As people who read this blog know, a few years ago, I got involved in a new project at Apple, which has been quite successful for the company. It’s also a project that’s been under a bit of a cone of silence, which has sometimes led to amusingly convoluted postings where I attempt to talk about what’s going on without actually discussion what it is I’m talking about.

I’ve been talking to my business team about this, on and off, and whether this hardcore secrecy is still really necessary or relevant now that the project is maturing. We’ve all finally come to an agreement, with some appropriate restrictions, to open up the kimono a bit, since there’s some really interesting technology involved. I’m hoping to work on a paper for an upcoming comference, hopefully next year’s Etech by O’Reilly.

Until then, this will have to do.

You see — I run the Reality Distortion Field.

Yes, that one.

The RDF has a long history at Apple. It was invented by Steve Wozniak one rainy sunday in 1982 when he was trying to extract a stuck piece of toast from a toaster, and forgot to unplug the thing. At first, he didn’t realize what he had; when he woke up, he took it to a repair shop. There, the repairman offered to fix it for half price — and Wozniak realized something strange was going on.

Soon, he and Steve had figured out what was going on — the RDF affects brainwaves of those within it’s effect field. It’s a really interesting effect: it doesn’t influence how a person thinks, and it can’t make a person change their mind or believe something they know to be false: it merely reduces a person’s prejudices and preconceptions, and makes them more amenable to new ideas. To, well, thinking different. But ultimately, and this it a crucial point — whether you accept an idea is up to you. It just enhances your willingness to listen. If you aren’t; nothing happens.

The original RDF was obviously an analog system. It had all of the problems analog systems tend to have: it was sensitive to environmental conditions, it was hard to set up so it would work reliably, it’s field of effect was limited (and impacted by the square of the distance, meaning you needed to be very close to the source for it to be very effective), and operating the beast took a skilled hand. Most people couldn’t get the field to operate at all, much less operate over a wide area.

Steve, of course, was a natural.


As Apple grew, however, the RDF struggled to keep up.

It took more and more people to operate the machine.

It used more and more energy.

It had to be close to the audience, and it frankly wasn’t very portable. Ever wonder why Steve liked to use Flint Center?

And occasionally — we had our little mistakes.

Eventually, the engineer who kept the RDF running for Steve retired.

You could tell, just from looking at him, what the strain of trying to tame that beast for Steve had cost him. Others took up the challenge, but the RDF just wasn’t the same, or as reliable.

And, of course, you know what that meant to Apple, and to Steve.

But a few years ago, I was working with Guy Kawasaki on EvangeList and we were wondering what future (if any) Apple still had. We were talking to some of the hardware engineers, and they mentioned this new technique they were experimenting with — it’s somewhat similar to what disk drive manufacturers are starting to do — embedding data bits vertically on the hard disk medium to increase data density. Only in this case, they had come up with a way to use quantum mechanic techniques to embed a second data packet onto a TCP packet by stuffing it (more or less) vertically in between the bits that are being sent out across the network horizontally. The interesting thing was that this second packet, which took up no extra space, could hold either digital or analog information in it, and is completely undetectable except to a device built to read the quantum packet.

The engineers saw this as a way to do real-time data compression on networks.

We saw it as the possible salvation of company. If we could make it work.

It took some doing — but it happened. We could, if we had enough hardware, insert RDF analog packets and distribute them globally. Easier said than done, of course, because those packets have to go somewhere, and once they get there, be decoded so they can be released.

so all we needed to do was create a piece of hardware that included the network interface that included the decoder, and convince people to buy them. And then convince the owners to connect to Apple and accept the packets.

That, of course, turned out to be the easy part. A Unix box has the networking we needed, and we could build an ethernet interface that would decode these quantum packets but which wouldn’t look different from other interfaces. And Unix has one thing we could use to distribute these quantum packets:

Network Time. If you look in your system preferences panels, in the the date & time section, you’ll see how Mac OS X boxes (and OS9 boxes before them) connect to Just about every Apple computer in the world connects to; and every packet sends has a quantum RDF packet inserted into it.

Somehow, Steve got wind of the project. Copland was dead, everyone inside Apple knew that it’d died on the table long ago. If we could create a reliable (and global!) Reality Distortion Field again, he knew he could save Apple. But not from the outside. He needed control of the RDF again.

Gil Amelio never knew what hit him.

That didn’t get the hardware out into users hands, but it was a start. We retrofitted the time code into the existing OS and started building better networking cards with our quantum functionality. Steve and Jonathan Ive went to work on the iMac. Apple went to work on Mac OS X. It was a slow process, but we knew it would be. WIFI was a godsend, of course, because people would bring their own personal quantum-packet-decoders and sprinkle them through audiences for us. Whenever, wherever Steve spoke, these packets would be flying around. As Apple turned around, and more people owned Macs and converted to Mac OS X, more people would find themselves in an RDF field. As more people entered these RDF fields — Steve’s ability to convince them to try OS X and Apple increased.

And this is an important part: the Reality Distortion Field is not, and never has been, about making people buy Apples. It doesn’t. It can’t. If OS X were a crap product, it would have failed, and so would have Apple. All RDF has ever been about is giving Apple a fair shot in a world where Apple was fighting a dominant monopoly, and trivialized by IT organizations that put maintenance of the bureaucracy over serving their user’s needs. All it did was give Apple a fair chance with people willing to be open minded.

The actual creation of these quantum packets is still a carefully held secret — as you might imagine, not everyone would use them for good the way Steve has. One can only imagine if the Soviets had figured out how to do this. Or Pat Robertson.

So for now, this is a technology Apple won’t be releasing into the wild. We hope to, some day. But with OS X’s success in hand and the Intel transition well in hand — we’re starting to question the need for the RDF, and we may well shut the project down. Or repurpose it to other causes, if we can agree on what might be appropriate. After all, for the RDF to be successful, it has to be a true cause, just one that needs a little more open mindedness. a willingness to, well, Think Different.

Until then….