Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My history of personal computers

This month marks twenty years since we bought our first computer. I thought some readers, especially the more geeky types, might be interested in my computing history.

First there came typewriters. As a child, I was fascinated by my parents' manual typewriters. They had different typewriters for three different languages: English, Hebrew, and Greek. When a document contained more than one language, they had to leave spaces on the page, then transfer the paper to another typewriter and calibrate it carefully to fill in the text in the other language.

When I was about seven or eight years old, my mother received a new typewriter and gave me the old one to play with. I was certain that my future self would write books on such a device. I learned to touch-type on a manual typewriter in Hebrew at junior high school (a course that was available only for girls, and I wonder if such sexism still exists), and taught myself to touch-type in English.

As I grew older, I became aware of the existence and growing importance of computers. My first real encounter with computers was when I was 18 and worked in the library at Tel Aviv University. One of my tasks was transferring the card catalog to a computerized system. It made me sad to see the card catalog disappear, and the library's computer system was, and to some extent still is, rather user-unfriendly.

When I started university, I typed a few papers on manual typewriters. Most people still gave in hand-written papers, and students were not expected to type their work (or get it typed professionally) until they had to submit a thesis.

Then, in November 1990, exactly twenty years ago, we decided to buy our own computer. Ivor had turned his M.A. thesis into a book, and was required to submit a camera-ready copy to the publisher. One of his requirements was a computer that had a Greek font with all the accents used in Ancient Greek (no, the Symbol font used for mathematics was not good enough). One day, he arrived at the university and saw signs advertising a demonstration of a new Macintosh computer. He went to see it, and fell in love. The computer was very compact (an important factor considering the size of our home at the time), could use the sort of fonts he needed, and was much more user-friendly than the DOS-based computers we had previously looked at. We checked how much money was in our bank account, and discovered we had just enough to buy the computer and a pin printer. We also had to ask a friend to give us a lift home in her car, since it would have been difficult to carry the boxes on the bus.

So, our first computer was a Macintosh SE30. It had 1 MB of RAM, which we soon expanded to the maximum 4 MB, and a 40 MB hard drive. It accepted 1.44 MB floppy disks, had a small black & white screen, and was, by today's standards, painfully slow. We loved it, and spent hours working and playing on it. We had a bi-lingual, bi-directional word processor, painting and drawing programs, a few games, and HyperCard, a program that let us experiment at creating links. The user interface was friendly and easy to learn, and we could create documents with text and pictures and print them on the pin printer. The camera-ready manuscript had to be printed out on a laser printer, and for this purpose we visited the Apple Center and paid to use one of their printers.

Since then, we have owned the following Macintosh computers: Color Classic II, LCII, Quadra 650, G3 Graphite iMac, Lime iBook, G4 Flatpanel iMac, eMac, MacBookPro. Each new computer had more advanced features than its predecessors. The screens grew larger, colour was introduced, the speed and memory of each model was more impressive, and soon we got a modem and connected to the Internet. The software we used also developed and changed over the years.

The Macintosh market share in Israel has always been smaller than in other countries. One of the reasons for this is the dominance of Microsoft. We soon learned that in other countries Microsoft made fully compatible localized Mac versions of MS Office, but in Israel they refused to do this for what they considered a negligible market segment. This is why Mac users in Israel have always had compatibility problems when sharing documents with the majority, PC-using world.

Many people also attribute the weakness of the Mac sector in Israel to its local distributors, first Yeda and then iDigital. Mac users thought the local distributors were not pushing hard enough to get Apple to promote its products in Israel and localize them quickly. However, it is possible that no Israeli distributor would be able to use sufficient leverage in negotiating with a powerful multi-national company.

Another example of how Apple still treats Israel as a less important market is the iTunes Store. Israeli iTunes account holders can currently buy apps (for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch) in the app store, and download free content from the iTunes Store - podcasts and the free books available for iBooks (Apple's ebook reader). Israelis are not allowed, for reasons known only to Apple, to purchase music and video on the iTunes Store. For some reason, Israelis' money is good enough to pay for apps, but not for other content.

On the bright side, Mac computers have become much more common in Israel since the iPod and iPhone came out. Israelis are learning that the MacOS is easy to use, and the ability to run Windows on the Mac means they are getting two computers in one. It took a long time for the iPhone to be marketed in Israel, much longer than in some less westernized countries, but the iPad arrived here more quickly. Perhaps Apple is changing its approach to the Israeli market at last.

Now it's time to confess that I am no longer using a Mac as my main computer. My translating work has always required me to hand in Word documents. When the document was in English, I could use Word for Mac to create a PC-compatible document, but when it was in Hebrew I had to use whatever Mac word processor we had at the time and then convert the document to Word for Windows (usually this created an RTF document). Later, I was able to run Windows on my Macs using Virtual PC. As time went by, I realized I was spending much of my time using Windows, and while I still consider it inferior to the MacOS, I learned how to use it well enough.

Nearly four years ago, my new eMac started having problems and became unusable. At the time, I decided to buy a PC, and have since been using a desktop PC running Windows XP. I have adapted to using PC software, and still sometimes use Ivor's Macs.

I cannot imagine my life now without computers and technology, and will always be grateful for that first discovery of the Mac SE30 twenty years ago that started my personal computer journey.

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