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In retirement, Greenfield man’s blog covers the up-and-downs of Apple

  • Apple 3.0 blogger Philip Elmer-DeWitt in his Greenfield home. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Apple 3.0 blogger Philip Elmer-DeWitt in his Greenfield home. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Apple Inc. Blogger Philip Elmer-DeWitt in his Greenfield home. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Apple Inc. Blogger Philip Elmer-DeWitt in his Greenfield home. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



Recorder Staff
Friday, October 13, 2017

GREENFIELD — “Day 1” might be a stretch.

But Philip Elmer was there on “Day 2,” he says, writing about Apple Inc. before there was a Mac, which became the seed for what would become today’s technological and corporate behemoth.

Relaxing in socks and jeans with a MacBook Air in his lap and iPhone close at hand, having just finished today’s Apple 3.0 blog, Elmer — whose byline still reads Elmer-DeWitt — is perched in his Chestnut Hill living room reflecting back a half-century to when he and Margo Jones, with whom he reconnected and married in May, took a computer class together while seniors at Lexington High School.

Through his years as a reporter and then editor at Time and Fortune magazines, there’s been a modest change of focus — with computing, technology and science in general and Apple’s mystique at its core. He retired last year to launch his independent blog.

“This is a lot of fun,” says the 67-year-old blogger, who moved to Greenfield in 2014. “I get up every day and I’m really eager, because I don’t know what I’m going to write about. I try to figure out what’s hot, what story interests me. It’s a nice game, and I play it every morning, and usually by noon, I’m done.”

Last week a blog post began:

“‘Twist and Shout,’ ‘Piece of My Heart,’ ‘Here Comes the Night,’ ‘Hang On Sloopy,’ ‘Under the Boardwalk,’ ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’ and, as a producer, ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ That’s the musical legacy of Bert Berns, subject of the new original video whose trailer Apple posted Thursday and whose opening on Oct. 24 is, naturally, an Apple Music exclusive.

“Speaking only for myself, a boomer for whom Berns’ songs were the background music of his life, this is the first Apple trailer that made me want to tune in. It’s also the first sign — after the cringe-worthy Planet of the Apps — that the people in charge of Apple’s original video team might know what they are doing.”

“Piece of My Heart” was first released in 1967, when Elmer finished high school, an education that included a futuristic computer class and where students were hooked by a phone line to Cambridge-based acoustic-research firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies.)

“It was so much fun,” said Elmer, who dreamed of having such a hookup at home to the teletype students connected with BBN’s early Digital Equipment computers. Instead, he won a summer job there over the next four years, testing its Logo programming language while he attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Computer classes there still used IBM punch cards, so he turned his attention to pre-med classes and majoring in English.

After dropping out of graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley and then, post-Watergate, Columbia Journalism School, Elmer copy-edited textbooks, did union organizing, some writing for The Village Voice and tried writing a book on herpes. But he’d run out of money and was running low on his dream of becoming a writer in New York when an Oberlin friend mentioned she needed someone to fill in for her as a secretary at Time magazine.

“I was broke and I worked as a temporary secretary in the summertime,” he told a Riptide interviewer, “and this was a time when the senior editors were a little uncomfortable having male secretaries.”

But if the temporary summer job just involved ripping off wire stories from the teletype for editors, making coffee and delivering their mail, it also gave Elmer a view inside the newsweekly’s inner sanctum. Getting a writing job would be impossible, he figured, but maybe he could get a research job. He lucked out when several science writers left to the launch of Discover magazine, and the editors knew Elmer had some a science background.

He got to work on a 1982 cover story, “Here come the Microkids,” on the early use of computers in schools.

Again, his timing was right, as Time needed a computer writer to complement the computer advertising the magazine was getting.

“They looked around, and there was a ‘people’ writer who’d been there and was sick of writing celebrity stuff, and there was me who didn’t know how to write a Time story. They figured it would be easier to teach me to write a Time story than to teach him about computers. I passed by the skin of my teeth,” says Elmer, who helped the magazine as it prepared to name the computer its “Machine of the Year.”

Back then, Time reporters and editors still used typewriters, with the exception of a few brought in for a pioneering staff to share.

“You had to stand in line to get access to write on one. As the computer writer, I asked, ‘Can I buy a computer?’ and they said, ‘Sure.’ So I said, ‘I want one of those Apples.’ And they asked, ‘Are you sure?’ Especially then, there was this huge divide,” remembers Elmer, who had struggled with using a typewriter but found he could type more quickly on his new Apple II.

When he first met Steve Jobs in 1982, recalls Elmer, he was still promoting his Lisa computer but was already turning his attention to the Macintosh.

The year after Mac’s 1984 release, Jobs was fired in an in-house power struggle, and Elmer remembers visiting him at his next venture, NeXT, “But you could tell it was never going to be as big a market as Apple. I believed in the mouse and the click. I remember in the early days when the Mac came out, people who used PCs sneered at the mice, like it was for kids.”

Elmer grew excited about the notion of computer networks, which he’d gotten an early whiff of back at BNN, alongside people who would go on to work on the Internet’s precursor, Arpanet.

“I was dying to know what people would be saying to each other, and early on, I got interested in all these bulletin boards. We take it for granted now, but when I first did it, hooking my first acoustical modem up, and could see other people’s writings on my screen, it was like Cortez seeing the Pacific! The whole world!”

Within a few years, Time got tired of computer stories, and the Computers beat broadened to Technology.

Elmer still wrote cover stories, about supercomputers, about the Internet — “It finally became a word we could put on the cover” — along with stories on cyberspace and “cyberpunks,” until a 1995 cover story on cyberporn “ended up being too much. It finally exploded.”

The publisher’s note had crowed, “Time prides itself on providing some of the best Internet coverage in the business — but then, we have an unfair advantage. His name is Philip Elmer-DeWitt, our senior editor for technology, and he was surfing the Net before most of us even knew it existed. Elmer-DeWitt’s years of experience navigating through cyberspace have not only put him ahead of the curve on virtually every Internet-related issue but have also made him unusually adept at cutting through the considerable hype and confusion that surround this baffling new medium.”

But the cyberporn story — timed between House and Senate votes on legislation to restrict free speech on the Internet — had been an “exclusive” pegged on an undergraduate’s research paper, and Elmer admits, “I was too green, and I got too caught up in getting the scoop and protecting it from prying eyes, because Newsweek got wind of it.”

Elmer was soon named Time’s science editor, producing 120 cover stories over the next dozen years on health, technology and other issues, like AIDS research, obesity and the ebola epidemic.

But when a new Time editor steered the magazine from science coverage, Elmer left to become executive editor for Time’s online Business 2.0, in San Francisco, where he also began writing his Apple 2.0 blog. Business 2.0 folded after nine months, and he returned to New York as senior editor at Fortune. He kept blogging there until retiring in April 2016, when he launched Apple 3.0 on his own.

The blog, with free posts but also paid subscribers (Elmer says he’s still tinkering how best to adjust the paywall), targets Apple investors hungry for quarterly sales figures to guess where their stock might be headed. It gets between 2,000 to 9,000 readers a day, thanks largely to 15,000 followers on Twitter and another 150,000 on LinkedIn.

He’s also tapped into his experience producing several 10-minute television features for PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and CNN, and started doing Podcasts for his blog.

Although he sees Jobs as “a great showman. You couldn’t get your eyes off of him … and people believed he could do no wrong,” Elmer believes that successor Tim Cook has removed a lot of the company’s inefficiencies that Jobs had introduced.

Now, he says, “Apple’s making more money than ever before, and it’s become the most valuable company in world. It’s a money making machine,” because Cook has firmed up its Asian supply chain.

Elmer, who last month visited Apple’s $5 billion Campus 2 and its new Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, Calif., displays his Apple watch and his wireless Airpods, which he calls “the coolest,” while admitting “Nothing will ever be like the iPhone was” as a revolutionary “gotta-have” Apple innovation. “To be able to put a supercomputer in your pocket that’s connected to the Internet all the time is an amazing thing. There’s not going to be another device like that for a while.”

Rumors fly that Apple is working on “augmented reality glasses,” as well as driverless-car technology, but he says, “The jury’s out on whether Apple ever is perceived as the winner that people remember under Steve Jobs.”

Yet Elmer the blogger recalls meeting regularly with other New York computer writers as Apple was newly launched.

“We knew it was an interesting beat,” he said. “We used to get together for lunch once a month, and we knew we were onto something, because there was money being made, it was exciting, and we had a sense there was big stuff coming when you got connected. We could see that far ahead. But none of us expected what the iPhone did, basically making the supercomputer available to everybody in world.”

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