PORTLANDER JIM ABELES is the proud owner of "the world's largest collection of Apple prototypes"—many of which will be on display for Design Week in an exhibit appropriately called Apple Prototype Collection: An Exhibit of Unreleased Apple Products. While the name might come off as a bit clinical, for those who grew up on Apple products, it's an entertaining trip down memory lane, as well as a very interesting peek at "what might have been." The former owner of a small Mac-based software company here in Portland, Abeles has been collecting the prototypes since 2002, and has built a collection 200 pieces strong. He was nice enough to geek out with us on the subject.
MERCURY: Is your collection really "the world's largest" collection of Apple prototypes?
JIM ABELES: It's the largest I know of. There's one guy in Japan and another in Russia who are rumored to have epic Apple collections, including rare prototypes. I've made contact with the guy in Japan, but he wasn't very communicative. And the Russian guy is pretty secretive. That all sounds way more intriguing than the reality of three nerds competing with each other to collect as many Apple rarities as possible.
What got you interested in collecting Apple prototypes?
When I started collecting, it was kind of a nostalgia thing. The first computer I used regularly was a Macintosh Plus. And the first one I owned was an SE—which was a college graduation gift from my parents. Over the years, I regretted selling it. Well, one of the guys I worked with knew I was looking for an old SE and one day he walked into the office with one and handed it to me. He told me it was for sale for one dollar at a Macintosh swap meet. The best part was how he proudly told me he waited until the end of the night and the seller accepted his offer of 50 cents.
That was the beginning of the end. Next thing I knew, I was collecting all sorts of old computers like the WarGames movie IMSAI 8080. The collection was getting out of hand, so I sold off everything non-Apple. But it was still pretty out of control so I decided to focus on Apple prototypes, which I thought were the most interesting. I finally narrowed it down to prototype Apple mobile devices.
Got any obvious faves in your collection?
I think the clear-case items are some of the most interesting. During the prototyping process, Apple would create a handful with a smooth, clear acrylic exterior case. This allowed engineers to see how the internal components all fit together, to do smoke/ventilation testing, and look for stress fractures. The clear cases are some of my favorites—not just because they're so hard to find, but because they often look so cool.
Are there any prototypes where you thought, "Man, this was a terrrrrible idea... but a beautiful idea"?
One that comes to mind is the Apple Paladin, which was also called "Project X." It was a combination telephone, Macintosh computer, fax machine, and scanner that Apple almost released in the 1990s for the home office and hotel room markets. It's got that '90s beige computer aesthetic, but it's beautifully designed, super-compact, and probably would have been really handy.
How did the design aesthetic of Apple differ from other tech companies of the time?
This is where I sound like an Apple fanboy. Most other tech companies had no design aesthetic. Not just in the hardware, but in the user interface. Some periods of Apple history were not that impressive... but even at Apple's lowest points, their industrial and user interface design set the standards for the computer world. Most people, probably correctly, credit Steve Jobs for that.
I get a bittersweet, nostalgic feeling when I look at older Apple products—especially those I previously owned. Am I nuts, or do we develop an emotional attachment to these things?
Totally agreed. Even before the internet, I spent so much time using Apple products for school, work, and personal use. Some of the computers remind me of different parts of my life; a couple remind me of college, a couple of others remind me of jobs I loved. A couple even bring back bad memories of personal or professional periods of my life that were not so great.
Apple Prototype Collection: An Exhibit of Unreleased Apple Products Topaz Design, 1815 NW Overton, Thurs Oct 9, 5-7 pm, free