I’m pretty sure this will be one of a million “stories about Apple” that will be going up tonight, prompted by the death today of one of its founders, Steve Jobs. Like many of my peers, the Apple IIe was one of the first computers I ever used, and one that I spent a huge amount of time with in my childhood — mostly playing games, of course, but also some programming and doing other practical things. The Macintosh that my dad later bought, in turn, also saw a lot of usage by me, although curiously my use of it was tilted more towards the practical and less games and programming. (Games because they simply didn’t exist, for the most part, on the Mac. And programming environments were pretty rudimentary for awhile — the development situation on the Mac at the time was definitely not friendly towards, or accessible by, 9-year-old kids.)
Of those two platforms, I would say that their influences were quite different on me. The incredible breadth and depth of games available on the Apple II platform really fanned the flames of my interest in gaming, which I would later go into as a professional career. The Mac, apart from the obvious innovations in user interfaces, introduced me to concepts like hard drives, laser printing (via PostScript), local area networking, WYSIWYG, and desktop publishing (an innovation that has become so ubiquitous that the term isn’t even used any more).
As a game developer, and someone who did some development on pre-OS X Macs, I wound up bearing a bit of a grudge against Apple. Their development environment, lacking protected memory, was incredibly unforgiving in many ways, and killed productivity. And Apple’s haphazard, ramshackle attempts at courting game developers were for the most part insulting, incomplete, and lacked support. I generally stayed away from purchasing Apple products and MacOS for a long time, ending only recently in the iPhone (which is a pretty decent phone).
So, in total, Apple is a company whose products have been incredibly influential not only in the world at large, but to me personally. And when one of its founders kicks the can, I feel obligated to eulogize just a little bit. In parting, I’ll relate an Apple II gaming anecdote that I haven’t written about before:
When we were kids, my brother and I used to love playing a game called Micro League Baseball, on our Apple IIe. It was a baseball simulation game, with somewhat rudimentary graphics, but a wide roster of teams, and the ability to play head-to-head. The multi-player mode was hot-seat — for each pitch, the player whose team was batting would select an option, and then the player whose team was in the field would select an option. Since the options could include baseball trickery like stealing a base, or pitching out, the person who was not entering their option would look away from the screen and keyboard and cover their eyes. This was to prevent the gaming equivalent of stealing signs.
Our rivalry was quite intense, and it was quite a big deal to us to triumph in these games. (We didn’t really consider the relative strengths of teams we were using, apart from the ’27 Yankees being mega-powerful.) So I wound up doing something that was both smart and dumb. The smart part: I realized that the hollow case and keyboard design of the Apple IIe was such that key presses had distinct timbres to them — ones that could be distinguished quite easily, with a little practice. I quickly learned that I could steal signs and know exactly what my brother was doing, even though my hands were covering my eyes in adherence to the “rules.” If he pressed ‘3’ to steal a base, or ‘4’ to hit-and-run, I would know about it in advance. The key noises were so distinct that there was basically zero chance of making a mistake.
The dumb part: I took too frequent advantage of this, and he got suspicious after about the sixth time that I called for a pitchout and happened to catch him stealing bases. I had to ‘fess up to my little trick.
I can’t remember if covering our ears, too, became part of playing the game, or if the other person had to leave the room, to ensure fairness and a level playing field.