Memorable beginning, lasting influenceIs Apple still relevant? Of course it is. Steve Jobs was 2003's top silicon.com Agenda Setter and the Macintosh has had a lasting effect on computing. Nico Macdonald explains what the Mac has done for us...
On 24 January 1984 Apple launched its Macintosh computer with what is possibly the most famous advert in history. Ridley Scott's Big Brother parody of IBM was screened only once, during the US SuperBowl. As usual with Steve Jobs-style rhetoric there was a lot of hype. But in this case his famous 'reality distortion field' was unnecessary.
Less celebrated but more insightful were the print ads Apple also ran, in which it advocated the computer 'for the rest of us'. "Since computers are so smart", the copy ran, "wouldn't it make sense to teach computers about people, instead of teaching people about computers?"
This sentiment still sends a tingle down my spine, even though the then novel concept of user-centred design is widely accepted today. I first came across the Macintosh at Cornell University in upstate New York in late 1984 but didn't get to grips with one until almost two years later during an internship in Washington D.C. In the intervening years Apple has continued to inspire me with innovations and risk-taking, and it has also shocked with its ignorance and its not-invented-here attitude.
In the day-to-day of the IT industry, much changes, but most change is minor, and it is easy to miss the seismic shifts that are taking place while we peruse a thousand new product announcements and speculate about industry M&A. These shifts encompass operating systems and software; product design; engineering; and networking and peripherals. Although they may not have started with Apple, many of them have been propelled by its support, and are worth reflecting on to inspire our thinking about the future of computing.
Apple's initial offering, the 128K Macintosh, heralded the first popular graphical user interface (GUI), characterised by its use of windows, icons, menus and a pointing device (WIMP, if you must). Although not new, its compact, integrated form stood out against the voluminous IBM PCs of its era. And its 'pointing device' - a mouse - was indeed a novelty for users.
The origins of these interface and interaction innovations can be traced back to the work of Doug Engelbart and his colleagues, initially at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI) and then at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).
The industry myth has it that Jobs and his colleagues on the Macintosh project surreptitiously visited PARC and took the GUI concept for themselves. The reality was that Jobs allowed Xerox to invest in Apple (prior to it going public and at a time when it was considered a hot investment) in return for briefings on PARC's research. Apple gained insight and inspiration from PARC - nothing more tangible - but it knew what to do next. The idea of GUIs was 'in the air', and it would have been successfully realised sooner rather than later. Apple just happened to be in the right place at the right time, with the right people and sufficient investment and drive to make it happen.
Within a couple of years of the launch of the Macintosh, Apple had introduced built-in and self-configuring networking (LocalTalk), support for PostScript fonts and a PostScript-compatible laser printer (the LaserWriter). With the launch of Aldus PageMaker the scene was set for what became known as the desktop publishing revolution.
The success of the Macintosh forced the rest of the personal computer industry to address the issues of graphical user interfaces and software ease-of-use. Bill Gates reportedly coveted the Macintosh and emulating its GUI model became a decade-long focus in Redmond, during which Microsoft abandoned its partnership with IBM in the development of OS/2. The spread of GUIs has contributed enormously to the productivity of people using personal computers in the workplace, as well as their extension to new areas of work. It has also enormously expanded the market for computers by making them accessible to ordinary people and to students. Most importantly, Apple helped raise people's expectations of IT and highlighted its empowering potential.
Along with MacOS, Apple is rightly celebrated for its hardware design. The form of the original Macintosh, and the friendly, high-tech shapes of subsequent models - designed by Hartmut Esslinger's frogdesign - contributed to users feeling that the computer was approachable. For a decade from the late 80s to the mid-90s Apple's design was unremarkable, though during this period it did pioneer the design of the modern laptop. The company's design was revived by the return of Steve Jobs as CEO, who engaged the talents of the design team, then and still led by Briton Jonathan Ive.
Ive had a number of insights about the design of computers. He was aware that their presence when they weren't in use needed to be considered as much as their ergonomics for when they were, and that the engineering wizardry they contained could also be elegantly designed. Hence the fruitdrop colours of the first iMacs and their curvaceous, innards-exposing casings.
Recognising that computers were becoming fashionable and could be desirable in the way that a watch or a car might be, he pursued more imaginative use of materials, taking advantage of improved manufacturing techniques and more elegant hardware interaction. Hence the aluminium alloy casing and elegant hinging and clasping in the current PowerBook range.
Ive also recognised the power of the anthropomorphism of the first Macintosh. Hence the 'breathing' LED that indicates a PowerBook or iMac is asleep.
Apple, particularly in the second Jobs era, has taken the lead in a number of substantial industry transitions. With the first iMac it recognised that backup and file exchange could be effected using servers, CDs and email, and abandoned the floppy drive. The industry followed suit - albeit slowly.
This iMac also featured USB, which quickly became an industry standard. Apple's other peripheral connection innovation, FireWire, has been less successful but IEEE 1394 (as it is known generically) is now a feature of many Sony computers. Both USB and FireWire allow devices to draw power from the host computer, which reduces cable clutter and the need to take a power supply for every device.
Like Sun Microsystems, networking has always been a key feature of Macintosh computers. Succeeding LocalTalk, Ethernet was introduced in the early 1990s. Wi-Fi was built into PowerBooks from the early Naughties. Bluetooth soon followed, as did the industry.
On top of its pioneering in networking, Apple designed the Macintosh for easy finding and sharing of printers and servers (such that it is easier for a MacOS X computer to access and use these resources on a Windows network that it is for its Windows brethren) and with the ascent of TCP/IP made it easy to switch between this and its own AppleTalk networking protocol.
Today Apple is pushing in a number of interesting directions. The most significant is its attempt to integrate the internet, the computer, peripherals and offline storage. This approach is exemplified in the area of music.
Although Apple's iPod is ridiculously hyped, the ecosystem in which it exists is less well appreciated. In the US (and soon in Europe) listeners can search or browse the iTunes store within the iTunes application, listen to short excerpts and purchase directly. Songs are downloaded and managed by the same application, which also seamlessly and quickly synchronises them with an iPod over FireWire. Albums can be ripped from CDs and the track names automatically added from the internet-based CD Database, and downloaded music can also be burned to CD or DVD and shared a given number of times. Music can also be stored on the Internet using Apple's .Mac service, which is accessed in the same manner as any other network drive, and listeners can access music on friends' or colleagues' Macintoshes using Rendezvous, an auto-discovery networking protocol developed by Apple.
This model of sourcing, managing, listening to and sharing music fits around the way people live and interact and the contexts in which they operate, and flows from Apple's original mantra of teaching computers about people.
As the possibilities opened up by computing continue to expand, and products are commoditised, this approach will become even more important for the IT industry. The industry will also need to learn from Apple's ability - epitomised by the iPod - to create products that are delightful and desirable.
The two decades since the launch of the Macintosh also remind us of the power of vision in the computing industry, the importance of research and development and the potential of a human-centred approach to IT. They also remind us that ideas we take for granted today can melt away tomorrow, and that we can come to take for granted those that we once believed were barely possible.
Apple doesn't have a stronger grip on the future of IT than Microsoft or any of its competitors. But its history can help us understand how to realise its founder's dream of computing 'for the rest of us'.
Nico Macdonald has been advising publishers and designers about information technology since the late 1980s and writing about design and technology since the early 1990s. He is author of 'What is Web Design?', RotoVision, 2003 (www.whatiswebdesign.com). He can be contacted at email@example.com or post a Reader Comment about this article below.