Sunday, December 18, 2022

Another trip into the archive: My First Apple Story

I published the essay below in early 2015. The stories to which I refer date back to 1998. - Ed. 

As of this writing, I’ve spent more time than many in the tech media covering at least some aspect of the Apple beat. This has not always been something that reporters would covet in the manner they do today.

For a few months in 1998, I worked briefly for Internet World, a weekly trade newspaper covering the Internet industry. (Yes, it was a newspaper that covered the Internet…. Don’t start….) It was owned by Alan Meckler’s MecklerMedia Corp. which has after numerous corporate contortions survived inexplicably to this day. The publication didn’t.

The summer Macworld conference was taking place in New York that year, and I lobbied successfully for the assignment to cover it. It was easy: No one else wanted to go.

At a time when Apple is now the largest company in the world by market cap, it may be hard to remember, but in 1998 the only stories anyone seemed to want to write about Apple concerned the corporate death spiral it seemed only to be delaying. The notion of a journalist who covered Apple full time, now a plum assignment at several tech and business publications, was limited to perhaps the local newspaper in Apple’s hometown, and a handful of enthusiast magazines.

Nineteen ninety-eight was another of the bad years for Apple. The best indicator of just how bad was its share price. After adjusting for stock splits over the years, Apple shares were trading at $1.036 a share as the month of July began in 1998. [Update: As of 2022 the split-adjusted price in July 1998 was about 26 cents. -Ed.]

The summer before, Wired had published its "Pray" cover (at right) containing 101 suggestions for saving the company. It was low on cash, suffering under the domination of Microsoft Windows, and the conventional narrative about its future was not so bright.

This was the day that history began to turn Apple’s way, and I was present when it happened. From the stage at New York’s Javits Center, Steve Jobs first showed the world the iMac. This was the first computer of that name — the brand survives to this day — and in many ways was the product that saved Apple.

It was a colorful desktop machine — Bondi Blue — and controversial in many ways. It had no floppy disk drive. It was the first computer to use the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port that is so common on PCs and Macs plus so many wall sockets and cars today. None of the uglier and more conventional connection technologies were present. This too was controversial.

In time the iMac would evolve. It would gain more computing muscle, several iterations of colors, and more radical physical designs. The product was one that bought Apple the time it needed to figure out what it was going to do next. A little more than three years later, in the fall of 2001, we learned what that would be: The iPod. Six years after that came the iPhone. And three years after that, the iPad.

IMac G3 Bondi Blue, photographed from side. Credit: Steve Hackett.
Now let’s go back and look at that stock price chart from 1998 to early 2015. If you had bought a single share of Apple stock in the summer of 1998, you would have paid about $30 for it.

If you had owned that single share to the present day without selling, it would have by virtue of several stock splits, multiplied into 28 shares, each worth about $127 as of the closing price on Feb. 13, 2015, totaling $3,558.24. That amounts to an increase in value of 11,761 percent. [I updated the math to reflect data from late 2022. The same share held since July of 1998 would be 112 shares worth more than $15,000 for an appreciation of about 50,000 percent. See the chart I used.-Ed.]

Below is a video of the Steve Jobs keynote from that day. After that are two versions of the story I filed on the day’s proceedings. One was for, the online outlet of the print publication. (An archival version without my byline can be found here.) Seven days later came a print version that ran in the weekly newspaper at the bottom of page 8 of a 74-page issue, which is also embedded below.

I of course went on to find a more interesting professional setting and parted ways with MecklerMedia within a month of publishing these stories. For a short period, I found freelancing for Wired News more lucrative. But before the year was out I had landed a staff job at Electronic News covering the chip industry at another historically critical period, which in turn led to jobs at Forbes, BusinessWeek, AllThingsD, and then Recode. By 2005 I had taken over a dormant column at BusinessWeek entitled “Byte of the Apple,” a bi-weekly meditation on all things Apple. Among its readers was Steve Jobs, who would occasionally call or email when he read something he liked or more often when he didn’t. That is another story.

iMac Grabs Spotlight at MacWorld
By Arik Hesseldahl
Internet World

[July 8, 1998 — New York City] Apple’s interim CEO Steve Jobs surprised the crowd at MacWorld Expo by showing up in person, not via satellite as was originally planned. And he brought news that seemed to hearten the crowd of Macintosh faithful.

The undisputed star of the show was Apple’s iMac, the eye-catching translucent desktop model set for release on Aug. 15. Jobs said the machines will ship with 56 Kbps modems, not the 33.6 Kbps modems that had been originally planned.

It was at this same conference in Boston a year ago that Jobs first announced what some Mac users likened to a pact with the devil, a software development alliance with Microsoft. That feeling was evident today, but to a lesser degree as Jobs was hissed as he mentioned Apple’s plans to bundle Internet Explorer and Outlook Express with the iMac.

“I use IE and I like it,” Jobs said. “You can make your own choice, and choice is good don’t you think?” he said as the crowd applauded. Indeed, two other presenters, Apple vice president for worldwide marketing Phil Schiller and Richard Wolpert, president of Disney Online, mentioned IE as their “browser of choice” during their segments of the keynote address.

Microsoft, seemingly determined to win more friends among the Mac community, did not come to the show empty-handed. Ben Waldman, Microsoft general manager for Macintosh products, announced a Mac-specific upgrade to its browser, Internet Explorer 4.01 that will be bundled with the iMac.

New features include Web archiving, and the ability to save the content of a Web site for offline browsing. A new tabs feature will allow users to keep the results of their Web searches on sites like Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and Infoseek, in their browsing window simultaneously with the content of the pages they select from the results.

Schiller introduced a new Internet search feature, code-named Sherlock that will be included with the release of Mac OS 8.5 set for later this year. Enhancing the current “find file” menu item, the new feature will search on the Internet via several search engines, including Alta Vista, Excite, HotBot, and Lycos as well as Apple’s Tech Info Library.

At the show, Disney’s Wolpert announced that its Blast Online will be available to Mac users for free during a preview. Previously, Mac users could not access the service that is geared toward children. Once the test ends, at a date to be announced, the subscription service will be offered at the rate of $6 a month or $40 a year.

(Photos: Stephen Hackett, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons and Steve Jurvetson from Los Altos, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons ) 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

From The Archives: The Bungee Jumping Story (1990)

Thirty-two years ago this month I published this story I wrote for The Commuter, the weekly student paper at Linn-Benton Community College, just before I was to transfer to the University of Oregon. It was kind of my swan song at the paper that had been my home base for the first few years of my college career.

My plan had been to write a standard-issue "Look what crazy things people are doing now!" sort of feature on Oregon Bungee Masters, the business that organizes jumping excursions, and its customers. I ended up jumping and writing a first-person account of the experience instead.

The idea originated with Bill Mills. He and I were students together at the college and had started out working on the paper together the same year. And we had both served stints as its Editor. Now in our third year of college, we had both stuck around at LBCC for an additional round of fall term classes before heading off in different directions. Neither of us had formal positions at the paper and yet its office formed our social home base between classes. We'd hang out with friends on the staff and write the occasional story.

That fall, Bill had a case of Bungee fever. I'm not sure what brought it on exactly, but in 1990 Bungee Jumping was having a moment. It was the year that Reebok had staged a jump to launch its Pump brand of basketball shoes. Bill was eager to try it and arranged a trip intending to write a story. Sensing a good writing opportunity, I asked to join. 

Initially, I didn't intend to jump. Bill insisted rather strenuously in a dramatic way that only he could, that I could only join the trip if I agreed to jump. I agreed but kept that decision from my parents, who were understandably freaked out at the prospect of the whole thing. 

Six years after its publication, I submitted this clip with my application to Columbia's Graduation School of Journalism. A member of the admissions committee — one with a reputation for not being easily impressed by applicant submissions — gave it her highest rating, essentially cementing my admission. That means that had I not written this story, my career and life might have been very different.

Bill and I had drifted apart as young people do, and I can't remember seeing him again after the end of the fall term. Years later, he met a tragic end, so I never got to thank him for insisting. -Ed.

A Leap of Faith

By Arik Hesseldahl
Of The Commuter

Forget every definition of fear and sheer terror you’ve ever understood. Forget all the laws of common sense, that tell you not to stand in front of a car going 75 miles per hour, touch a hot burner, or jump off a 175-foot bridge.

When I first became acquainted with Bungee Jumping, I thought it was just another of those crazy California fads that people do for a little hype and 4-minute spots on “PM Magazine.” When the recent Reebok commercial made Bungee jumping more popular, I boasted that I would do it if given the chance, a chance I would never get, not in Oregon anyway. But then we heard about a jump scheduled outside Eugene on Nov. 18, and it was time to put up or shut up.

The site was the Blue River Dam catwalk in Eastern Lane County, 200 or more feet above the ground — no water, just a rocky floor where the water of the McKenzie River used to be.

Casey Dale is the guy in charge. He's the proprietor of Oregon Bungee Masters. I know little about him except what I learned during a phone conversation a few weeks before. The setup is simple. Two harnesses and four bungee cords, each about as thick as my thumb and capable of supporting objects that weigh up to 1,500 lbs. The military uses them to drop jeeps and tanks from planes.

“If you weigh more than a jeep or a tank you probably shouldn’t try this. In fact, if you weigh more than a jeep or a tank, I don’t even want to know you,” Casey says during our short class on how to "fall properly."

There are two methods: The swan dive and the backward fall, also known as the “Elevator to Hell.” The swan dive involves a forward leap out and away from the platform mounted on the catwalk railing. Then count to two and grab onto the shoulder straps to protect your face. It doesn’t seem too difficult, assuming you can count while in freefall. I opt for the backward fall. Start out with hands across your chest on the shoulder straps, and leap away from the platform backward. It’s the safest way to go, and emotionally easier if you don’t like looking down from great heights.

I’m still not completely convinced about the bungee cord. Casey hands me a short piece of the stuff. My companion Chuck Hicks and I play tug-o-war and can barely feel a stretch. The bungee cord will not break. And if one does, there are three more there just like it. I am convinced.

“It’s a real deep emotional reach for most people and they have to find the strength from within themselves,” he says. “When you are ready, start counting down from five and the rest of us will join in from four. That’s all the noise we’ll make.”

We are now ready to jump. A young Oregon State University woman whose friends call her Anderson — I later learn she's on the university's Diving team — is the first to go. She has made a three-jump reservation and doesn’t seem scared at all.

She leaps off from the platform and everyone watches in silence until she starts her count. Off she goes like there was nothing to it as if she was a regular. Everyone wants to know what it's like, she has almost nothing to say.

At the end of each fall, Anderson bounces at the end of the cord like a yo-yo, and we can see her as she swings all the way to the other side of the catwalk. A rope is thrown down. She gets ahold of it and hooks into her harness. About ten fellow jumpers pitch in to help pull her up.

Casey says it’s now my turn.

I leave my glasses with Chuck, and don the goggles attached to the shoulder harness. The four-foot climb to the top of the platform is more difficult than I realized — I’m only four feet higher than before and I’m terrified. My steps to turn around are only centimeters in length. I am not a person typically comfortable with heights, and my movements make that obvious. Every tiny movement of my feet seems likely to cause me to fall before I'm ready. Everyone can see that I am scared past my wits. I will later be told that I sounded like a tired-out dog before the jump and that my color matched that of Caspar the Friendly Ghost with a hangover. This is not my finest hour.

I close my eyes since I can’t see much anyway, and try to find the proper mental state to do this. There isn’t one. My mind is clear, except for the fact that I eventually have to get this over with. My eyes are open, but I don’t really notice, because they have glazed over. All I see is an internal emptiness. I suddenly realize that I might be taking a long time to get off the platform.

I mutter “okay”, presumably to myself, and Casey’s assistant Alex starts the count without me.

"Starting from five,” he says. The rest of the group starts in, and I realize that if these people get to one and I am still on the platform, I am in some kind of trouble, or at least embarrassed. They get to one and my legs make the leap without my permission. I am now out and away from the platform and falling at an ever-increasing rate, and I haven’t yet realized what I have done.

I see the platform, my last link to the real world fall away from me in a direction I had never imagined I would see something fall. This is not reality.

In dreams I’ve had of falling, (you know, the kind we all have when you wake up before you hit and wake to find you’ve fallen out of bed) have all returned here to haunt me. The feeling I had dreamed of was accurate, but only a millionth of the intensity I now feel. I am frightened to a point I had never imagined possible, but I am still in control of myself. I am powerless to stop this fall, so all I can do is wait for the ultimate “trust fall” to end, and I don’t know when I will be caught.

Then it's suddenly over. During the fall, it seemed an eternity. But in the end, it was not far enough. I could actually stand to fall a little further.

There is a misconception that the end of the fall produces a painful bounce effect. True, there is a bounce, but it is not painful, at least not until the next day, when I was a bit sore. I know that I was too occupied to worry about pain, and instead had to deal with the underside of the catwalk it seemed I was about to hit.

Instead, some law of physics prevents me from doing so, and I can now concentrate on getting ahold of the rope Alex will throw down momentarily. My only link with the world above me is the bungee cord, and I don’t want to let go of it. I want only to hold onto something stable.

The rope comes down, I reach for it and hook it into my harness. I still try to hold onto the cord, until it goes slack and the rope starts to pull me back to the real world. I am still scared, but never more alive. I don’t even like roller coasters, and I just fell roughly 200 feet, at a speed between 50 and 70 mph, and had lived to tell about it.

I stay for a few more hours and watch others do spectacular flips with their jumps, and I don’t feel at all envious. I had to find the strength to do this inside, and no one else was able to help me. On that platform was one solitary person who must ultimately make the final decision to go and place a lot of trust in the strands of four 3/4-inch cords.

On the way home down Highway 126, Chuck and I stop at a little place called Ike’s Pizza for lunch. If you’re ever in Leaburg, stop in at this place; the pizza is good and the service is homey.

Bill Bixby used to fish the McKenzie River and left an autographed picture at the place. I want to talk about the jump, but I’m content to just sit and watch football while we eat. I want to calm down and the pizza helps. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the day, but I know I’ll have to do this again.

(Photos by Chuck Hicks.)

Postscript: In fact, I did do it again. 

I went Bungee Jumping a few more times. At the University of Oregon I spent two years as a Resident Assistant in the dorms, and one of the things an RA is expected to do is the vaguely-described role known as "programming." Essentially it meant I was expected to dream up some activities for students. I had kept in touch with Casey Dale and organized two jumping excursions. The first was in the fall of 1991. It was an unauthorized trip back to Blue River Dam, this time at night. Casey said we'd have to "Bungee Bandits."

The second was in the fall of 1992. This time the venue was a private logging bridge in Southwest Washington. A friend who helped me organize it, Robb Williams, and another friend, Jim Mulder, shot some video which we then handed over to a friend of Jim's named David Bess who is now an editor for Walt Disney Animations. He set a fast cut of the jumping action to Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus Ouvertuere." An hour or so of raw footage follows after that. 

I ran across the tape with this video on it about 10 years ago and finally had it digitized last year.