Robert Hampton

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24th January 2014

The Mac: A Look Bac (CC-BY-SA-2.5-it licence) (CC-BY-SA-2.5-it licence)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first Apple Macintosh. There’s a picture of it over to the right. Fans of Apple’s modern designs will probably not be too inspired by the… beigeness of it all. This product predates Jony Ive‘s arrival at Apple by nearly a decade, and Apple’s computers would remain stubbornly in the “beige box category” until the late 1990s.

The computing masses at the time didn’t quite know what to make of it. Instead of a black screen with a flashing cursor, users were presented with something called a desktop, and a strange device called a mouse. Instead of typing commands, you could move a pointer on the screen and click on icons to tell the computer what to do.

It wasn’t, as is often misreported, the first computer to use a graphical user interface or a mouse – Xerox had a product at least two years earlier. Apple themselves had already tried it a year earlier with the Lisa, which failed because of its astonishingly high price point ($10,000!). It was certainly the first to be successfully marketed and sold to consumers.

A lot of people were sceptical that the GUI would be a success. I remember, in my early teens, borrowing an ancient computing book from a library. The book dated from the mid-1980s (at the time my local library had approximately 10 computing books, all out-of-date). While praising the Sinclair QL as a great next generation machine, it mentioned Apple’s new-fangled product only in passing, and dismissed graphical user interfaces as a fad. The author said that the power unleashed by the computer revolution was akin to cars replacing the horse and cart. “Apple,” he said sniffily, “wants us to believe our auto is an oxcart … this can only lead to confusion later on.”

Now, I like dropping to a command prompt as much as the next geek, but typing in commands was very off-putting for the non-geeky user. The favoured PC word processor around this time was WordPerfect for DOS, which needed long sequences of keyboard commands to do anything useful. Pointing and clicking is much more intuitive, and made computers much easier to use. Who could argue with that? Possibly the publishers of the For Dummies books, but that’s about it.

Still, a lot of people were wary of the GUI, and the Mac wasn’t an instant hit. The first machines, with only 128 kilobytes of RAM and a 400 kilobyte floppy drive, struggled to run the memory-hungry Mac applications – a hasty update to 512K was pushed out within months. Thanks to Steve Jobs insisting on silent operation, early Macs lacked a fan, which allegedly caused problems with overheating. For several years after the Mac’s release, it was still Apple’s earlier product, the Apple II, which provided the majority of the company’s revenue. Meanwhile, DOS, and later Windows, became the standard for computing in most businesses. The Mac did quickly find a niche, however, in desktop publishing and art, where the graphical interface and WYSIWYG display were very useful.

Robert's iMacMy own exposure to the Mac was limited until recently. When I was growing up, such advanced computers were well out of my family’s price range; I had to settle for a Commodore 64, and later the cheapest Acorn model, the A3010. A decade of PC conformity followed until late 2012, when I bought my first iMac. (with education discount – thanks Open University!)

It was a big decision – I’d used PCs for years and was comfortable with them. Splashing out £1,000 on a Mac was not a decision to take lightly. However, from the moment that reassuring start-up chime played, I was hooked. OS X took some getting used to (at least until I discovered you can configure the mouse to do PC-style right-clicks) but now, I can’t see myself using anything else. It’s certainly an infinitely more satisfying experience than that offered by Windows 8, which is what I would probably have been stuck with if I’d bought a new PC at that time.

When Steve Jobs wanted to tempt John Sculley away from his job at PepsiCo, he asked him: “Do you want to come with me and change the world?” The Mac’s market share is a less-than-world-changing 13%, however you can’t deny its influence on design (how many appliances suddenly started using coloured translucent plastic cases post-iMac G3?), on computer interfaces, application software (Excel and PowerPoint both started out as Mac applications before being ported back to Windows).

Apple’s fortune these days lies in its iOS devices, and you could argue that, with computing tasks moving onto the web, the type of computer you buy is increasingly unimportant. For now though, the little beige box (which is now a big 27″ flat screen) still has its part to play.

Further reading: Apple’s 30th anniversary web site is as self-congratulory as you’d expect. This blog post by Microsoft employee Steven Sinofsky gives a more realistic overview of those early years.

PS Macs are great, but iPhoto is still terrible.

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