Apple’s Macintosh computer turns 30

Original 1984 128k Macintosh computer. (Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2014 – It’s hard to believe. But it was thirty years ago this month, on January 24, 1984, that the upstart business then known as Apple Computer Inc. launched its radical new Macintosh computer, “the computer for the rest of us.”

With its debut trumpeted by a now-legendary, one-time-only, Orwellian “1984” themed Super Bowl TV commercial, Steve Jobs’ baby, the original 128K (kilobyte) Mac in many respects really did change the world over the years. Even so, its original model, along with its quirky profile, was roundly ridiculed at the time as a toy by geekier PC users still infatuated with the efficiency of the “C:/” prompt.

Aside from its profile, what was so different about the Mac? It was the first personal computer (PC) for the masses that employed a graphical user interface (GUI) rather than a dull, inscrutable green or amber screen that required at least some functional computing knowledge to unlock its secrets and its usefulness.

In addition, the Mac’s interface employed, for the first time, a new device whimsically called a “mouse.” Rolling it around on a “mouse pad” moved a pointer or “cursor” over its pictorial screen. Clicking its button once or twice opened command menus or permitted a user to create simple black and white graphics right on the screen.

Tiny onscreen pictures or “icons” let you know which program or document you were about to open. And if you created a lot of documents, you could “drag and drop” them into a graphical “file folder” icon, creating drawers of files very similar in function to paper documents and files in a physical office. If you no longer needed a given file or file folder, you could simply drag and drop it on a trashcan icon, click on an “empty trash” menu pick, and the file or files would vanish.

All this action occurred on a visual, virtual “desktop” completing the onscreen office metaphor, which made it dramatically easier for a non-computer engineer to harness the real power of the Mac, a real leap of genius.

It’s well known, of course, that Apple didn’t exactly invent the graphical user interface. The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) had been experimenting with the same capabilities in the previous decade, and it was during a visit there that Jobs second-handedly got his greatest early idea.

Ironically, like many slow-moving corporate behemoths, Xerox’s forward-looking computer technology went nowhere, as upper management regarded PARC’s new WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) interface as an interesting idea but one with little practical use or profit potential. It was left to Jobs and Apple engineers to develop the first commercial product based on this innovative interface.

Xerox’ attitude was similar to the way IBM ceded the operating system of its new PC line to an inconsequential little software firm known as Microsoft, since it saw little profit opportunity in owning a PC operating system.

Both blunders are now business legends. Today, both upstarts, Apple and Microsoft, are considerably larger and more consequential companies than either Xerox or IBM.

The original Apple Macintosh spawned another key innovation, this time involving a completely new kind of output device. While crude dot matrix printers were still in wide use in personal and business computing in the 1980s, the Mac inspired an equally user-friendly Apple device that provided another great leap forward: the Apple LaserWriter, a black and white printer that produced crisp, clear print and images. These paper images, as professional-looking as copy coming from a print shop, could be used for business and personal communications or as camera-ready copy to be sent to a printer.

The Apple Macintosh and LaserWriter combo’s greatest leap forward, however, at least in early iterations, proved to be a profound leap forward in the printing and communications businesses. The pair of machines offered to an entrepreneurial user the ability to acquire the “means of production” at a radically reduced cost when compared to the startup costs required to set up a printing company. In the twinkling of an eye, “desktop publishing” had been born.

Coming in at a still comparatively rich price point—an original Mac or Mac SE plus LaserWriter, MacWrite and MacDraw software could run close to $10,000—an enterprising individual could put together endless amounts of attractive, camera-ready copy. The commercial equivalent might require leasing a large building plus acquiring associated equipment and presses running close to half-a-million mid-1980s dollars.

Success stories are not always linear, however. Not long after the Mac was first unveiled, Jobs was unceremoniously ousted from the company he had co-founded by a new CEO and board who regarded him as a talented, visionary nuisance with an obnoxious, driving personality and no eye toward profitability. The Mac had not been a smashing sales success, at least initially, and Jobs paid the inevitable price.

Over the years, even as cheaper PCs gradually ate into the Mac’s sales numbers, the machine remained beloved by the non-technical writers, publishers, and artists and schools, all of whom were numbered among the machine’s earliest and most fervent adopters.

Unfortunately, Apple’s post-Jobs leadership failed either to innovate or to appeal to its most loyal audiences, allowing successive versions of the Mac to abandon the original’s quirky look and feel in order to make them look like other PCs. PC sales eclipsed Apple’s numbers in the early 1990s when Compaq (eventually acquired by HP) became the top-selling personal computer brand in 1994. In the meantime, the Mac’s once-innovative operating system became increasingly and sadly antiquated.

By the time Jobs’ second coming was at hand in the late 1990s, Apple was a marginal PC player at best, its business as close to a death spiral as any business can get before declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy and going home.

After reviving the Mac by introducing a weirdly colorful series of gumdrop-resembling PCs re-named iMacs running on a brand-new, Unix-based operating system (OS) whose shell looked and felt just like those beloved old Macs, Jobs and Apple took his obsession with the “look and feel” of a computing device and used it to turn the entire industry on its ear with unexpected new and intensely visual devices.

Apple’s new iPod miniature music players (2001) quickly obliterated the once-ubiquitous Sony Walkman for America’s music-mad young people. Jobs took aspects of the iPod to the next level with its groundbreaking iPhone (2007). And, last but not least, he and Apple invented the new iPad (2010), essentially a hand-held visual computer that at last fully realized the potential of the company’s early, ill-fated Apple Newton device dating from the early, non-Jobs 1990s.

Apple’s new products remained children of its Mac OS, all sharing the look and feel of the original device. Rather than displaying a lack of ingenuity, these virtually identical interfaces made it infinitely easier for users of each new product—most of whom, initially, had been Mac fans—to get the hang of these tiny new mobile computing devices.

While Apple built on its tradition of innovation, the competition has never been far behind, seeking to steal a bit of Apple’s thunder by introducing cheaper but often not better products to meet consumer demand, often at much lower price points.

But, dating from the 1990s, when Microsoft began to abandon its “C:/” prompt for a crude graphical interface dubbed “Windows,” all computing devices eventually adopted the essential metaphor of Apple’s original 1984 interface. In an odd way, all computers have now become “computers for the rest of us.” But all of them were inspired thirty years ago by Steve Jobs’ funny-looking toy computer that arguably really did change the world.

Happy Birthday, Mac.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17
  • Holy cow, look at that thing. Was it really that square little box? As I type on my sleek MacBook it’s hard to even remember that first Mac. Thanks for reminding me we should appreciate daily just how far we have come.