Famously, when Steve Jobs and his colleagues visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in 1979, he was utterly dazzled by the graphical user interface that Xerox’s Alto computers had adopted. So blinded by the GUI’s brilliance was he that he failed to notice two other key innovations there that day. Here’s Jobs himself, speaking in 1995, on the PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds:
“One of the things they showed me was object-oriented programming; they showed me that, but I didn’t even see that. The other one they showed me was a networked computer system; they had over a hundred Alto computers all networked using email etc, etc; I didn’t even see that.”
And I’ve been thinking about that recently, ever since developer James Thomson kindly donated a Power Macintosh G3 to Think Retro, because it brought into focus something you can’t help but think about if you spend much time playing around with vintage computers.
Boot a Mac today, and it will be seconds before you’re connected—apparently magically, thanks to Wi-Fi—to a network, and from there connected seamlessly to the Internet.
Boot a vintage Mac, though, and the same is unlikely to be true. Wi-Fi, of course, is still a pretty new thing, so it’s no surprise that it’s unlikely to feature even as you start to move backwards along the hardware timeline, and even if a device has Wi-Fi, you might run into problems joining it to your network, since, for example, modern encryption standards may not be supported. ethernet too is increasingly a premium or optional feature as you push further back in the Mac’s history, and although we had LocalTalk essentially for ever, it feels ponderous and fiddly by today’s standards, today when everything is connected to fast, frictionless LANs and WANs.
Besides, in those early days of the Mac, networking was just about sharing files and sharing network resources such as printers. For most of us, though, at least at home, that kind of stuff—puttering about on the network of devices within our homes—represents a vanishingly small percentage of what we actually use our networks for. The overwhelming majority of the traffic on our networks is actually flowing straight out of and into our apartments, condos, and houses as we become more and more dependent on the Internet and the world-wide web for work and for play.
Perhaps I’m not typical, but I suspect that, like me, when you boot a vintage Mac, the first actual thing you do, after admiring the hardware and OS, and having a bit of a poke around in the Control Panels, is go to launch a browser so you could share your latest acquisition on Twitter, catch up with what’s happening on Facebook, or perhaps satisfy an itch to catch up with House of Cards on Netflix. And of course you can’t—even if you succeed in connecting it to the Internet, the browser standards and media requirements have moved on so much that asking it to display anything more complex than google.com is almost guaranteed to fail—as here, loading the Macworld homepage on the G3.
It’s a notable shift in how we use computers now compared to only a few years ago. Today, a computer that effectively doesn’t connect to the Internet strikes a regular user as pretty useless, and it makes you wonder, really, what the hell we used computers for in the days before the Internet.
Now look, since we’re all gathered around it in my living room, I can’t let you go without a little tour around the G3 itself. First, here’s how I got it online.
Happily, it has an ethernet port, so that’s already most of the hurdles crossed. Unfortunately, I don’t have any space to set it up next to my router, so I needed to make it wireless. Smarter people than me will know if there’s a way to fit an 802.11 card in one of its PCI slots and have Mac OS 8.1 recognize it, but I had a quicker and simpler solution: a Wi-Fi adapter. This connects to the ethernet port and is configured via its internal web server; as far as the Mac is concerned, it’s just connected to a regular ethernet network, but the adapter is actually passing off the data to Wi-Fi. Some of these adapters are mains powered, but mine happens to be powered through USB. That would ordinarily be useless in a Mac that predates Apple’s adoption of USB, but James happens to have fitted a PCI USB card in this one. It needs Mac OS 9.1 to actually use the card, but even without it, with the stock Mac OS 8.1 that the G3 came with, it still dumbly supplies power, which is all I need. Boom—my G3 is now on Wi-Fi.
The Power Macintosh G3 minitower is also just a marvelous hunk of hardware. It’s big, by today’s standards, but that isn’t only a bad thing in my eyes. For someone of my generation there’s something pleasing and right about a computer unapologetically announcing its presence on a desk like this, and the stunning K2 case design, introduced with the Power Mac 8600 and 9600, is the perfect, ultimate refinement of the beige box, speaking of power and capability. I love that we see hints too of what’s coming next with the Blue & White G3 and iMac, with that translucent button on the top edge, which unlocks the side panel.
And once you have unlocked that side panel, you get access to the G3’s guts—in a truly fantastic way. It’s not that you can poke around inside the case once you’ve removed the panel; set the whole thing down on the opposite side and the hinged top section pivots up and out of the way; that cut-away step in the case above the power button is revealed not just to be a jaunty design touch, but integral to the mechanics and ergonomics of the Mac. Design, as Jobs said, is how it works.
Spot the other hints of translucent plastic too, on the latches that unlock this swing door.
This beige Power Macintosh G3 might be something of a relic, a device that marks the final period of the final sentence of a particular chapter on design language and vision for computers. Not long after, we had the iMac, which presaged a huge shift not just in how we used computers but in the kinds of people who use computers. I adore, it, though. It’s perfectly emblematic of Apple in a particular era, down but still punching, still fighting, still doing astonishing, delightful work, and striving, with the G3 processor, to reinvent itself and secure its future.
It marks, too, a mid-point between Jobs’ visit to PARC and today, and in that time we’ve seen networking and the internet go from being something so completely radical that Jobs didn’t notice it, to so completely ubiquitous that we don’t notice it either.