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Happy 30th birthday to the Macintosh — one of the most significant developments of the 20th century

24 January 2014

On 24 January 1984, Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh. Thirty years later, it’s hard at first to see what is so special about this computer. It doesn’t look much different to other competing products of the time. Housed in a squat gray box, the original Macintosh has a tiny black and white screen, no built-in storage and limited processing capabilities. It was expensive too – costing $2,495 ($5428 today) — and had very few pieces of software available. Plus it was a flop, selling way below Apple’s original expectations.

But the first graphical personal computer changed how we thought about computers, and arguably, set the course for much of the late twentieth century. The Internet, graphical design, photography, film making, music, smartphones, tablets — all of these were created or disrupted thanks to the boundaries broken by the Macintosh. For the first time, the user experience became more important than raw functionality, achieved by the novel concept of using a mouse to push objects around the screen.

The release of the first Mac came after a huge amount of hyperbole, seen best through the $1 million ‘1984’ advert directed by Ridley Scott. With Orwellian overtones, Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs saw the Macintosh as a flashpoint in technology and his tool for changing the world:

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For Jobs, there was another purpose. Ever since he founded Apple in 1976, he was on a one-man mission to bring down the big beasts of computing: IBM. With ‘Big Blue’ churning out generic machines (powered with Microsoft software), Jobs felt that the Macintosh would be the weapon to slay his bête noire. At the launch of the machine in San Francisco, he said:

‘IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?’

He was right in all three instances, although not necessarily through his own doing. George Orwell wasn’t right about 1984. Big Blue no longer dominates the entire computer industry, nor the entire information age. The chain of events he set off lead to the rise of Windows, the market for personal computer clones and the end of IBM’s dominance.

More so than any other Apple product, the machine was a product of its creator. Jobs worked a small team 90 hours a week for over three years to bring the machine to market. The scale of the challenge was huge, and it often seemed they wouldn’t make it. Back in 1984, there simply wasn’t enough power available to do what he wanted.

Andy Hertzfeld, the man responsible for the first version of Mac OS, has written a brilliant account of how the machine came to fruition Revolution in The Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made. He portrays Jobs as a narcissist, a bully, a manipulator but a visionary who believed the unrealistic could happen. Hertzfeld also acknowledges that no-one else could have created such a revolutionary product.

Jobs once stated all he wanted to do was ‘put a ding in the universe’. That’s exactly what he did with the original Macintosh. He did again with the iPod, iPhone and iPad decades later but all of them originate from that moment in 1984. For proof of that, walk down any street and see how long it takes to spot an Apple device. Happy birthday, Macintosh!

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  • AnotherDave

    As I recall, the iPod was brought to Apple from outside, rather than developed internally.

    • Sebastian Payne

      Sort of – they bought the hardware platform but the final interface and external design was all done by Apple. Much like they did with iTunes and Mac OS X

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Not “sort of”, lad. They went outside their own concept and implementation team to take in outsiders’ work, thus adopting Microsoft’s organic business model and approach, much like they did with graphical user interface, which you also claimed as theirs.

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  • rtj1211

    THe Macintosh was special because it took computers out of the realms of code-writing geeks and into the world of feeling, visual, emotional people.

    To those of us who found handwriting a chore, the word processor was a marvellous invention. To have WISYWYG word processors meant that you could dispense with hiring a secretary to type up your undergraduate final year project and just do it yourself. I did.

    What was so different about the Macintosh was that the user was in control: you clicked icons, the computer asked you questions and responded to your answer.

    AS it turned out, it was the graphic-user-interface that got Apple nerd’s rocks off. They never did produce a great word processor and Bill Gates took the opportunity that was presented to him. He distilled the great business offerings of word processing, slide presentation and spreadsheet calculations into world domination. He added database tools and email as they came along.

    However, Macintoshes were much easier to use in the early days and so they built up strong loyalty in creative industries and the biological sciences. Gradually, Microsoft got a better user interface and Apple’s available applications got better.

    But it was Apple and the Macintosh which opened the world of the personal computer to the world.

    • Chris Morriss

      But Mac products, then as now, target the market led by ‘style over substance’. There are large numbers of people who will buy something if the advertising industry claims that it is “cool”. I’m afraid anything “cool” leaves me feeling somewhat cold.

      • 2trueblue

        They work and that is why they are popular. They do not crash all the time, and who cares if they are cool or not, as my granddaughter says ‘”it works, doesn’t it”? Mine is as old as the hills and is still going strong.

      • monty61

        It’s style AND substance. That’s why they irritate the terminally uncool who think a computing device should only come in identikit beige plastic.

      • flaxdoctor

        Utter rubbish – the reason they ever got a following was because they worked – you didn’t have to be a full-time nerd to get them to do what you wanted them to do. As somebody who struggled and failed endlessly with the evils of DOS the Mac was nothing less than a Godsend to me. They made computing available and accessible. My experience is precisely the reverse of your claim – what Apple offered was substance – the style was completely incidental. But maybe my memory is longer than yours.

      • First L

        Style over substance?

        Have you tried to use a Windows Computer recently?

        Windows has had the following major iterations: 1, 2, 3, 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8. Of those – only XP and 7 have not been utterly farcical.

        Macs simply work. Yes they are stylish, but I can do what I want on them easily. I don’t have to fight the operating system in order to do what I actually need to do. No one would buy them at all if they were stylish but didn’t work.

        • Chris Morriss

          You might be able to do what you need to on them, but as an electronic hardware design engineer, I certainly can’t. Engineering s/w on the Mac is overpriced, difficult to find, and usually a couple of versions behind that sold for the industry-standard platform.

          • jorjun

            I think what you are saying is that the bulk of dull, enterprise software has only been released on the monopoly platform, ie. windoze. Not really an argument against a superbly integrated platform. Very cliched, and very wrong to suggest Apple products are shiny and shallow; and egregious misrepresentation of the truth. Check out the Apple developer guide from the 1980s, look at the way they engineered backward compatibility – even when moving from Motorola to IBM Power PC to Intel. Micros*t couldn’t even manage backward compatibility on the same hardware.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              …apparently, the customers disagreed with you, lad. Check the figures.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            I think that’s what you’ll find in most any technical usage. Mac has always been behind in that regard, although individual users and home users could make do, using it in their niche .

          • First L

            Really? The Mac App Store has transformed getting software full stop. If anything software is now far more expensive for Windows and much more difficult to get hold of as you still tend to need physical copies. If there’s a lack of Engineering SW on the Mac, all it takes is for someone to write some and put it up on the App Store.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              There has always been a lack of software for Mac, for those who do serious work, as the above commenter and many others of us do, in our fields. You apparently are unfamiliar with the magnitude of those sectors of serious work. Trust me, that serious work is what drove the overwhelming dominance of PC. We are working, and we are serious, and we need the tools to do our work. The numbers don’t lie, lad.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      “But it was Apple and the Macintosh which opened the world of the personal computer to the world.”


      No, their volumes simply weren’t sufficient to support that claim, and didn’t even come close to it. You’re correct, that it was the graphical user interface that made the difference in that early era, but it was Windows that “opened the world of the personal computer to the world”, simply because they had leverage to do so, and niche manufacturers had no such leverage. You’ll also find that the (then) crude applications available for Microsoft DOS (Norton “Commander” comes to mind here) provided much of the functionality of graphical user interface, even if Gates himself didn’t spring to it as quickly. Remember, that functionality had been concept and implementation ready for 2 decades by then, and it’d be a somewhat blinkered analysis to credit it to one company as seems to be fashionable in this discussion.

      • jorjun

        Without Apple, informally referred to as ‘R & D South’ in Seattle HQ, doubtful their stack-it-high-sell-it-cheap, leave the engineering as an afterthought, business model would have worked nearly as well.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          I’d refer you to the customers, lad, and the sales figures.

          It’s amusing, that when IBM first entered the PC market in the early 80’s, and made their annoucement, Bill Gates happened to be in Apple HQ. He said the poor Apple folks hadn’t a clue as to what was about to befall them, but he certainly knew. Short years later, the PC platforms had completely swamped them, Mac or no.

          It’s fun to fantasize, but reality and numbers really do mean something, lad.

          • jorjun

            The impact Wall-mart has had on culture is not really the discussion though is it, dude?

            I refer you to today’s market capitalisations:

            Apple – $439 billion
            Microsoft – $233 billion

            Do these numbers mean something, ‘lad’?

            • the viceroy’s gin

              We can talk about today as well, lad, although I’m not all that interested in it right now, because if you notice, the discussion is not about today, it’s about personal computing and its evolution. And the history of that evolution puts the lie to all of your above posts .

              • jorjun

                Your perspective is consumer oriented, clearly. Presumably you think Samsung are currently introducing smart phones to world by stacking them cheap. And they could have pulled this off without Apple’s reference platform. And you’d be wrong about that, too.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  I don’t have a “perspective”, laddie. I merely review the historical record, which puts the lie to what you and the Speccie kid are spewing.

  • pilsden

    Disagree it was windows lotus,spreadsheets and word that changed the way we did things without the IBM Pc leading the way with lower cost business machines Apple would have been a niche product and struggled to gain mass.IBM screwed themself up as did Xerox all on their own

    • Sebastian Payne

      IBM would have had no incentive to produce a graphical computer without Apple. WWW wouldn’t have worked without a GUI. Xerox indeed completely screwed themselves by not producing their own Mac-esque computer

      • the viceroy’s gin

        What is this “graphical computer” you’re speaking of, lad? One presumes you mean to say “graphical user interface”. If so, you might be interested to know that the concept had been available at least 20 years before 1984. And actually, it was Xerox that produced the first graphical user interface commercially, years before Apple.

        Not to take anything away from Apple, but you don’t seem to understand this history at all.

        • Sebastian Payne

          I said graphical personal computer – i.e. something created and sold for the consumer market not for niche markets. Xerox produced the Alto in the late 70s but it was never for sale. They eventually brought the Star to market in 1981 (mostly as a proof of concept) but the cost was $75,000 for a system.

          As their systems never took off, Xerox let Apple use some of their patients, which led to the Mac.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            No, you didn’t say “graphical personal computer”, you said “graphical computer” (both obscure terms having little relevance to what occurred then, in any event), and neither term expresses the crux of what was brought on in that era, which was graphical user interface.

            • Daniel Maris

              Having a bad night VG?

              • the viceroy’s gin

                …what are you blathering about now, lad?

            • jorjun

              The Apple value proposition was never about graphics, but user experience.

              • the viceroy’s gin

                Useless jargon, lad .

        • Hello

          Evidently you’re something of an expert.

          You’ve pointed out an awful lot of things that it’s quite clear from Payne’s comment he understands, which rather suggests that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            No, actually, the kid seems quite unclear on this.

        • HookesLaw

          He actually used the acronym GUI you idiot. And clearly he knows what a big horlicks Xerox made when they fumbled the ball.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            Like you, the kid cluelessly throws around a lot of lingo, lad. And it doesn’t matter that he ran around to Wiki and brushed up on the subject matter, upon being challenged on his confusion. You do that all the time, idiot.

    • monty61

      Rubbish. I think Bill Gates summed it up actually:

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Agreed, the cost of Apple was always going to keep them 2nd choice. The world then had no understanding of personal computing, but wanted it anyway, and was destined to soak up whatever capacity was produced, meaning volume could overwhelm any additional revenues Apple’s inflated price point offered. It was that volume that provided an opportunity for the Apple niche.

      Lotus is the tool that revolutionized the business world, and drove so much of the 1990’s productivity increases. I don’t even know if Lotus is still around today.

      • First L

        I think you’re confusing a few things. Apple being twice as expensive and not inventing office software might have made them second choice in computing for decades. But this isn’t about market share, this is about concept. Steve Jobs, for all his faults, was not an inventor but a refiner and redefiner. He refined and redefined the nature of everything he ever touched and everyone else was always playing catch up. Arguably he is one of the most important people of the last 30 years and the architect of how we will consume and create both today and – far more so – in the future.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          No, I’m not confusing anything, and your post certainly doesn’t address any clarification even if I am.

          If you’re saying it’s about “concept”, then as mentioned, Jobs didn’t provide the concept of the 1984 product being touted in the Speccie kid’s blogpost. Xerox did. In fact, they provided the concept and had it implementation ready, long before Jobs came along. He just played “catch up”, as you put it.

          You can’t say Jobs was a “refiner”, or “redefiner”, while also saying he was an “architect” of something or another. The terms aren’t mutually exclusive, but they approach that.

          I think you’re probably a bit dreamy as to the “how we will consume and create” business, as to it being attributable to this one guy. The leverage of PC provided guidance as to how we’d consume computer products, clearly, and as Jobs didn’t really “create” anything, but rather synthesized others’ creations into consumer product, you can’t really claim that he provides a model for “creation”. I wouldn’t even say that your claim is valid even when confined to the realm of personal computers .

          Historically, most product creation flows just as personal computers did, if you look at it. It’s a collaborative and mutually supportive effort, directly and indirectly, and ideas flow around and back and through. Henry Ford may have popularized the assembly line, but he obviously wasn’t the first to play with it. It’s a cool story here with Jobs, especially that television commercial, but so are any other number of consumer products.

          • jorjun

            You seriously underestimate the difficulty of the challenges that Jobs took on. As if ‘concepting’ a trip to Mars, is more than 0.5% of the task at hand…

            • the viceroy’s gin

              You seriously don’t understand technical terms. As mentioned above, Xerox had graphical user interface implementation ready, long years before Jobs took the concept from them, and attempted to turn it into his own version of implementation ready, some years later.

              You don’t appear to understand the term concept, either.

              • jorjun

                If you see any equivalence between a graphical mouse demo & and a consumer operating system, there’s a bridge I would like to sell you.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  You don’t seem to agree with what Apple was hawking in the above video that Jobs was hawking .It wasn’t his operating system, lad .

          • jorjun

            Truism: no shortage of ideas, always a chronic shortage of implementation. The painstaking art of operating software development and hardware integration, is something with which you are practically unfamiliar I would place a bet on it. And since only Nintendo & Apple have ever pulled it off – it would be an easy bet.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              Right, and the customer disagreed with you. I guess you know more than they did .

        • Chris Morriss

          “First L” stated:

          “Arguably he is one of the most important people of the last 30 years”.
          Oh my, what a Troll eh? Please don’t make silly statements; it annoys me and makes you look like a Guardian reader.

          • First L

            He has transformed personal technology. Without him it is arguable we would not have digital media. Remember, Sony owned the CD and DVD and were highly invested in keeping people paying £20 for one of them. Without him we would not have tablets. Without him we would not have Google Glass. He changed the game in this regard.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              Sorry, but this is just hyperbolic fantasy, and messiah-ism. The historical record doesn’t support your hyperbole, as mentioned above.

    • HookesLaw

      Correct the spreadsheet was the killer app. It should be said that Apple brought desktop publishing to the masses as well.

      IBM only played at the ‘PC’ market. They did not understand it. They did not even realise what a great brand name they had.
      The man behind C/PM did not know what he had and left the suits from IBM hanging around when they came to licence his system. The man behind DOS did not know know what he had when Microsoft bought his system. IBM did not know what Microsoft had when they went to them and allowed DOS to develop open architecture which created all the PC clones.

      Xerox did not know what they had when they allowed Steve Jobs and Apple to use their Windows Icons Mouse Pointer interface. IMB did not know what was going on (again) when they allows Microsoft to develop Windows (and Excel and Word behind their backs, thinking they were all committed to OS2.

      No one knew what they were doing. I suppose its called evolution.

      • Alexsandr

        I think you should have emphasised IBM giving DOS to Microsoft, DOS evolved into windows which is on most personal computers today.
        That was the 2nd massive shift in computing
        (The first was Turing & Flowers creating Colossus @ Bletchley Park).

  • monty61

    Happy days and an anniversary worth celebrating.Bought my first Mac, the then-newly released Mac Plus, in 1986, cost a bomb but changed my life utterly (and those of many others).

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