Where technology was concerned, my dad liked things that were cheap. He liked things that did what they supposed to do. And he didn’t like being hassled. Anything else, and he’d excommunicate an entire company it forever, even if the quality improved down the road. His victims were marked by derisive nicknames: Internet Exploder; Packard-Hell; America Offline. The man was fiercely stuck in his ways, and his frustrating quirks of consumption became the rule of law for our household growing up.
You see, my dad was a hardware engineer. He didn’t talk much about the work he did, which I think involved designing circuit boards and working on EMVs — those chips we all have in our debit and credit cards. But his real passion was computers: specifically, Windows-based computers. Gadgets have since become my passion, as well as the subject of my livelihood. While dad and I didn’t have the best relationship, since he passed away almost two years ago I’ve gotten enough distance to realise the way his preferences influenced me, for better or worse.
Tinkering runs in my family.
My grandfather would literally dig through his neighbours’ trash cans, take out any electronics like radios, repair them in his basement and keep them for himself. My dad obviously inherited some of that, minus the trash can diving, but he was very money-minded to a fault. Even though we could have afforded a sleek Mac, Dad liked that you could build and upgrade a PC on your own PCs. The right-to-repair discourse around Apple today is largely unchanged from my dad’s gripes 30 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, the first mantra my dad imposed on everyone was (in the voice of Faye Dunaway) No. Apple. Products. Ever!
In high school, when my friends had iPods, I still had a CD Player. In college, when iPhone’s were the hot new thing, I was still rocking a Motorola Razr. Were any of these Apple products bad? No. But even though I may have asked for an iPod as a Christmas gift, my dad’s devotion to any everything PC meant he didn’t give Apple a second glance for the rest of his life. Not having some of the latest gadgets didn’t make me feel completely left out, although it would have been a hell of a lot more convenient to ditch my binder full of store-bought and burned mix CDs.
His hatred of all things Apple extended even to the fruit of its namesake. He told me they gave him headaches as a kid, so he stopped eating them. Still to this day I’m not sure if I believe him.
Two things fuelled my dad’s preference for Microsoft: gaming and the price of PCs. As Windows machines evolved over the 90s, they were cheaper and more powerful than Macs, and for the most part that’s still true. The VGA graphics port and Yamaha’s Ad Lib sound card but PCs were on the up-and-up, and that led to a deluge of games being developed for Windows. My dad liked saving money almost as much as he liked Doom and Quake, and so his OS of choice was mostly a foregone conclusion.
But Windows 95 sealed the deal for my dad. The day that operating system released, he went out and bought a brand new computer with it 95 pre-installed (The old PC was moved into my room.) We were officially a Microsoft Windows household after that. My mum tried her best to guide my dad toward buying educational games for me and my brother, like Catz 4 and Mixed-Up Fairy Tales… but she hated that my dad would let me watch and sometimes play his games: Leisure Suit Larry, Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist, and Duke Nukem 3D. Playing Duke Nukem 3D together was actually the most my dad and I bonded throughout my life. And shooting alien bastards could even be considered educational, if only because it taught me several new and colourful words at age nine.
Being immersed in the gaming world, and being the only one among all my friends who had a good enough PC to play first person shooters still meant I was one of the “cool” nerds, even if all my friends were boys and most girls treated me like I was some kind of freak. (Look at me now, Nicole!)
Maybe it was a sort of elitism, or maybe my dad, being a hardware guy, was just frustrated to be an expert on a subject the entire world seemed to be catching up on all at once, but if he was willing to bite the helping hand of Apple’s hardware, he all but chewed the limbs off Packard Bell for their user-friendly software.
He considered both brands inferior to Gateway, the champion of budget PCs and his favourite. But price wasn’t the real issue: it was Packard Bell Navigator, which was an alternative shell for the Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 operating systems that he hated like poison. It was designed for “computer novices” and he felt like he didn’t have enough control over what he wanted to do with his PC.
Mucking around with similar software, my dad was able to create a game launcher shell for me on our first PC (it could boot to their the standard Windows OS or a DOS menu full of goodies.) He had no need for Packard’s training wheels, and didn’t think anyone else should use them either.
So from the late ‘90s until the mid 2000s, everyone had a Gateway computer in the house. When it was time to get a new one, the entire family took a trip to the local Gateway store (yes, it was a stand-alone store that only sold Gateway computers, as far as I remember) to pick one out in person, and then lug the cowprint boxes back to the car. Packard Bell had left North America by that point for the most part, but even as Dell overtook Gateway in popularity by the mid-2000s, he remained loyal to Gateway.
Their “customer service sucked.” That’s what I remember most where my dad’s opinion of Dell was concerned, another company that was de facto banned from the house.
Many people disliked Dell’s customer service at the time, but my dad had a short fuse and he had little patience for dealing with customer service representatives in general. Some poor, innocent Dell representative told him something he didn’t want to hear, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that person quit their job after getting an earful in return.
He refused to give the company another shot or even look at Alienware gaming desktops and laptops after Dell acquired them. When my PC at the time couldn’t run Star Wars Galaxies, his response was: “Play a different game!” The first strike was that Alienware’s stuff was expensive, but the nail in its coffin was that at some point, a Dell representative on the other end of a phone call had rubbed my dad the wrong way.
Ironically, the last computer he owned was a Dell laptop. It wasn’t anything special. Just something basic so he could access emails and surf the web, but he needed something because his beloved Gateway computer finally shit the bed. This was 2012, so the computer landscape had changed quite a bit, and I think he relented and went with Dell because that was the main computer manufacturer he was familiar with — but I’m sure he wasn’t happy about being forced to moooooooove on. (I’m not sorry for that.)
Many of my dad’s opinions had some grounding in personal experience. But, during the late 90s when the US was finally getting connected to the internet en masse, even I struggle to explain away his choice of ISP.
Those who had AOL as their service provider in 1996 probably remember the time a sizable chunk of the internet crashed… for 19 hours. Six million people were affected, which wasn’t exactly good for what was the world’s largest computer service at the time. It was a huge embarrassment for AOL. The company gave every one of its users a free day of internet, and Steve Case, Chairman and CEO of America Online at the time, issued an apology to customers, explaining what happened.
We didn’t get dial-up internet until 1997 or 1998, that outage was reason enough for my Dad to force our family to stay far, far away from AOL. Given his loyalty to Microsoft, it’s not surprising he signed us up for MSN Dial-up, which later became MSN Internet Access. When I was in high school, the first time he saw me chatting with friends over AIM he asked, “Why aren’t you using MSN Messenger? You know you can’t trust America Offline.” To be fair, AOL experienced plenty more outages; then again, MSN messenger famously went black for a full week in the summer of 2001, which did not affect me at all because I was using AIM.
So that’s how a one-time massive outage turned my dad into an instant AOL hater. That massive fuck-up burned his trust for AOL forever. I don’t remember how much my parents paid to have dial-up internet, but even if AOL cost less than MSN Dial-Up, he would have swallowed the higher cost because he saw it to be the more reliable service.
A lot of the tech-quirks my dad imposed on the household did have a massive impact on what technologies I cling to today. Being brought up by a computer hardware engineer and gamer means I knew the names of every hardware component and how to remove or install them them an early age, and gravitated toward Microsoft and PCs for my entire life.
The rivalries that persist on today — Mac vs. PC; Intel vs AMD etc. — have deep, deep roots, and public opinion is often based on one or two bad experiences. It was silly for my dad to have such staunch opinions about certain brands for so long. Many of those companies would eventually create products that he would have liked. Even Apple. He would have never admitted such a thing even it were true, but his tech preferences formed a core part of his personal identity the same way he never stopped loving the Padres or the Chargers. If you weren’t from San Diego, you might never understand why either, but he was never shy about expressing what he liked and disliked.
The tech rules of his house were definitely annoying. But when I got older, he never tried to dictate what companies I gave my own money to. But by the time I could afford such things, my own tech preferences were almost a spitting image of his: customisation first, price second. I gravitate toward the open ecosystem of Android products. I like the freedom of being able building a desktop from scratch and then overclock the CPU. And you know what? Even though he was a pain in the butt about his preferences (and a pain in the butt in general), my dad did right by me by. Instead of just putting me in front of a computer as a kid, he showed me how to make it my own.