Decades before changing the world with iPhones and iPads, Apple transformed home computing with the Macintosh.
The friendly desktop machine referred to as the “Mac” and, importantly, the ability to control it by clicking on icons with a “mouse,” opened computing to non-geeks in much the way that touchscreens later allowed anyone to get comfortable with smartphones or tablets.
The Macintosh computer, introduced 30 years ago yesterday, was at the core of a legendary rivalry between late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Thousands of Apple faithful are expected for a birthday party this weekend in a performing arts center in Silicon Valley, not far from the company’s headquarters in the city of Cupertino.
“The Mac was a quantum leap forward,” early Apple employee Randy Wigginton said. “We didn’t invent everything, but we did make everything very accessible and smooth. It was the first computer people would play with and say: ‘That’s cool.’”
Prior to the Jan. 24, 1984, unveiling of the Mac with its “graphical user interface,” computers were workplace machines commanded with text typed in what seemed like a foreign language to those who were not programmers.
Credit for inventing the mouse in the 1960s went to Stanford Research Institute’s Doug Engelbart, who died last year aged 88.
“The Mac’s impact was to bring the graphical user interface to ‘the rest of us,’ as Apple used to say,” said Dag Spicer, chief content officer of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. “The Mac GUI was picked up by Microsoft, who named it Windows.”
The man remembered today as a marketing magician was a terrified 27-year-old when he stepped on stage to unveil the Mac, Apple then-chief executive John Sculley said of Jobs in a post on the technology news Web site CNET.
“He rehearsed over and over every gesture, word and facial expression,” Sculley said. “Yet, when he was out there on stage, he made it all look so spontaneous.”
Apple spotlighted the arrival of the Mac with a TV commercial portraying a bold blow struck against an Orwellian computer culture.
The 1984 commercial directed by Ridley Scott aired in an expensive time slot during the Super Bowl in a “huge shot” at IBM, Daniel Kottke of the original Mac team said.
“In the Apple boardroom, there were strong feelings that it was not appropriate; there was a big battle,” Kottke said. “Fortunately, Steve Jobs and his reality distortion field won the day and it left a strong memory for everyone who saw it.”
There was a drive to keep the Mac price within reach of consumers in a market where computers costing US$10,000 or more were typical.
While clicking an on-screen icon to open a file appeared simple, memory and processing demands were huge for the computing power of that time.
“Every time you move that mouse, you are redrawing the screen,” Kottke said. “It is almost like video.”
The original vision of launching a Macintosh with 64K RAM and a US$1,000 price gave way to introducing one with 128K of RAM at US$2,500.
“Steve really was crazy about details,” Wigginton said. “He wanted everything to be just right. Compared to the IBM PC of those days, it is just gorgeous.”
Macintosh also arrived with a new feature called “drop-down menus.”
“The Macintosh brought a new level of accessibility for personal computing to a much wider market in the same way the iPad did 25 years later,” Kottke said.