Apple: machines of self-loving grace

I am in an abusive relationship. That’s right. I am an Apple Mac user. I have been ever since computers were invented. Alright, ever since I first played with a computer, which was at the beginning of the 1990s. IPC Magazines, for whom I worked at the time, were about to “go computerised.” The NME might have been an outpost of revolutionary thought and rock’n’roll devilry, but we also had to get a newspaper out on a weekly basis (and always did, even when we all went on strike), and when I arrived at the paper in 1988, it was all done by hand.

I enjoy playing the “it was all fields” card and telling young people that I worked on a newspaper pre-computers. Some of the nerdier kids at school must have had Sinclair or BBC computers, but no-one in my immediate social circles did. Our family had the Pong game console for our telly, although we only rented it, and Dad took it back because the shop couldn’t initially supply the gun for the shooting game, and while we waited for it, we got bored with the tennis and squash games, so he got his money back. The first computer I ever “played on” was the Apple Mac Classic II in 1990, the year IPC started to move from cut-and-paste layout to desktop publishing. (Vox, which launched in October 1990, was IPC’s first fully desktop-published magazine, I believe I am right in saying. I worked on it, and typed in my first ever copy to a computer.)

If I may just reminisce about the Old Days for a moment: when I started work on the NME in 1988 the layout room was just that: drawing boards mounted on desks where grids were laid out with photocopies of photos and Letraset-created headlines once they had been “sized up” to fit. The copy – calculated into lengths from the word-count – was “flowed in”, which meant drawing a line in pencil to indicate where it would sit, once typeset. The Even Older Days of “hot metal” printing were behind us, and this is how the copy was typeset: the typewritten pages, marked up by the sub-editors in red pen, were sent to the typesetters, via courier, where the words would be “input” into … yes, a computer! So the company that had a computer could charge us to use it, basically. You can see why a large corporation might think that this had to change once smaller, more affordable desktop PCs came in.

So, in one of the very few examples of actual training I have ever had in my stupid, ramshackle career, I was taught how to use a Mac. Apple colonised the publishing industry pretty categorically. The first computer I used was a Mac, and so I became a Mac user. This was not a qualitative decision, nor an aesthetic one, and certainly not a lifestyle choice, as it may have been for other people. As a freelance journalist, you’d be insane to buy a PC and risk hitting incompatibility problems with your employers. So Macs proliferated through the print media. (The BBC used PCs, and still do. I vividly remember seeing email for the first time in around 1992 when I started broadcasting on Radio 5; our producer, John Yorke, sent a message from his PC to another BBC employee. It was magic. Although his PC had a blue screen and the words came out in white, which looked pretty knackered to my Mac-trained eyes.)

I must have taken the plunge and purchased my own Mac Classic II in 1992, as that’s the date on the oldest Word document in my existing archive: some Collins & Maconie sketches for Mark Goodier’s Radio 1 programme. I think I replaced it with a much heftier Apple Performa in 1994. This was the computer that had a modem, although I could never get it to work and it didn’t matter that much. If I wrote anything at home, I just copied it to a floppy disk and took that with me to whichever office required it. I didn’t know that many people with an email address, and I know for a fact that I wrote my first book, Still Suitable For Miners, without access to the Internet, or email, in 1997. (I interviewed Neil Kinnock for that book by fax to his office in Brussels; and when I wished to look at Billy Bragg’s messageboards on his website, I had to look at them on his PA’s, in her kitchen, and print them off.)

The Performa lasted for a few years. I have fond memories of it, as it felt very professional through its sheer bulk, and I taught myself to touch-type on it, using the Mavis Beacon programme that came with it. I will always be grateful to Mavis.

Stuart, who was much cleverer on computers than me, showed me the Internet, on his Mac at home. I couldn’t believe how long it took for an image to appear, but was moderately impressed. When I was the editor of Q, I experimented with the Internet at the office, but it was pretty lawless and uncoordinated in the mid-90s, and slow, of course. At Emap, which published Q, an “online” department was established on a lower floor, and lots of young people in glasses started appearing. Some of the magazines launched websites, and they were rubbish, but we felt we ought to. It’s amazing to think how new all this was as recently as 1996.

I found a computer engineer in South London who was prepared to do home visits and understood Macs and he made my modem work in about 1998. At the same time, he sold me a reconditioned iMac in a part-exchange deal, which was excellent value for money, and anyway, the iMac struck me as a lovely thing. Around this time, although being a Mac user was like being a second-class citizen in the world, I began to fully appreciate how easy on the eye the Mac interface was, and how nice the machines looked on the outside. And the iMac was so portable and user-friendly, I think I entered my first wave of if not evangelism, certainly preference. With the blooming of email, you didn’t need disks, and compatibility problems were becoming a thing of the past. If I’d wanted to switch to a PC, and enter a world where more computer engineers actually knew how to fix your computer, now was the time. (I seem to remember this new thing called live streaming was unfriendly to Macs initially too.) I declined to swap brands.

I liked the iMac. The modem worked from day one. And it had a handle on top, which was useful now I was 100% freelance and my home was my office, or a rented office was now my office. Moving house or office was much less hassle with the iMac. I switched from the iMac to a Mac PowerBook in around 2004, as I was doing more scriptwriting and wanted the freedom to write wherever I found myself collaborating and had moved out of London.

Stuart had impressed me with his Sony VAIO laptop and I was tempted. But something conservative within me kept me on the Apple path. It’s a strange thing. Apples and PCs look exactly the same. I use a PC at the BBC when I’m at 6 Music, and I used one to write Grass on with Simon Day, as we either wrote in BBC writing sheds, or at my agent’s office, which had PCs. Lee Mack and I wrote the first series of Not Going Out on PCs, as that’s what Avalon had installed in our rented office. Meanwhile, at Radio Times, which is part of the BBC but is a magazine, it’s Apple all the way.

What I’m saying is: I use Mac and PCs in a normal working week. But I prefer using Macs. I hate the way you have to scroll up from the bottom on the PC. I miss the sweet little icons when I’m not on a Mac. I would not get into an argument, much less a fight, about which is better. As you can see, I started out as a Mac user by necessity, not design. And when I was at Q, I fell in love with the intuitive nature of Macs in terms of graphics and text. And yet … I have an LG phone whose camera will only upload to a PC. Little niggles persist.

And the goth-black MacBook, which I bought with the insurance money after my PowerBook was destroyed in a flood at the office I rented in July 2007, should by rights still be in service. It’s only four years old. But I’ve been forced to upgrade. Built-in obsolescence is an age-old trick of the electronics and white goods industries, but the speed at which stuff needs replacing now is criminal. And the computer market is the most brazen of all. I hate it.

The old MacBook, which I did actually love, saw me through quite a bit of thick and thin. It almost became famous, as it was the laptop Richard and I used to record our podcasts on – and indeed, it was GarageBand, bundled in, that first enabled us to even consider the idea of starting a podcast back in 2008, after I’d seen it in action at Word magazine. That MacBook was seen, live, onstage, by hundreds of people. But, as regular listeners to the podcast will know, it rejected the £50 home studio Richard bought it for Christmas, no matter how hard we tried to get the two machines to mate. And last year, in Edinburgh, GarageBand finally ate an entire podcast – the infamous Podcast 123 – something that had been brewing for a while, as GarageBand would often freeze after recordings in the attic. (Here’s a phrase to strike fear into the hearts of Mac users: “Application not responding” … Force quit!)

Also, having taken my MacBook to the, ahem, Genius Bar, at the Apple Store in Central London’s Regent Street once already when the mousepad packed up due to the also-famous collapsing casing issue in January 2009, it had subsequently started to go again. If Apple are so clever, and they are always telling us how clever they are, why did they make a laptop whose casing would crack and cave in under the weight of two wrists? They call it a “known issue” as as such, will repair your casing, by replacing it, as I discovered. But the Apple shop is not a place I like to visit. It’s too friendly and clean and it feels a bit like you are joining a cult just by entering it. The staff are evangelists, and well-trained, and I hope they are well paid, because they are a bit like “greeters” who also know everything about the stock they sell. I bought my second, replacement laptop in PC World, where, at the time, I congratulated myself for only having about two laptops to choose from in the Mac section, whereas PC users had loads to choose from! But I also discovered that PC World’s competitive insurance policy only applied, at that time, to PCs, and not to Macs, which they also sold. In order to have my flooded MacBook looked at, I had to drive to the arse-end of an industrial estate to find some people who could help me. Apple Stores are all very well if you live, or work, near one, but there are only 28 in the whole of the UK, so good luck if you don’t live near a big city.

So, I have a shiny new MacBook Pro, and I am using it today for the very first time. It is faster than the old MacBook, and that’s about it. I really only wanted a like for like replacement, not an upgrade, but since my old one was showing all the signs of packing up under the weight of more than a couple of programmes running at the same time, and had begun to crash on a near-daily basis, especially if I had the audacity to plug a dongle into it, I felt I should play it safe. After all, this laptop is my office. It is my business. When I’m not talking on the radio, all the work I do must travel through this machine of loving grace. Naturally, transferring all my business from MacBook one to MacBook two should have been a breeze. It hasn’t been. Tell me all about Migration Assistant and Time Machine, but you’ll need to buy a lead to do all that. I object to all the extra things Apple make me pay for in order to be a Mac user, especially one who had already paid for the Mac itself. The new MacBook has a new FireWire socket. This means I need a new lead to connect it to my old Mac. Brilliant.

I have now pretty much transferred everything over using a portable hard drive which I bought a few years ago. I did it piecemeal really, and wouldn’t have been able to without the many Mac forums I looked up, or without the assistance of the friendly nerds who follow me on Twitter. (You know who you are.) I went to plug my iPod into my new MacBook this morning for its first charge and, ha ha, the lead had an old FireWire socket on one end. If Apple are going to keep changing things, they should let us have the new leads for free. I think, at the end of the day, I like using Apple products, I just don’t like owning them. And I don’t like the way Apple treats its disciples. It expects them to jump up and down and whoop and pay top dollar for every new shiny Apple thing it puts onto the market, and then it will release a new, improved version, that’s cheaper, about six months later, as a punishment for those early adopters who work so tirelessly on the corporation’s behalf, singing its praises and demonstrating the iPad and the iPhone by waving them around on trains.

My iPod is second generation. It had a black-and-white screen and does not play videos. It is also very big and heavy. I had to get the battery replaced a few years into its life, and I resented that, but I am determined not to replace it. Maybe it will come back into fashion. I do not have an iPad, and nor will I buy an iPad. The iPad is a racket. I will not buy a MacBook Air, as sleek and light as it is, because it doesn’t have a CD drive, and I need one of those, and I’m not buying an external one. I do not have an iPhone. If I did, I would be able to sync it with my MacBook, but a belligerent part of me does not want to give Steve Jobs the satisfaction.

Richard Herring’s house is like an Apple Store where nothing is for sale. He is Steve Jobs’ wet dream. Or is he? He hates Apple, too. Many of us do. If you are a PC user, do not look patronisingly down upon us. We are caught in a web. And Apples do look nicer. You must admit. And that’s what counts, in the end.

STOP PRESS!

I found a sad photo of the Hard Drive that died in 2007when my old PowerBook was drowned. The good people at the arse-end of an industrial estate did their best with my waterlogged machine, drying every single component out, but it could not be saved. I should have noted down time of death.