Thoughts on Apple

I've written quite a lot of scientific data acquisition and analysis software, some of which - like Datacan and ExpeData - are in use in many laboratories around the world. I'm often asked: Why don't you write software for Apple computers rather than PCs? There's a reason, or maybe a couple of them, and here they are.

Picture the scene: Los Angeles, specifically UCLA, in 1987. For three years I'd wanted to write data acquisition software for Macs, but it was functionally impossible to add the necessary interfaces to them because of their closed architecture. Then, in 1987, Apple announced that it was demoing their brand new Macintosh II on-campus, so I rushed to the event. I was blown away (well, maybe infatuated, because the machine did crash a lot, but hey, it was gorgeous). Best of all, here, finally, was a Mac that could be interfaced to laboratory instruments because it had a card slot with which I could connect analog to digital converters and other lovely things. The demo was being run by a Mac nerd with a thin, weasely voice who reacted very negatively when I asked whether the Mac II's card slot was documented and open for use. "No", he said, "it's proprietary." "Surely you're encouraging people to use it?", I asked, to which he replied, "It's for our products. If we catch anyone else trying to reverse engineer it, let alone use it, we'll sue them."

And I'm sure he meant it. I thought, **** you very much, too, and walked away. After that I avoided using Apple computers or software for several years - about twenty, in fact.

As for Apple and scientific data acquisition? Though as a graduate student I was threatened with a lawsuit if I tried to use a Mac II for that purpose, that didn't stop Apple from cutting deals with big companies such as National instruments (of LabView fame). It all fits together in a strange way.

That said, my aversion to using Apple products turned out to be inconsistent. I was an early (too early!) adopter of the iPod Touch, which was visually delightful but otherwise pretty dysfunctional in its first incarnation. And now I find it difficult to imagine not having an iPad. Sitting with Robbin in an oceanside bar in Florida at sunset on October 5, 2011, I heard of Steve Jobs' untimely death and felt unexpectedly and deeply moved, as if I had lost a friend.