HAL Freezes Over
Feb 1, 1999
After a 14-year hiatus, Apple made a reappearance yesterday during America's biggest televised sporting event of the year — the Super Bowl — when it reintroduced HAL to a TV audience of well over 100 million. But this momentous return was almost not to be, because Apple had originally put the freeze on HAL until the eleventh hour. What happened?
Knowing Jobs' penchant for delivering surprises, he would never have introduced HAL at the start of his MWSF keynote address had it not been true that Apple had already previously cancelled the Super Bowl slot. (Apple reportedly sold the slot back to Fox only in Jan '99, according to the San Jose Mercury News.)
The reason is obvious: the element of surprise would be gone and that would have dampened the impact the HAL ad would have had otherwise. That he did in fact unveil HAL on Jan 5 at the Moscone Convention Center — added to the fact that the ad was then available for downloading on the Apple website for three whole weeks — was a clear sign that the decision to pull the ad out of its 60-second slot during yesterday's Super Bowl was taken shortly before MWSF. A case of "Well, since we're not gonna be using it for the Super Bowl..."
So why was HAL initially pulled out? It is unlikely we'll find out the real reasons anytime soon from within Cupertino itself, if ever. Hence what you're about to read is pure conjecture.
My first reaction was that Apple had decided initially to pull the plug on HAL not for any other reason than the very theme of the ad itself — the Y2K issue. And I believe this decision may have been taken prior to Jan 5 1999, before Steve Jobs' keynote address at MWSF '99.
Firstly, it came as no surprise that within months of his return to Apple, Steve Jobs had quickly set into motion the plans for Apple's return to the Super Bowl after 14 long years, even deciding on the theme in the process. In itself, I think most people would agree that the Y2K issue was extremely relevant and would give the Mac a definite edge over PCs. And it probably still looked good when the storyboards came out and when the actual ad was finally produced sometime last summer. As it turned out, the intervening months before Super Bowl XXXIII gave Apple plenty of time to contemplate on the ad, and that's when the doubts and second-guessing usually begin to arise.
As eager as they seemed to have HAL repeat the feat of the legendary "1984" ad, Apple must have been equally concerned about the possibly negative fallout that HAL might have because of its inherent theme — the Millenium Bug. They certainly would not have forgotten about "Lemmings". This is no longer an ad about Macintosh versus its rivals anymore. Now it's about Macintosh and the rest of the PC world confronting a common threat. The only thing is, only the Macintosh camp seems confident of coming out of it totally unscathed.
Okay, that's all very good for the Mac camp, but what will the general public reaction to HAL's message be? Will HAL be another "1984" or another "Lemmings"?
Things were a little different back in 1984. Then, the use of personal computers had still not quite caught on with the masses, and so there lay before Apple and its rivals a vast market that was as yet untapped. Apple realized then that product differentiation was crucial in order to make the Macintosh stand out from the crowd. And that was precisely what the "1984" ad achieved: it branded the Macintosh name into the public consciousness through 60 seconds of powerful surrealistic imagery.
The "1984" ad was inherently fictitious, pitting one defiant sledgehammer-wielding individual (who clearly personifies Apple) against The Established Order. There is little about the ad which is intrinsically connected to the real world, yet to the average viewer, the subliminal message is so strong as to be unmistakeable — the Mac gave you the power to be yourself.
Although HAL is a character borrowed from Stanley Kubrick's grand sci-fi epic, "2001: A Space Odyssey", his message in the minute-long commercial is very real. The whole premise behind the "HAL" ad was that the Macintosh was designed from the very onset to recognize the year 2000, whereas all but the most recent of other PCs were not, and the latter would thus be likely to encounter varying degrees of malfunction when Y2K arrives — if not sooner.
For the moment, whether Apple's claims of its own invulnerability are valid or not is really immaterial, as it doesn't change the fact that the ad nevertheless sounds like an ominous warning not just to Apple's competitors, but to economies as a whole, since the vast majority of industries, businesses, and even governments are still very much stuck with non-compliant systems, even as armies of technical experts around the world are fighting against time to debug these systems. Depending on who you ask, some experts will say it's already too late, and that it was now essentially a very expensive (read $600 billion) damage-control exercise to alleviate the havoc that will be caused by the Y2K bug. To all and sundry in the PC world, it is truly a message straight from HAL.
Perhaps too Apple's iCEO was trying to live up to his own words. Many of you will recall that shortly after his return to Apple, Jobs had pronounced on one particularly significant occasion: "For Apple to win, it doesn't mean that Microsoft has to lose." Maybe it was in that same benevolent spirit that Apple realized its responsibility to think long and hard about whether airing "HAL" was the prudent thing to do. It had to be sure that the ad would not come across as if Apple were taunting the PC world "You lose."
However, Apple did not count on the overwhelming response to the ad that was to come from within the Mac community. Up till the day it was taken off the website, "HAL" had chalked up over 250,000 downloads in all. That alone convinced Apple to cast aside their own doubts and go back to the original plan of giving HAL his 60 seconds of airtime during Super Bowl XXXIII.
As to whether HAL should have been kept a secret before the Super Bowl screening, well if these speculations are anywhere near the mark, that would have been the case, would it not? Still, it is always helpful to know what the general consensus is, hence the on-going poll conducted on The iMac NewsPage (which closes on Feb 2, 9am GMT). As of this moment, about 55 percent of the 500-odd respondents to the poll agree that Apple should have kept HAL under wraps until it was due to be unveiled during the big game itself.
Finally, I have one last thought on the matter which I would like to share with you. While your Macintosh may be safe from the Y2K bug, the same may not necessarily be true for all software (read about it here). Furthermore, unless you're in a different planet, networks are pretty much a part of computing these days, with the Web being the mother of them all. I personally wouldn't be so smug and think that come Jan 1 2000, absolutely nothing will happen to my Mac.
If you are interested to know more about Y2K issues, this is about the most comprehensive resource site on the subject I know of: Gary North's Y2K Links and Forums - Main Categories Page.
Here's another: Peter de Jager's Year 2000 site.
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