I’ve never seen anything quite like the Macworld Expo. “You’ll never get in,” snapped a weary security guard at 10am, before grudgingly giving me directions to the show in Boston. I turned a corner and saw a queue of at least 200 people, mostly students clutching their backpacks, hoping that a space might be found for them in the auditorium for the keynote addresses.
Inside the vast conference hall, to an audience crammed in so tight that people were spilling into the aisles, a man in a green jacket with a receding hairline and cascading mane of curly black hair was dancing about the stage, demonstrating features of the long-awaited operating system upgrade, Mac OS8. As he clicked the computer mouse and dragged a pointer around the monitor, relayed on to two giant monitor screens, the audience erupted into ecstatic applause and cheering. I looked around to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I wasn’t. They were cheering a computer operating system.
Around me were the Apple Macintosh faithful with their beards, backpacks and mobile phones, a bedraggled looking group of conference delegates, but all with the same beady-eyed look. Perhaps they were all visionaries, or devotees of a visionary product. Or just foolish. With Apple’s market share down to 7 per cent of all personal computers sold, its losses over the last two quarters amounting to $700m (466m) and a stream of redundancies and defections behind it, Macintosh developers and users are displaying an inconceivable degree of brand loyalty. Is it love?
The man in the green jacket, whose name, it transpired, was Frank Casanova the second, had moved over to a trolley full of Apple concept models and prototypes. There was a computer that reconfigured into a letter-writing stand, a PowerBook finished in leather and chrome, and an array of translucent pink and purple PowerBooks with built-in handles and shaped like handbags. They looked a little like jellyfish.
Computers for your “homes, laps and pockets”, explained Mr Casanova, pushing the trolley aside and moving on. Up on the screen came a photograph of an indoor pool, surrounded by Roman statues and arched windows. Casanova moved the cursor and the photograph rolled around, like a panoramic image. The software, QuickTime VR, is nothing new. But when he dragged the pointer over the pool, and ripples appeared, rolling across the water surface, there were gasps. “The future will be very, very cool,” said Mr Casanova, gravely. The auditorium erupted into raptur- ous applause. The old man at the end of row B appeared to be wiping his eyes.
The subsequent Netscape address, accompanied at one point by the grammatically challenged slogan “more information more quickly than ever before” thankfully lasted less than half an hour. Then it was time for another “Mac evangelist” (Apple’s phrase), Guy Kawasaki, who began with a joke about a user of the rival Microsoft Windows operating system who phoned technical support about a problem with his cup holder. “That’s the CD-ROM drive,” said the technician. Later, delegates were shown a mini-movie called Windows World made with a Macintosh 3D program, Infini-D, by a 14 year-old boy. It portrayed a world in which all land masses were covered with the Microsoft Windows logo, and the only remaining Apple user was a dog on a life-raft with a small tree, bearing two apples marked like the logo. It was floating on a vast ocean, in search of the lost land of Macintosh.
I took a water taxi back to Boston airport that evening. Despite the official nature of the water taxi signage, the service turned out to be a humble operation run by a husband and wife team with one small boat that appeared every half hour and was filled to the brim.
As the boat chugged its way across the harbour, jam-packed with MacWorld attendees clutching their “fighting back for Mac” t-shirts, “I love Apple” badges and PowerPC boxes, the sun setting behind us, I realised that I was one of them.
I’d hidden my brochures in a black satchel, but there was no escaping the fact that I too had a small beard and receding hairline and a Macintosh computer at home. There we were, on a small, overcrowded boat in a vast expanse of water, perhaps forever destined – like much of the design profession – to remain at sea while the world converts to Windows.