thing as a mouse, every command in Zardax had to be executed by typing in codes. If a prospective buyer asked about running accounts our stock suggestion was VisiCalc, the original spread sheet developed in 1979, again a code-intensive program that could take days to set up for very limited accounting work.
Throughout Apple rumours persisted of Jobs’s hyperactive, erratic, and temperamental behaviour. We’d heard stories of his running meetings until midnight and then summoning everyone back to restart the meeting at 7am the same day. One of the American executives in Honolulu told us that if Jobs couldn’t get his own way at meetings, he might burst into tears, adding: “Then a couple of us will take him outside for a walk around the carpark until he’s calmed down.”
It was against this background that, in 1985, Sculley removed Jobs from heading the Macintosh team, an action that led to a clash between the two, and ultimately to Jobs leaving the company. In 1983 however, with the new computer, a new CEO and the huge enthusiasm he’d generated, Jobs’s genius was universally recognised at the conference, and there were more surprises to come.
In late 1981 IBM, also known as ‘Big Blue’, had released its first personal computer, and although slower and less technically advanced than the Apple II, it began to sell briskly, especially in the business market, and by the end of 1982 the two companies were neck and neck in personal computer sales.
In 1983 both IBM and Apple racked up sales of US$1 billion worth of personal computers and Apple had become the fastest growing company in American business history. A big marketing push was obviously needed to attack the IBM position and it was introduced by the now legendary 1984 TV commercial.
On day two we all assembled in the main auditorium for Jobs to present the new TV ad shot by British director Ridley Scott who had already had huge successes with such films as Alien and Blade Runner. The worry, espoused by Apple was that Big Blue might come to dominate the entire computer industry. As Jobs announced to us: “IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns at its last obstacle to industry control – Apple.”
When the tape rolled we saw, on a huge screen, dimly-lit worker drones in drab, grey clothes filing into an auditorium to sit motionless in uniform rows, watching a huge television screen where an image of the giant face of ‘Big Brother’ is delivering a lecture in indistinct words that were actually taken from George Orwell’s novel of a future dystopian, totalitarian society, 1984.
Then from the back of the auditorium, running down the aisle comes a female athlete in red shorts and white top, carrying a heavy sledgehammer. She swings the hammer round and round releasing it to fly to the dead centre of the authoritarian Big Brother face with an explosion of glass and an intense white flash lighting up the workers as they sit, mouths gaping with astonishment. The commercial concludes with the text: “Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”
The ad’s aim was to combat conformity by portraying Big Blue as Big Brother, with Apple and Macintosh as the liberating protagonists. After the 60-second commercial, for a moment we all sat just as stunned as Big Brother’s workers, then everyone leapt to their feet cheering and applauding.
The ad was first broadcast on US TV in January 1984 during a Superbowl match, and more than 100,000 Macs were sold over the next six months. Very soon Apple’s 1984 commercial was judged as a ‘marketing watershed’ and a ‘masterpiece of advertising’. Macintosh became the first commercially successful small computer with point-and-click usability.
All tied up
The conference dinner was scheduled for that night and with it came the first subtle, but prescient indication that Sculley and Apple’s avowed non-conformity were somewhat at odds. Throughout the conference Jobs appeared in T-shirt and jeans, while Sculley, after his first appearance in suit and tie, adopted what looked like very expensive, fashionable casual wear.
For the dinner, Sculley announced that ties must be worn. This didn’t sit well with many, including most of the Australian contingent. For an hour or so before the dinner the inter-room phones ran hot with rebellious refusals or reluctant concessions about whether to wear or not wear a tie. In the event only two of us appeared at the dinner in a tie-less protest, just me and Captain Midnight as our lanky, sunglassed Australian technical manager was known. During the dinner several of the US contingent from other tables flapped their ties at us in reproval.
But the evening had a more important moment for me: on a trip to the toilet outside the huge dining hall I encountered a group of several US Apple techies, all in casual clothes. They told me that they too disagreed with the formal dress edict and had gathered outside the hall in protest. They introduced me to one of their number; to my surprise he was none other than Steve Wozniak, the technical genius behind the Apple II, and famous co-founder of the company.
In 1981 Wozniak was injured when his private plane crashed during take-off and for several weeks he suffered severe memory loss and could not remember the accident. He did not come back to Apple immediately after the crash; instead Wozniak returned to UC Berkley for further studies and married his second wife. He rejoined the company in 1983 but simply as an engineer in product development.
In the conference to date, Wozniak had barely been mentioned and most of us didn’t know he was even in Honolulu. I felt overwhelmed at meeting ‘Woz’, as he was known, although he seemed vague and preoccupied. He did introduce me to his wife, Candice Clark, who, wearing alternative hippie attire, was breastfeeding their new baby.
I returned to the dinner in time to hear an announcement that on the next and last night we were to attend a monster barbecue on the other side of the island, for which a large fleet of buses had been arranged.
During some escape time on day three, Captain Midnight and I, the tie-less duo, decided to share a helicopter flight over Diamond Head and Honolulu. While the two of us were waiting for the chopper in a small departure lounge overseen by a couple of attractive uniformed ladies, Midnight suddenly asked: “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“No, not at all,” came the “have-a-nice-day” style response.
Midnight reached into a pocket, pulled out a battered ‘rollie’ and lit up. The strong smell of marijuana began to fill the room. With her face registering both worried surprise and forced gaiety the chief attendant said: “Oh, I thought you meant an ordinary cigarette.”
Midnight laconically offered the joint to me, whispering, “She didn’t ask me to put it out.”
Choppers and frangipanis
At last the final night, and I think the most extravagant spectacular event I’ve ever attended. We emerged from our buses into a huge circular clearing amidst natural bush where an entire replica base camp from the popular TV series M*A*S*H had been set up.
There were many front-opened tents around the circumference, some with split oil drums serving as barbecues, and of course the Red Cross tents dispensed free alcohol of all varieties. We queued up for enormous T-bone steaks dropped into our mess tins by army-uniformed chefs and helped ourselves to baked potatoes and salads.
There was an impressive Woodstock-style stage complete with lighting and we’d heard that three bands had been brought out from Los Angeles, five hours’ flight away. As we sat at rough wooden tables eating our steaks, two helicopters appeared low overhead and began circling as they dropped frangipani petals onto us. Someone stood up and with cupped hands shouted upwards “Drop money!”
As darkness settled the stage lights came on and a man in ragged battledress took the microphone in front of a 10-piece band arranged in two tiers. “What we goan have now is a cardiac arrest,” drawled the battledress figure, and shouted: “Jack!” Powww went a massive chord from the band, “Mack!” Powww again, “And the Heart Attack!” The band rocked off in a mega-blast of jazz-infused rhythm and blues as strobe lights flickered. It turned out that Jack, Mack and the Heart Attack was Apple’s California mascot band.
Things began to wind down around midnight, and I was offered a lift back to the hotel by a group of Americans in a hire car. All the way back to town they had a tape of Tina Turner’s current hit, What’s Love Got To Do With It? playing over and over at full volume.
Next day was departure day and after packing up I took a last look out of the hotel room window at the Waikiki view, but looking down at the pool I saw that the Apple flower logo was gone. Its absence signified the end of an unforgettable conference that brought excitement, enthusiasm, camaraderie, and world-changing developments for computing, in a completely over-the-top extravaganza of ridiculously unimaginable expense.
In the early ’80s John McBeath was Australia’s Southern Regional Manager for Apple Computer. He is currently The Australian newspaper’s Jazz Critic (since 2003) and a regular contributor of profiles, travel pieces and an occasional book review to that paper and other publications.