This week marks my 25th anniversary as a tech columnist. “The Computer File,” my syndicated Los Angeles Times column, debuted July 3, 1983.
My first topic was “Learn Buzzwords Before Shopping,” in which I informed my readers about the difference between hardware and software and such techie terms as bits, bytes and kilobytes. I didn’t have to tell them about megabytes or gigabytes because there weren’t any devices that stored that much data in those days.
I covered the birth of the Macintosh in 1984 and, in 1996, wrote a column on why it’s OK to buy a Mac even though Apple “lost more money during the fourth quarter of 1995 than most of us could hope to earn in several lifetimes.” Who would have known that Steve Jobs was about to return to the company he founded and bring it back to life?
I also covered the launch of Windows 1.0 back in 1985, but it was a bit of a joke – slow, ugly and cumbersome. But even then it was clear that Microsoft was a tenacious company that would keep trying.
In 1990 Microsoft came up with Windows 3.0, which I called the “most significant development in the nine-year history of IBM and compatible personal computers.” I’m sure I’ll hear from people who think Windows is still slow, ugly and cumbersome but it’s hard to ignore a product with about 90 percent market share.
By the way, I wrote that first column in WordStar and later switched over to WordPerfect as my preferred word processing program. But Microsoft pretty much killed off those products once Microsoft Word – part of Microsoft Office – virtually took over the word processing market.
Speaking of Microsoft and market share, from 1998 through 2001 I covered the Microsoft antitrust trial. And though I tried to remain objective, I couldn’t help but agree with Justice Department officials who argued that the company was taking unfair advantage of its dominant position.
However, I recall Bill Gates’ testimony before Congress where he pointed out that being on top isn’t something any company could take for granted.
Years later, his words are ringing true as Microsoft struggles to catch up with Google in Internet search. And while still dominant on the desktop, Microsoft is losing market share to Apple.
For advice on the Microsoft vs. Apple question, I turned to one of the very few people who have been covering technology even longer than I have. My friend John Dvorak – who preceded me as a tech journalist by about five years – said that “right now, the Mac is a superior product and it’s a real problem for the Microsoft side of the equation.” Dvorak, who writes for PC Magazine, has a Mac but primarily uses Windows for his work. But he said that if people ask him what to buy, “I tell them to get a Mac.”
I also have a Mac. But I, too, mostly use Windows, though I no longer care much about operating systems and PCs.
With the growth of Web-based “cloud computing,” desktop operating systems and applications are becoming less significant. Now people are starting to run online applications within their Web browsers.
That doesn’t bode well for a company like Microsoft that makes billions selling shrink-wrapped software programs. Long term, it might even be bad for Apple if we get to the point where the brand of computer becomes irrelevant.
While I miss reviewing products from long-gone PC makers like Apricot and Leading Edge, there is no shortage of interesting tech stories to cover. The long-awaited “convergence” between computers and consumer technology is finally here, giving this old “PC guy” plenty of new material and gadgets to ponder.
Those include phones that report your location to your friends, GPS navigation systems that track traffic patterns and pocket-size camcorders that finally make it easy to take video. Digital cameras, which didn’t exist as consumer products when I started covering tech, have virtually replaced film cameras.
The first portable cell phone from Motorola debuted the year I started writing my column. It cost nearly $4,000. I didn’t even bother reviewing phones until Radio Shack came out with a brick-size unit that sold for less than $1,000. Back then, only rich executives had portable phones, and most of them were installed in cars. Now I get to write about all sorts of interesting phones that are affordable.
I also spent a lot of time writing about and for the early online services. In 1994 I wrote a book about those services called “Cruising Online: Larry Magid’s Guide to the New Digital Highways.”
The book came out just in time to be irrelevant because of the release of Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser (later to become Netscape), which heralded the beginning of the popular Internet. Over time, online services – isolated islands of information – gave way to Web sites accessible to anyone.
And that changed everything, including the prominence of printed newspapers – the very industry that gave me my start.
Whether I read them online or in print, I still love newspapers. That’s not because of the paper they’re printed on or the Web sites that display them but because of the information they contain and the dedicated, talented and interesting people who make them come out each and every day.
It’s been a privilege writing for CBSNews.com and for some of our country’s great newspapers – the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Washington Post and the Mercury News – and I’m not done yet. Media companies change and columnists age, but we still have some life ahead of us.