MacWorld Expo, RIP.

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Good Evening:

Well, officially the MacWorld folks say the Expo has gone on “hiatus,” but unless Apple reverses Steve Jobs’ decision to stop using the annual exposition of all things Mac as the showcase for the latest products in the company’s portfolio, this seems like the end of a great yearly tradition. For me, the best part of each Expo consisted of reconnecting with online friends for serious face time on the Expo floor and at the nearby Buca di Beppo restaurant.

However, January 1992 remains special. That says a lot, because I was one of the first people to see a demo of the Bondi-Blue iMac. I was also one of the only Americans who saw the iMac G4 with the half-dome base before Apple unveiled it in 2002. 1992 stands out as the first MacWorld Expo I had ever attended. It introduced one absolutely shocking innovation (by 1992 standards): QuickTime. I remember looking at a QuickTime clip, about the size of a large postage stamp in the upper left-hand corner of the monitor, listening to someone confidently tell me that someday very soon all television will come to us via computer.

I imagine that took a bit longer than he expected.

But the most vivid memory involves the other shocking new technology–Adobe Photoshop plugins. Adobe had introduced plugins in 1991, but MacWorld Expo 1992 saw the introduction of a set of plugins by not-yet-computer-graphics-software-legend Kai Krause called Kai’s Power Tools. Every demo at his booth was jammed, and you could not walk past it because too many people filled the aisles.

I only had a mild interest in his demo; when your computer is the original Mac Classic, you ain’t gonna use Photoshop or Kai’s Power Tools any time soon. In fact, I spent as much time glancing at the other spectators as at the demo. Fascinating. So many stunned human beings. Some had bulging eyes. Some had jaws hanging down. Some kept saying “Whoa!” at each effect. Some did all three.

Except the guy standing next to me. He was shaking a little.

Very, very tall, receding hairline, quite slender. I wondered why he reacted differently, especially since–believe it or not–his Expo badge stated that he worked at Adobe.

So why did he seem upset?

Surely Kai’s Power Tools would boost Photoshop sales, much as Enrico Caruso’s records boosted the sales of record players (at least, according to urban legend). If anything, he should have felt delighted with the demonstration, which I must say was a brilliant one.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I notice that you work for Adobe.”

“Yes.”

“You seem upset. What’s the problem? Some kind of copyright violation?”

“N-n-no, n-not at all. It’s Photoshop. That software is doing things that I didn’t know were possible, I never imagined that Photoshop could do what it’s doing. The software has powers I never thought it had.”

I shrugged. “Well, if you ask one of the programmers, I’m sure they won’t be surprised.”

He turned to me, his eyes turned wild, and he said exactly what you think he said.

“I AM one of the programmers.”

Which made it official: the new era predicted in dystopian science fiction had not just arrived, but had firmly planted itself in the world and become accepted, even embraced. I refer to the era of software engineers creating products that have far greater powers than they thought, powers that they didn’t know they had programmed into their software. I’m sure Photoshop was not the first software that had abilities its programmers did not anticipate, with all the potentially disastrous–and beneficial–consequences that might have. But to that Adobe programmer and to me, it seemed like the step forward that you can’t take back.

The step forward to software that will achieve consciousness.

Still seems like fanciful science fiction to me.

But who knows?

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–Standing next to a legend, and it never occurred to me to learn the guy’s name. Sheesh.

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2 responses »

  1. At least as shocking regarding QuickTime: QuickTime 1 ran on a Mac Plus.

    I recall going to two MacWorld Expos. The first was end of the 1980s or early 1990s—i don’t even remember. A dizzying array of products (this was before Windows became mainstream/more popular). Pre-WWW, so the Big Deal for many of us was Discounts on software and hardware! Software on physical media, overpackaged in big, colorful boxes (or even paint cans), with thick, juicy paper manuals.

    The second was 1997, when i was working at Apple. The small team i was on got the day off to go as a group. Picked up a MacBench CD (which i used to use a lot) for free. Had the opportunity to ask pertinent questions to several developers (none of which i recall—not the developers and certainly not the questions!) which helped both my work and private citizen computing lives. Blown away with the BeOS demo, where a dual-processor 7600(?) was doing things Mac users wouldn’t see until OS X: live video windows being moved *with the video running inside*, several different high-consumption multimedia programs all doing their thing at one time without apparently slowing one another down and without crashing. This was when Apple was flailing with the original Mac OS 8 Rhapsody—the modern, new, pure Mac OS we never got… except we got parts of it, namely Mac OS Extended (HFS+) disk formatting, Unicode support (trickling into actual OS 8 and OS 9, in full force in OS X), and other bits i’m currently forgetting (mostly core foundation infrastructure stuff). OS 7.6, current at the time, looked pitifully weak and hopeless compared to this early alpha or beta of BeOS.

    I also saw the original iMac early on, sometime late in 1997. The design was so top secret that even we testers weren’t allowed to see it in the final plastics. What i saw looked like a badly-made squared off whiffle ball. “No SCSI port!? No floppy drive?! What are they *thinking*?!” was more or less my opinion at the time. Answer: i was looking at the present and the past, they were looking at the future **and making it happen**. I have very little money to my name; Apple has billions. Draw your own conclusion.

    My equivalent of your (Vonn’s) conversation wasn’t until 1997. As a then-new software QA tester, i had a lot of questions regarding why software had so many bugs, how i and others as QA testers could do better finding them, and so forth. Once in awhile, there were a few minutes here and there where i could discuss this with someone. Related to this, one of my vastly more experienced peers and i fell into a discussion of software complexity. I don’t recall the exact conversation, but it wrapped up something like this:

    Me (panicked tone): “The whole system is so complicated now that **no single human being can understand it all!**”

    Peer (serene smile, far-away look, speaking softly and wistfully): “Isn’t it beautiful?”

    He turned and walked away, apparently happy with life, whereas all i could foresee were Big Problems.

    That’s a big problem with personal computers, and our ability to put more or less whatever software we want onto them: it is likely that **no one else on the planet** has my, or your, particular exact combination of hardware and software in totality! It has literally *never been tested* in that exact combination, much less following every possible branch of a modern, complex program. Is it any wonder we experience bugs?

    As much as people scream about it, that’s part of what Apple’s “walled garden” with the iOS devices especially is trying to solve (which is undone via jailbreaking). The OS provides a safe prison cell (or more commonly, sandbox) for each app, with the jailer (the OS) being the one to convey messages to other apps and probably the outside world. With as many apps as there are, Apple cannot and does not test them completely, but via being the gatekeeper of the Store, can easily yank them if there’s an undiscovered security flaw. Some of this has been and continues to come over to OS X, but a Mac is still a personal computer where the OS and its underpinnings are accessible to power users, so the lines are blurrier. Worse (in terms of stability and security but far better for user experience), we can install big problems like Flash, Java, etc. on a personal computer, possibly enjoying benefits but at a high risk of bugs and security flaws.

    The fact that no one human being completely understands everything happening on a modern personal computer is *directly* related to why you’ll see in the license agreements phrases such as “The software is not to be used to control devices or systems which may affect public safety, e.g. nuclear power plants”. Oops!—hit an undiscovered, never tested bug: *Meltdown!*

    Rant: just because a computer system is old does not automatically make it obsolete, bad, nor invalid. I don’t believe the general populace understands this.

    Within the last several months, This Week with John Oliver had a segment which in part was meant to shock the audience with how a weapons system was (this is not an exact quote, my comments in [brackets]) “being controlled by a 40-year-old computer system! [shock! fright! It’s *old*!!!] with less computing power than a Commodore 64! [shock! fright! It’s *slow and underpowered compared to what I have*!]” The simplistic equating of what is desirable for a weapons control system computer with a personal computer or handheld device makes several fundamental errors:

    * The weapons system was designed and built for *a single purpose*, *not* as a general-purpose computing device.

    * The weapons system computer has *much LESS code, *all* of it (hopefully) *completely* tested*—every branch. It is possible for it to have zero bugs, which, for a weapons system, i hope we can agree is essential.

    * The weapons system computer is not going onto the WWW. It has no need to be modern and fast to deal with bloated misfortunes such as the Home Depot website, eBay, etc. Weapons of the sort controlled by the computer systems in question rarely change (thankfully), so **there’s no need for anything more modern**. As long as the hardware still functions to specification, and given that it uses parts and assembly methods far superior to what “consumers” can buy and has extensive maintenance and testing procedures, it very likely does, it still does *everything it needs to be able to do* despite being “ancient” in the world of computing devices.

    I don’t *want* them to modernized the weapons computers: high costs, high risks, no benefit (other than making clueless lay people happy because it’s “new and modern”)! Now, we all might want to have a discussion about decommissioning the entire weapons system, but that’s a whole different discussion.

    • S.P.: Thanks once again for improving my blog with another excellent post. Please share your thoughts with more than just my lucky, lucky readers because you have presented some intriguing ideas. I agree with you concerning the use of the simplest possible code for software controlling weapons systems. The basic design of the Sidewinder missile still works well over half a century after one guy invented it as a solo project back in the early Fifties. Heck, he probably used a slide rule. Vonn Scott Bair

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