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My Life as a Nerd Began With Apple

Apple, which celebrates its 40th birthday as a company Friday, has doubtless shaped millions of people's sense of computing.

Composite image by Re/code

Apple, which celebrates its 40th birthday as a company Friday, has doubtless shaped millions of people’s sense of computing.

There are many ways to tell its story, from the number of devices it has sold (upward of 1.7 billion, with one billion still in active use) to the amount of revenue the company has generated (more than $1 trillion and counting).

But another way to tell Apple’s story is to simply share the impact its products have had on me at various points in my personal and professional life. Though much is made of today’s “digital natives,” there is something unique about my generation, which went through childhood and adolescence right alongside the nascent computer industry. I’m only a year older than the company, in fact.

Like many people of my generation, my first introduction to computing was using an Apple II in elementary school. I learned how to program in Basic. I wrote silly little programs that did things like match up students in our class or endlessly scroll the same line of text.

I know I’m not the only one out there who remembers doing things like this:

10 Print “School is dumb.”
20 Goto 10

Still, I learned how to code.

I also learned a touch of early American history playing The Oregon Trail and how to draft a business letter using an early word processing program known as Bank Street Writer.

As I entered junior high school, Apple was leading the revolution known as desktop publishing, with the combination of Mac and LaserWriter. The Mac’s graphics capabilities came at a key time. I had just been kicked out of an advanced art class because I lacked drawing skills, and I needed a new elective. I stumbled upon something called “graphic arts.”

In that class, we learned silkscreen printing, offset lithography and other traditional printing technologies. But in addition to the inks and presses, there was a Mac SE and design software that we could use instead of having to rely on our own freehand skills. I was suddenly able to make slick-looking business cards, posters and t-shirts — all with designs created on that Mac.

And as cool as that was, the real triumph was that I finally had a counter narrative to the voices that had always told me I was a crappy artist.

Soon, I got my own Mac — a beige Mac Plus with no hard drive, requiring me to constantly swap floppies in and out of the disk drive. I later added a 20 megabyte hard drive with an internal fan that provided a constant whizzing, whirring soundtrack from its lair below its khaki-colored counterpart.

A couple years later, I edited and laid out my high school’s newspaper on Macs using PageMaker. I upgraded to a color Macintosh IIci, and another Mac (the Powerbook 145) accompanied me to college.

Like I said, I’m hardly alone in these experiences.

Flipboard CEO Mike McCue says the Apple II was both his introduction to computing as well as a lesson in how technology could be personal. “It brought liberal arts to an otherwise cold tech world, and it established and legitimized a mindset of building products and companies for the purpose of improving the ability of humans to make their mark on the world,” he reminisced to Re/code in an email.

Former Windows and Office chief Steven Sinofsky recalls how the arrival of the Mac at Cornell in the 1980s quickly reshaped the computing landscape at his college campus. While the IBM mainframe remained important, the terminals connecting to the central computer went away in favor of Macintoshes that could access the mainframe through emulation — and could also do a whole lot more.

Sinofsky took to the new computer, writing his own programs. Among his projects was one he did his senior year to visualize the periodic table based on several different variables.

“The geek in all of us has that special moment when at once you feel empowered and marvel at a system,” he said in a 2014 blog post on the subject. For Sinofsky, it was seeing his own code turned into a perspective drawing in the spring of 1987.

“It wasn’t just the programming that was possible,” he said. “It wasn’t just the elegance and learnability of the system. It wasn’t even the ubiquity that the Macintosh achieved on campus. It was all of those. Most of all it represented a tool that allowed me to realize some of my own potential.”

He notes he was terrible at chemistry, but the Mac let him make sense of the elements.

Apple has continued to be important to me personally and professionally in the years since, and not just because of the hundreds of stories I have written on the company. The first iPod (and a half dozen or so since) let me take my eclectic music collection with me — a personal playlist I like to call “something everyone will hate.”

While I was notorious for typing out short articles at CNET on my Palm Treo 650 (and later a BlackBerry), I traded the physical keyboard for the utility of an iPhone when I joined All Things Digital in 2010.

Now, the iPhone and iPad are helping shape the next generation of my family. We dutifully kept our digital devices away from our son for the first two years, but now my 3-year-old happily takes calls from Elmo and Cookie Monster and has expanded his vocabulary and understanding of spelling thanks to an educational game called Endless Alphabet.

And like so many of my generation, I’m left marveling at the device he so agilely manipulates with his cute little fingers, with no floppy disk or whirring fan in sight.

Our friends at The Verge are having their own Apple reminiscences today. Read them here >>

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