Goodbye, Sun

Macintosh Quadra 950No, not that big orange fireball up in the sky, but rather, Sun Microsystems, Inc.

What was once one of the edgiest, geek-coolest companies on the planet is now on its knees servicing the giant prick that is Microsoft. Yes, Sun, maker of the infamous SPARCstations. Never heard of them? That’s how cool they used to be!

Sparcstation2-10SmI purchased two Sparc 2’s when I ran the Computational Biology initiative at Allegheny Singer Research Institute, as well as two then-top-of-the-line Macintosh Quadra 950s. In the office that Rolo and I shared, we had the four machines. In that office, and for quite a bit less than $60,000, we had the equivalent of twice the computing power of the VAX crap that the Institute formally had (which cost more than three times that much per year, not including the costs of keeping an environmentally-isolated “computer room” that the horrid, horrid VMS-running VAXen required). Those Sun SPARCstations created a backlash against the hostage situation the IT doofusses kept if you wanted to do “real” computing. Soon there were SPARC IPXs cropping up everywhere, all running the UNIX-y goodness of Solaris and OpenWindows.

Nerdy, yes, but subversive at the time. It should be noted that the OpenWindows UI of 1990/91 was utterly clunky compared to the Mac OS, even at that time: one thing that Apple had understood for years was that the cursor is utterly owned by the user. That means the machine should never “warp” the cursor to a dialog box, should never bound the cursor when that dialog box is modal (meaning you must dismiss the dialog box before you can do anything else) and oh, dear god, should never move the cursor just to suit the UI.

Olwm If you look at the OpenWindows screenshot (click on the image to show full size) in the lower right-hand corner, you’ll see a scrollbar “thumb”, affectionately known in those days as “the elevator”, you can see it has 3 parts: the up-arrow, the down-arrow and the dimpled box. If you clicked and held either of the arrows, of course the “thumb” would move up or down, but in order to keep tracking the elevator, the cursor moved along with the elevator. Again, nerdy, but this is a prime example of the psychology and simple “fit and finish” of a well-designed user experience and what not to do! User == God and God talks to machine via cursor. This is the kind of stuff that these days is sorely lacking almost everywhere but Mac OS X. And that, dear users, is why I still use a Mac. Not because I’m some kind of “Apple fanboi” but because there’s nothing better out there. But it doesn’t just “suck less”, it’s actually still a joy to use—and that’s something you never hear Windows people say. And it is something you always hear iPhone users say, no matter what side of the aisle their computing habits are.

So today, Sun announced the last nail in its coffin: it’s now a Windows OEM. Jesus click-and-dragging Christ, what a mess.

I don’t single out Sun only because they used to be cool, but because I’m always reminded that in its darkest hours, Apple was nearly acquired by Sun. “Snapple”, they called the notion. And had “Snapple” actually happened, if the Mac still even existed at all, today would have been the day that the Mac OS died and was replaced by Windows. -shudder-

So here I sit on BART, riding home from my acupuncture/acupressure/cupping/chinese-chiropractics treatments, typing away on my MacBook Pro and surfing the net via my Verizon ExpressCard modem, cobbling together bits of the past I remember fondly, still finding wonder in the ease and beauty with which the internet is presented, still appreciating the fact that my retinas aren’t burned in with the garish and ill-chosen colors of the Windows UI.

And feeling a bit sad for the past officially having Passed.

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