In Fall 1987, Apple Computer sponsored a competition called "Design the Personal Computer of the Year 2000". The contest was open to teams of full-time undergraduates at its Educational Consortium schools. I was privileged enough to be the faculty advisor to a team of Drexel undergraduates whose design - the Chameleon - was selected as one of five finalists. Other finalists were teams from UC Berkeley, Illinois, Princeton, and Minnesota.
Finalists were invited to visit Apple in Cupertino in January 1988, where they made presentations and were judged by a distinguished panel of judges - authors Ray Bradbury ("The Martian Chronicles") and Alvin Toffler ("Future Shock"), Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak, Apple Fellow Alan Kay ("SmallTalk"), and educator Diane Ravitch. This was quite a weekend, to say the least.
All five teams presented innovative ideas for the future of computing. To put things in perspective, at that time Apple had just introduced the Macintosh II, the first Macintosh to feature a color monitor (12" diagonal), with a blazing 16 MHz processor, 20Mb hard drive, and a $5000 price tag. A major competitor was the IBM PS/2 Model 60 with its revolutionary 10 MHz 80286 processor, 44Mb hard drive, 1Mb RAM, and a $5295 price tag. A 300 dpi Apple LaserWriter cost $3500 ???, a Hayes 1200 bps SmartModem cost $389, and Microsoft Word 3.1 was distributed on two 3-1/2" floppy disks. A 50Mb Jasmine hard drive cost $1100. Built-in CD-ROMs were still about 6 years down the road, and the Internet hadn't even been launched. Computer manufacturers generally introduced 2-3 new models per year.
From this backdrop, our students were asked to predict the future. The team from the University of Illinois proposed a notebook computer not very different from those in vogue today. For their prescience, they were awarded first prize. Princeton's team presented the consumer-friendly "Apple PIE" which resembled a CD boombox - not a far cry from today's Web TV/Internet radio/DVD configurations. They insisted that although people would be able to speak with their computers, they'd prefer not to - which seems an accurate assessment of the current state. Drexel's Chameleon featured snap-together components with wireless communication and a 3D user interface.
Our team was seated at Bradbury's table for dinner and found him not only as interesting as we had hoped, but quite congenial as well. Another big surprise for me was discovering that the leader of the Illinois team was Steven Skiena, whom I had known from my days at the University of Virginia. Steve had been a member of the first Rodman Scholars freshman class in UVa's School of Engineering and Applied Science. Now he was a Ph.D. student who gave a witty and technically excellent presentation about the future of computing. In case you're wondering what he's doing now, he's the faculty advisor for UPE's newest approved chapter - at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Apple's competition was quite a treat for all involved. Taking a look back at the year 1987, I'm as impressed with what has actually transpired as I am with the ability of those student teams - and judges - to predict it. As I write these words (November 1999), I'm as unsure about what will happen in the Year 2000 as everyone else - but I think I know where to go for advice!
JL Popyack, November 1999