30 years of Macintosh: The little PC that made a big impact

30 years of Macintosh: The little PC that made a big impact

Summary: It was tiny, almost toy-like. And yet what it would unleash on the world would be no less than a revolution in personal computing.

TOPICS: Apple, IBM, Microsoft, PCs

This week, Apple celebrates the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh computer.

The original 1984 Mac means a lot of different things to a lot of people. For me, it was an inflection point that influenced my career path.

For many Macintosh fans, the Mac represents the capital P in Personal Computing, despite the fact that "PCs" have been around longer than even the IBM personal computer and the "clones" that succeeded it and eventually became what we now know as "Wintel".

A key distinguishing factor in the understanding of "personal" for Mac fans is that it doesn't imply "ownership" per se, but that it represents personal expression, the freedom to do things that they could not easily do before or on other computing platforms.

That need to personally express yourself and "think different" has been a core of Apple's key values ever since.

Before the 1984 Mac, PCs were intrinsically geeky. They were command-line beasts of things with big CRT monitors, and they required a much higher level of expertise to actually use than they do today.

The idea of intuitive user interfaces was foreign, as many PC applications, regardless of what operating system they ran on — be it on one of the multitudes of CP/M derivatives that ran on a litany of long-forgotten systems, the Apple II's primitive Apple DOS, or even Microsoft MS-DOS — required remembering arcane commands and key sequences on much more unforgiving applications than we run on personal computers and mobile devices today.

Software programs that we consider to be common line-of-business applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation graphics, let alone desktop databases, had huge, thick printed manuals that you really did need to read if you wanted to get anything done.

An entire computer book publishing industry was born to address those folks who found the manuals intimidating.

Just the act of launching an application on a PC in many cases required an arcane understanding of memory management.

Memory management! Do most of you even reading this even know what that is? You shouldn't have to. That's what the 1984 Mac fundamentally represented: A paradigm shift from being a computer "operator" to becoming an "end user".

Before the 1984 Mac, PCs were intrinsically geeky.

It's certainly true that the 1984 Mac was not the first system to use a graphical user interface (GUI), nor was it even the first one to use a mouse. However, it was the first PC to be released with a GUI that was a commercial success, although not by today's huge volume shipment standards.

Indeed, there were other PCs with GUIs that were released around the same time period, such as the Amiga and the Atari ST, both of which arguably were technically superior from a graphics and sound perspective, as well as being significantly less expensive products at the time.

But none have left such a lasting impression as the 1984 Mac.

The original 1984 Mac, at $2,495, was as divisive in the technology industry and among consumers and small businesses as modern Macs are today. You either loved the thing or you didn't. Some of us actually hated it.

As a 15-year-old budding PC enthusiast, and as teenagers are often predisposed to do when they have their own biases, I dismissed it, because I couldn't possibly see how such a diminutive little thing with a tiny screen could be used to do real work.

This was a shared sentiment among the general population using PCs, as well. The Mac never achieved a dominating market share, but it established a loyal following among creative types, especially in the music and graphical design and desktop publishing industries, particularly when portability was a concern.

You could easily carry a 16.5lb original Mac, in its own special bag, with keyboard along with musical equipment in the back seat of a small car. Try doing that with an IBM PC of the time. Even the original Compaq, introduced a year before, was almost twice the size for a "portable", at 28lbs.

While the TRS-80 model 100 that was released a year before was an underground hit among travelling journalist types, and was much closer in form factor to the laptops we still use today (and is presumed to be the last known product that Bill Gates actually wrote code for), the Mac was effectively the product that put mobile/portable computing on the map.

However, none of those industries had the "killer app" that made the Mac sell in numbers. The app that really made the Mac fly off the shelves was Microsoft Excel, which premiered on that platform, along with an early port of Microsoft Word, in 1985.

It was on the Mac that Microsoft cut its teeth with GUI-based apps. After the Mac, Excel and Word were ported to OS/2 Presentation Manager, and then ultimately Windows. The rest, of course, is history.

In the mid-1990s, the original Motorola 68000-based Mac system was re-platformed on the PowerPC processor. This was followed by a complete re-envisioning of the product line using software DNA inherited from the NeXT Inc acquisition, which included Steve Jobs' return to the company, in the form of Mac OS X, which premiered in 2001.

This was followed by yet another re-platforming of the product line to Intel x86 processors in 2005, making the Mac a "PC" not only in the generic sense of the word, but sharing the same basic systems architecture as well.

Today, modern Macs have very little if any resemblance to the system that established their heritage way back in 1984. But the legacy the original Mac leaves behind is important, because without having taken the step towards popularizing the GUI, friendlier UXes, and pressing the industry to make personal computers smaller and smaller, it is unlikely that the industry would resemble what it looks like today.

Do you have fond memories of the original 1984 Macintosh? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Apple, IBM, Microsoft, PCs


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • I've had several Macs and PCs over the years, as well as others

    The closest I ever had to this original model was a Mac Plus.

    I had enjoyed all my various computers. The TRS-80 allowed me to get really good at BASIC programming. The Commodore PETs looked really nice, and had wonderful keyboards. The IBM PC Jr. I had introduced me to the wonder of disks, as opposed to tape.

    But the Mac was just something else. It was fun to use. You weren't afraid of what you did with it (well, at least until the first time you hit enter and renamed a system file to nothing, that rant video was right about that.) And with something like Word for Mac and Aldus PageMaker it was a real dream... you could create things with it, not just add numbers. That was the real magical moment for me, when you could create finished fully typeset documents.
    • Remember when my Jr. High built its Mac lab...

      ..replaced a bunch of typewriters with Mac Classics and an SE-30 server. Had Word installed on it as well as a nifty desktop publishing program called "Ready-Set-Go". Coupled with the first laser printer I'd ever used, I was pretty impressed. Didn't realize at the time what a revolutionary system I was working on, but thinking back to what was available before then (Apple IIe's running The Print Shop and ImageWriter dot-matrix-printers), it was a pretty significant step up, and with very little time spent learning the new programs.

      Ahhh memories... :)
      • Laser Printer

        Seeing a WYSIWYG document with multiple fonts and graphics go from the screen on a Mac to the output bin on a Laser Printer was, for me, like the australopithecus reaching out and touching the monolith in 2001. I knew I was in the presence of a technology so advanced that, to call on the cliche, it was indistinguishable from magic in my eyes!
        • We had the ImageWriter

          it was like reaching out and touching the accounting department...
        • Clarke

          Awesome, a double reference to Arthur C. Clarke!
    • My first one was Apple IIE

      I learned UCSD Pascal on that. :) I used it until I got PC/XT.
      Ram U
    • There are times

      As a Windows user that I miss my old pre-OSX macs - I had a 6116CD and an 8100 tower that I had installed a G3 upgrade card in. I went with Windows because I was tired of waiting a year to get the latest games on it while my windows friends had already moved on to something else.
  • Tetris

    Tetris on a Mac Plus will always be the gold standard of Tetris experiences for me. I've played the game on PCs, GameBoys, tablets, arcade machines and consoles, but nothing comes close to the joyous, satisfying feeling of tapping those keys and ushering those falling tiles into position that an old Mac Plus provides.

    My first Mac was a Powerbook 100, that I bought during a student discount/sale on my last year as an undergrad in college. I owned Macs exclusively for a few years after that. Eventually I drifted back to PCs, but there will always be something magical about Apple and its products.
  • Have to disagree with you. The

    killer app for the Macintosh was Postscript and Aldus Pagemaker. It literally reinvented the publishing industry.
    • Yes, must agree with your opinions.

      Mac's Desktop Publishing software and hardware ecosystem even allowed the Mac to survive it's lean years before OS X and iMacs came online and the Mac enjoyed a rebirth as an important hardware platform system.
    • Mac Changed The World

      Desktop Publishing, postscript, pagemaker........... Did you forget Illustrator & Freehand? Did you forget Filemaker & McWrite? I built my first Macintosh from an article in the Computer Shopper, but built an SE instead of a Plus, and found that nothing applied! I was on my own........... An SE with a Cornerstone Full Page Display in a PC case...... a very expensive and worthwhile project. It was the first computer I had that made me money!
      You didn't need a manual for anything........... A menu structure that made sense, fonts that were common to all programs, drivers that worked across the entire system, and a memory management system that made sense...... None of that absurd "expanded and extended" memory Dos was saddled with. No more opening a program like Word Perfect or 123, and having to get out the book to figure out how to close it, much less do anything in it. \
      I well remember walking into the insurance office and finding the secretary struggling with how to do a mail merge in Word Perfect using a Filemaker database................. A stack of books on the desk, she'd spent hours trying to figure it out. Something I'd never done or even thought about before. I went home and launched Filemaker (which I still use a Windows version of running under WINE on Linux)...... I'd never even started Filemaker at that point, and within 15 minutes, I'd built a database with about 20 records. Having heard the words "tab delimited file & comma delimited file", and knowing that these were needed, I determined how to export to a tab delimited file.......... It took only a couple of minutes as the menu system was easy to use. Going into McWrite II, I created a document, and again learned from the menu system how to link to my tab delimited document and to insert fields. Within about 30 minutes from sitting down, I was printing 20 letters as a test............ and hadn't even looked at a book.
      Try that with a DOS system! It took MS 6 years to get their heads out of their collective asses..... and then another 5 to come up with a decent version of windows............ Really until XP Windows was pretty pathetic.
    • Yes - PageMaker and the LaserWriter made the Mac

      In those days, spreadsheets had launched PCs into offices around the world, but that was Lotus 1-2-3 running on IBM compatible PCs. Excel on the Mac didn't have much of an impact against Lotus. The company I worked for bought a couple of Apple Macs and a LaserWriter specifically for desktop publishing, having had IBM PCs for accounting spreadsheets for a couple of years. That was the Mac's unique niche for several years.
  • Labeling Apple breakthrough products as toys has been a time honored

    tradition among the PC crowd.

    To quote Jason today, "As a 15-year old budding PC enthusiast ... I dismissed it, because I couldn't possibly see how such a diminutive little thing with such a tiny screen could be used to do real work. "

    Even Wikipedia cites this phenomenon in their Macintosh historical summary. To quote a Wired piece cited in Wikipedia's Mac entry, "When it debuted, the Mac impressed some, but many were unmoved. It was widely demised as childlike and trivial: a toy."

    In fact, when one researches early reviews of Steve Jobs inspired Apple products, the consistent theme has been that they are overpriced toys.

    The iPod, certainly the iPhone and of course, the iPad, have all been labeled toys by some of the most influenctial tech pundits around. It's a common occurance.

    Which leads me to speculate that when and if Apple starts to innovate again (there has been "some" speculation that Apple has lost it's ability to do so - grin), and releases a new product, that if tech pundits label it a toy than - oh boy - watch out. It will be sure to be widely successfully and inspire similar products from other vendors.
    • Toys..

      Yeah,, Unix is definitely a "toy" OS.. Any computer with 8 gigs of Ram and a Unix core OS that can run linux, windows and OSX is definitely a "toy" OS .. i agree with you wholeheartedly...
      Why get that when you can get a "real" PC running windows 8 with 4 gigs ram ....
      Nick Ettema
  • Does anyone remember the "Test Drive a Macintosh" promotion?

    Or did anyone reading this comment actually take advantage of that promotion?

    I remember taking home (for a day) a promotional Macintosh system from a small rural Apple computer store located Northern Michigan. I couldn't believe I could actually do that. It was so cool at the time.

    However, it is said that many dealers disliked the promotion since quite a few Macs were "... returned in such a bad condition that they could no longer be sold." As cited in Wikipedia.

    I, however, returned my borrowed Mac in great condition (grin) after experimenting with Microsoft Word and Excel along with Mac Paint for a day.

    It was decades later that I actually purchased a Mac system for myself, an iMac G5, which still works although it is very seldom used today - having been replaced by newer Mac systems.
    • Check out

      Our library had Macs that you could check out and take home. Did that once and was only disappointed that I couldn't draw the Geisha girl like you saw in all the ads.
  • Definitely changed the way I coded

    I was just graduating high school when the Mac came out. I admit that dismissed it as well, not understanding how anyone could get anything done without have command-line access to the underlying functionality!

    Later on, about the time that the first color Macs came out when I was in undergrad, I became a confirmed Macintoid and did about 50% of my coding on it. For me, the biggest initial hurdle had been wrapping my head around event loops (the core of any GUI). It seemed magic to me, didn't resonate with me, and it was frustrating that I couldn't understand what was going on. Weirdly enough, it was HyperCard that fixed that for me, as it more-or-less forced you to understand the model (and I programmed a lot in HyperCard when I wasn't using ThinkC). I ended up as the Mac expert in my lab in grad school, something I wouldn't have predicted just a couple of years earlier.

    My favorite Mac memory is probably when I first encountered GUI debuggers, again using ThinkC. Breakpoints? Variable examination? While actually running the program, are you kidding me? I thought I'd died and gone to heaven; I'd never conceived of such a thing!

    I stopped using Macs after System 7 (alas, my poor little Centris, how I miss ye) since after I arrived at MS, it was more useful for me to be on Windows, but there's no doubt that the Mac played a formative role in my growth in the areas of computers and programming.
    • That brings back memories!

      I still have my Inside Macintosh books.
    • remember code warrior?

      Don't miss it. I Am happy with Xcode :)
  • Still have the original 128K Mac...

    …but the video board is busted. It's probably that infamous component (flyback transformer or something like that) that croaked quite frequently. Got the Apple carrying case that I used to carry the Mac back and forth to work in. I bought the unit in January, 1985. Other than the little $100 Sinclair computer that used a TV as a monitor, the Mac was my first computer. It's been nothing but Macs for me since then. I'm probably one of the three people on the planet who has never owned a PC. Of course, I was forced to use them at work, but never owned one. :)