Editor’s Note: I’m starting a new series named “Old Mac of the Month.” To help get things started, my buddy Kevin Lipe wrote up this piece about the Performa 578.
Back in the bad old days of Apple, there were a lot of bad decisions being made about the Apple product line. What had in 1990 been the Macintosh SE, the Macintosh Plus, the Macintosh Portable, and the Macintosh II had ballooned into all kinds of different Macs for every price range. The “low cost” series were still the LC’s, the LC 550 and the LC 575. The powerhouse multimedia machines were the Quadras, the Centris series were the “business” machines, the Newton was a weird handheld thing that sort-of recognized handwriting, and PowerPC was on the horizon but not yet public. These were the days of System 7.5, when extensions were extensions and men were men.
Into this wilderness of terrible product confusion walked my parents, with two kids, one in elementary school and one about to be, knowing that the old Apple //e playing Oregon Trail wasn’t going to cut it anymore once their son, me, starting having to type stuff. They’d heard kids were going to have to type stuff on computers a lot going forward. They also knew some friends of ours with an SE/30 that I spent the better part of a summer mangling Kid Pix on.
So they went to Opus 2, one of the local Apple dealers here in Memphis, and they ended up walking out with a Performa 578, which still runs to this day.
The Performa line was stuck between the LC line of cheap home computers and the Centris and Quadra lines of professional systems. In terms of hardware, they were similar to the pro systems, but they often featured the 68LC040 processor instead of the full-on 68040, which meant they had no floating point unit on the processor. They were tweaked and crippled in other weird ways too, just to make sure they weren’t really competitive with the pro-level systems.
They came with an absolute crapload of software. Our Performa 578 came with Quicken, ClarisWorks 2.1, At Ease, several shareware games, the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia CD-ROM, a Time Almanac CD-ROM,[1. This Time CD-ROM included all kinds of mind-boggling multimedia probably not fit for a seven-year-old: footage of the explosion of the Hindenburg, a slideshow featuring the highlights of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, several decades worth of printable Time articles (which I was too young to understand but most of which I printed and read anyway)—the thing was a treasure trove for a boy curious about the world beyond suburban Memphis.] some sort of Microsoft CD-ROM about Dinosaurs, Mario Teaches Typing (which I never beat), and a free trial membership to Apple’s eWorld online service (which we were able to use with our 28.8kbps ADB-based modem).
It also came with the aforementioned modem, a Color StyleWriter Pro printer (which takes those weird old Canon Bubblejet cartridges), a whole stack of manuals and warranty cards and six-color Apple logo stickers, an ADB Mouse II (the rounded teardrop-shaped one, not the trapezoidal one), and the much-maligned AppleDesign keyboard.
For people who had never had a real desktop computer before, it was a lot of computer, especially in late 1994. The whole family took turns using it, Mom with her clip art, me with (mainly) Spectre Challenger and the Time Magazine CD-ROM, Dad with, well, whatever Dad did with the computer before the Internet—I guess maybe spreadsheets of the budget or something.
Around the fourth or fifth grade, I decided that I knew enough about ClarisWorks that I could handle it myself, and I decided to write a “book.” I distinctly remember the plot and perhaps also the characters being stolen lock, stock, and barrel from a Doonesbury book I’d checked out from the library[2. I know, right? A fifth grader pretentious/smart enough to be reading and half-understanding Doonesbury is a pretty insufferable fifth-grader, huh?]—but none of that mattered. I was a writer, and I was hard at work on my masterpiece. Somewhere, at my parents house, in an old box full of 3.5" Mac-formatted floppy disks, that thing still lives on. I wrote about forty pages of words before I realized that I couldn’t write anything else. I’d written as much as I could.
It was my first real experience with being lost in the act of creation, even though it wasn’t very creative and it certainly wasn’t very good. I shut myself off in that back room with that Performa, gazing into it’s 9-inch all-seeing eye, refusing to go outside and play or go play in my room or even go read books in bed (something I still hardly ever shy away from) because I was in the zone. I was out there. I was writing a “book.”[3. If I remember correctly, we were out of black ink in the Color StyleWriter Pro, so I couldn’t actually print the thing out when I was done with it, which was a minor tragedy.]
I used that Performa as my main computer until I was in the eighth grade, when my parents broke down and got a Gateway 2000[4. Yes, they were still called Gateway 2000 at that time, and we bought it at a Gateway Country retail store.] because “everything is going to Windows.” This turned out to not be true, since right as I was finishing up high school was when the big Mac turnaround started, when you started seeing iBooks and PowerBooks popping up in classrooms and on campuses again. But the Performa just wasn’t cutting it anymore…
…except for my Mom. She never learned how to use the PC, and she kept typing letters and other documents on that Performa 578 and printing them out on the Color StyleWriter Pro (for which you could still get the cartridges since they were the Canon Bubblejet cartridges) until 2002 or 2003, when we got our next Family Mac: an iMac G4 17", the widescreen lampshade with the 1GHz G4 processor. It ran Jaguar, but the discs that came with it were OS X 10.1. It was weird compared to our System 7 Mac, and more complicated, but it was beautiful to look at, and I quickly started diving into the Unix internals of the thing.
And I haven’t been the same since.
But. If I hadn’t had that Performa 578 to introduce me to the basics of the Mac, and to teach me that computers have things to teach us, and that they can be a tool for finding the better aspects of ourselves within the words we’re pouring out onto an invisible page, who knows where I’d be. Probably using some crappy Gateway for spreadsheets, or worse.