We miss you, Clarus the dogcow
Here’s a tough truth for Mac users of a certain vintage to confront: although we might be nostalgic about the Apple of the past, its share price prior to 2004 is pretty much a flat line compared to how it’s doing now. Which is to say, to put it bluntly, that Apple was doing things wrong back then.
But still, that nostalgia persists for us old-timers. Take Clarus, the dogcow, for example. This was a bitmap glyph originally created by Susan Kare for the Cairo dingbat font that came with the original Mac in 1984. But Clarus broke out to become an official mascot of Apple’s Developer Technical Support, and an unofficial symbol of the Mac for the rest of us.
And just look at it! It’s solid, 24-karat whimsy! It’s a purely fictional creature—half dog, half cow—that came into being through quirkiness and serendipity, and you could say it has no business in a grown-up, commercial operating system. It makes no real sense, and wasn’t really there on merit or through strategic planning, yet there it was whenever you chose Page Setup in a document.
Today, of course, all you see when you choose Page Setup is a little representation of a person. Definitely less characterful, but also definitely more neutral and serious. It’s hard for old-school Mac users like me to let go of the idea that the more cheerful, slightly-crazy, what-the-hell-is-that-thing-anyway approach is better.
I like Apple’s current Macs, of course, and appreciate the power and flexibility of Yosemite—in other words, naturally I’d never willingly go back to a vintage Mac for my primary computer no matter how much I love them—but at the same time I miss the friendliness and borderline anarchy that suffused Apple’s products in its first decade or so. Today, Apple seems intent on draining all personality from its products, or at least defining that personality as “blank and austere.” Witness the anonymous slabs of aluminum and glass, the flat aesthetic that was introduced with iOS 7, and the ditching of Lucida Grande for the expressionless Helvetica Neue as the system font.
It must work, though. It must, because today’s Apple is a towering colossus compared to the Apple of Clarus’s day.
But I still miss the kooky Apple that Clarus exemplifies for me. This was a company not dominated by a single coherent vision, and where, presumably as a side-effect of there being no accepted rules and conventions to be bound by in these early days of personal computers, individuals could make idiosyncratic UI and UX decisions that shipped to and ultimately delighted end users, despite and because of not being readily explainable. And if I’m honest with myself, I suspect that some of the reason I like this era of Apple so much is that it reminds me of a time when I was in a fringe community, a minority which reveled however subconsciously in its unconventionality and rejection of the kind of corporate blandness exemplified by IBM and Windows. The dogcow—a creature whose call was “moof!” and which was so embraced by Apple itself that it was the subject of an official history on its developer pages—was offbeat, informed by emotion rather than level-headedness, and made no real sense… just like the decision to buy Apple.
There is perhaps no clearer indication that Apple was keen to make a break from its roots than when it removed the giant, blown-up versions of some of the early icons, Clarus included, from what was called the Icon Garden at its campus in Cupertino. You can’t argue with the results: since then, Apple’s sales figures have rocketed and its appeal has become truly global. And sure, I’m not saying that killing Clarus led directly to this success, but it’s likely that it was this unsentimental mindset that helped propel the company to its current position as the world’s richest technology company.
Mind you, Apple may never rid itself of a grass-roots proto-anarchy. Despite expunging Clarus, in its documentation for its brand-new programming language, Swift, one of the examples given for naming constants and variables uses the emoji for a dog and a cow (which it says could equal “dogcow”), as lovely a little nod to Clarus’s role as a mascot for Apple developers as you could hope to find.