It started innocently enough. Robin Miller asked me if I'd like to buzz down to San Jose and check out the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, an annual shindig where Jobs and co. spread the gospel to all the Apple faithful, and introduce them to that year's new crop of APIs or standards or "experiences" or whatever it is they're pushing. OSDN was supposed to be a special guest this year, with the advent of the BSD-based OS X, a new age of openness and software freedom was purportedly spreading from Apple's Cupertino headquarters.
This new spirit of freedom was first communicated to me via email forwarded from some Apple minion, which read, in part, "Keep in mind that the person attending MUST sign up with the Apple Developer Connection in order to get the ticket. This means that they will have to go online and agree to the nondisclosure agreement contained in our terms and conditions of membership."
I went to the Developers Connection sign up page, and read the NDA that such special effort was made to draw my attention to. It said, in standard vague legalese, that any information about Apple or any of its products received by a "Registered Developer" may or may not be top-secret, and that no information was to be repeated to anyone, ever, lest this be the case. To be fair, they did specifically exempt information about open source software they might be using.
This didn't bode well. Suddenly the oft-repeated exhortation to "Think Different" took on new and ominous notes of command in my mind. I certainly had no intention of signing a non-disclosure for this. Hell, Newsforge wasn't even paying me to do this. I tried to work my way around it. Robin made a developers account, but the Apple overlords didn't even respond to my requests to issue a ticket to "Robin Miller, Assistant Treleef Woozler for Intergalactic DeOxygenators Inc." Clearly, I was going to have to go about this assignment in a somewhat more unorthodox way.
The conference was from Monday through Friday. It was already Thursday, and I was exactly nowhere. Luckily, I happened to catch a notice in the paper that BattleBots was being taped all weekend out on Treasure Island. Something clicked. My journalistic integrity demanded that I be there. I knew there was a connection here, but what? Where?
"The dwarf had been watching Earle's lips and he had his bird off first, but Juju rose straight into the air and sank one spur in the red's breast. It went through the feathers into the flesh. The red turned with the gaff still stuck in him and pecked twice at his opponent's head."
To get to Treasure Island from the Haight, you take a bus all the way downtown to First and Market. You pass the strip joints and all-night movie theaters, the hulking Virgin Megastore, the old men, freaks and junkies playing chess by the Library. The tourists clustered, shivering in their shorts and tank-tops, in line to ride the cable cars at Powell.
Get off this bus, walk a block down First street to the Trans-Bay bus terminal, and go upstairs. The trans-bay terminal is one of those creepy bus stations that seems more like a wharf than a place for land vehicles. Naked iron girders hold up a translucent roof of corrugated plastic, which filters the foggy sunlight and makes everyone look green and ill. Sit down on the bench next to an enormous transsexual smoking Virginia Slims, and wait.
The bus rattles and clumps halfway over the Bay Bridge, pulling off at the Treasure Island exit, where suddenly everything goes quiet. The roar of lower-deck bridge traffic is replaced with chirping birds and shushing wind through the trees. The feeling of peace and serenity lasts exactly thirty seconds, because that's when you pass the first guard post and realize that Treasure Island is basically one big military base.
BattleBots is a tournament, televised on Comedy Central, in which individuals and teams build remote controlled fighting vehicles and pit them against each other in an aluminum and plexiglass ring called the "BattleBox." Tickets for the preliminary rounds are ten bucks plus bus fare. This is clearly not a big money deal. The venue is what appears to be a small airplane hanger, anomalously placed nowhere near any kind of airport. The military is always doing that kind of thing. Who knows what it's normal use is. We just know it as "Building 180."
There are no signs at all, and the will-call desk is a folding church table. The whole experience reeks of a college band-night, right down to the blue wristbands that designate you a paid ticketholder. It all looked appropriately seedy and dangerous. I went inside.
Earlier in the week, I had read about the new Apple Store in Tyson's Corner VA. As we've come to expect from Apple, it's as sleek an experience as you're likely to get anywhere. It's open and friendly, artsy and cool and restrained. Customers (I have to forcibly restrain myself from reflexively calling them "guests") are encouraged to wander around, play with the hardware, watch the techies at work at the "Genius Bar."
Apple has taken to copying Disney's winning formula of providing fun through corporate fascism. Beneath the clean perfection of both Disney and Apple's corporate images lurk phalanxes of jack-booted lawyers and handlers, carefully spinning and controlling every bit of information to present one unified squeaky-clean face. Disney is about Childhood (TM), and Apple is about Art (R).
I emailed a journalist friend and pointed this out, asked him what he made of it. While conceding that "Apple will always be a creepy company in artsy drag," he also pointed out that artists are always roots-down freaks, and Steve Jobs is an artist, who's canvas is the IT industry. So maybe Apple is run by a "psychotic and paranoid control nazi." Open source darling of the week IBM, he said, is "a patent-crazy industrial drone with whole buildings full of lawyers who can't wait to end the honeymoon. Just wait."
"Juju climbed again, cutting and hitting so rapidly that his legs were a golden blur. The red met him by going back on his tail and hooking upward like a cat. Juju landed on him again and again. He broke one of the red's wings, then practically severed a leg."
Sitting on the hard uncomfortable metal bleachers in building 180, I am reminded of that email. There are no amenities here, unless you count porta-johns and three dollar hot dogs. There are hardly any ordinary spectators at all. The bleachers are filled with violence-prone nerds in robot-related t shirts. Bill Nye isn't on the scene, and there's only one lonely looking cameraman taping the action. These are the preliminary rounds, the rounds where the cheap, the weak, and the pathetic get stomped and go back home to Tucson or the Upper Peninsula and get to work on next year's bot.
But there's no feeling of danger, no edge-buzz, like I expected. There are lots of children here, and no money is changing hands over the outcomes of the matches. Dangerous drunken thugs are nowhere in sight, and the most prominent host is decked out in metal arm-guards and gauntlets, and would almost certainly get hammered to a pulp if he showed up in any self-respecting biker bar wearing that sci-fi crap.
This is the IBM of sporting events. Dumb and mean-spirited, yes, but unabashedly nerdy and unvarnished too. If Apple were a sporting event, it would be a cross between this and the XFL. You'd still have machines bashing each other with stone-age weapons, but they'd be dressed in sleek plastic shells and driven by young men in black turtlenecks and wire-rimmed glasses. Half naked supermodels would strut around the BattleBox whipping the crowd into a frenzy of drooling fury. "KILL!" they'd scream, "BASH ITS WHEELS OFF! USE THE SAWBLADE!" At just the right moment, the laser light show would fire off, inscribing "Think Different" in the smoke-free air above the crowd.
My recollections from the event are a little hazy, and I wasn't keeping notes. The basic format is this: Two robots go into the box, when cued by a drag-race style christmas tree, they surge across the ring at each other and attempt to smash, grind, or pierce the other into oblivion. A robot that can no longer move is declared a knockout, and loses, so many builders opt for a wedge shape, hoping to sneak under a taller lumbering opponent and incapacitate it. There is, unfortunately, nothing less interesting than two wedge-shaped fighting robots blindly ramming into each other for three minutes. At the end, if there's no clear winner, some judges award points, usually to the robot that garnered more crowd interest.
A few matches stick out in my mind. Like the fight where a robot named "Count Botula" was so brutally maimed by its opponent, which resembled Vlad the Impaler's colander, that by the end of three minutes it only had one functioning wheel, and its batteries were dragging by wires behind it. But astoundingly, it was still moving, still trying to clamp down on that pasta strainer from Hell. Every time it got near enough to, it lost some more pieces. By the end, three event staff were in the ring picking up scattered chunks of it. Ordinary people spend hundreds of hours in the garage and thousands of dollars creating these high-tech platforms which carry and deploy, essentially, either clubs, spikes, or sawblades. Attending BattleBots is like watching a Noh drama about the entire twentieth century.
While I was sitting there, it finally came to me. I had to get into the conference, and nothing had worked so far. I had to get the story somehow. I'd just fake it. I'd walk right in and go up to the counter.
"I'm from OSDN," I'd tell them.
"I'm sorry, you don't seem to be on the list..."
"What? How's that? Let me see. Hmm. No, I should be right there between Forrester and Fowler. Dammit, they told me this was all taken care of!"
"Well, if you're not on the list..."
"Ok," I'd say, leaning close, conspiratorially, "I'm not supposed to tell you this, and you have to swear to secrecy..." I'd break off and glance around.
"What? What is it?"
"No, no, I've already said too much. They might have cameras. Shotgun mikes, infrared. Forget it."
"There's no one around. What is it? You can trust me."
"Ok. If this gets out, I know who leaked it." You can always count on a sense of paranoia when Apple's involved. Anyone who's not walking around like a secret agent is either dumb or really scary. "I'm here on orders straight from Steve himself. He wants to make sure that all the developers are getting their proper dose of different thinking. We can't afford to lose anyone! Not one! So I'm here to wander around, make sure everything conforms to the Apple experience."
"Oh, you're making this up."
"Am I? Am I indeed? Well, you can believe that if you want. But I'm not the only one. I can personally guarantee that you've dealt with at least one of Steve's other moles, just today. I've been watching, and don't think he's not watching either!"
At this point, the keeper of passes would tremble with the knowledge that Steve's people are everywhere, all the time. Nothing escapes his steely eye. Nothing. I would be in like Flynn.
I had had enough of robot fighting. These brutes could go on pounding the silicon snot out of each other all night, for all I cared. The next day I was off to San Jose, to fish sleeker waters. To join the sharks.
"Once more the red tried to rise with Juju, pushing hard with its remaining leg, but it only spun crazily. Juju rose, but missed. The red thrust weakly with its broken bill. Juju went into the air again, and this time drove a gaff through one of the red's eyes into its brain. The red fell over stone dead."
San Jose is hot and ugly. The reason there are so many conferences and trade shows there is because no matter how boring or painful the event is, going outside where its not air conditioned is unthinkable. San Jose is the forced-corporate-networking gulag of the United States. Siberia in reverse.
I crawled down 101, through the evil moribund sprawl of the valley, but I hardly even saw it. I was going to get into this conference, despite the lawyers and confusion, and even despite having to go to San Jose to do it. Traffic crept slowly south, four lanes of winking plastic glacier, and when my turn to rubberneck finally came, I saw that the holdup was due to a three-car crash in the northbound lanes. A white pickup had gone into the cement barrier, and ambulances were on the scene. Looming high above all was another of the omnipresent Apple billboards... Martin Luther King Jr. urging us to Think Different. I just hoped no one had been killed.
In San Jose, you can drive for an hour and still be within view of where you started. It's like if LA were jammed into a black hole, and compressed to a tiny, super-dense pinpoint of heat and smog and traffic and bad manners. Every light was red, and car horns were banshees wailing of my impending failure.
I never even found the conference, let alone had the chance to crash the thing. I thought I'd just look for all the convention-goers, but everyone in San Jose looks like a convention-goer. It's a kind of hell as imagined by Tony Robbins. After an hour and a half of this, I admitted defeat, and fled north on 280, back to the blissful fog of the city.
I don't know what the real story of the Worldwide Developers conference was. I never got there. I can't tell you much about Apple's plans for open source, or it's commitment to software freedom. Apple remains, for me, an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in an egg-shaped plastic shell the color of smurf puke. Apple is a fundamentally schizophrenic entity. It is, by turns, open, paranoid, generous, litigious, artsy, and thuggish. It's certainly not the worst company out there, and on bad days, I still think it might be one of the best.
The San Jose feeling of evil was just starting to dissipate when I got to Cupertino, where the 280 goes right by Apple HQ. Another giant MLK mural presides over the freeway, surrounded by the blank stare of turquoise glass and white columns. Apple was still watching me, and I looked right back at it, wondering if behind those blank windows there was cunning and love, or only madness. For better or for worse, looking at Apple is like peering into the future. Hope, fear, beauty and crazed excess, all wrapped in a curtain of possibility.
Right then, though, I didn't care. I flipped it the bird and mashed the gas pedal.