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.

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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

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with 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... Full Bio

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