Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the Macintosh by a true believer

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the Macintosh by a true believer

Summary: Apple technology today is accepted worldwide by consumers and businesses alike. Still, attacks against the Mac continue unabated with the same 30-year-old refrains.


On the cusp of the 30th Anniversary of the rollout of the iconic Macintosh 128K model, the Mac market couldn't be in better shape, all things considered. There are more Mac users than ever before, more native Mac applications available, covering more markets, and more developers are coding those programs. The Mac is accepted as a major computing platform by consumers and businesses. It's a remarkable success story.

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the Macintosh by a true believer
From house advertisement in MacUser, Sept. 1985; Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.

At the same time, the attacks against the Mac platform (and really against its iOS mobile cousins) continue sounding the same tropes from the middle 1980s: The Mac is simply eye candy, an elite machine that is a waste of time and money.

These shots have bewildered this Mac fan since 1984.

As I pointed out in a post on the Mac's 25th Anniversary, the first hurdle for the Mac in technology and market acceptance was about the graphical user interface. Period. Should computing be done with a command line or with an understandable GUI. It's incomprehensible to us today.

This GUI was disruptive in several ways. Today, we conceive of the screen as the final presentation vehicle for data, while back then, it was hardcopy. What the Mac produced was compelling — typography, images and complex charts — even on black-and-white dot-matrix printers. When the LaserWriter and PostScript output hit the platform, the gap widened.

I heard executives who were exposed to the Mac ask their corporate IT directors why the big-budget big iron couldn't make a simple chart like the Mac. There was no easy answer, since the Mac was designed from the ground up to deliver graphical information and the mainframe wasn't.

Aside: Some Apple haters point to Jobs' 1979 visit to Xerox PARC and claim that the Mac ripped off the Xerox Alto GUI. This thesis is nonsense and can be disproved simply by looking at the shipping products. The Alto was a niche system based around an integrated SmallTalk programming language. Its GUI was just a part of its computing value proposition. The Xerox box was really an experiment, was never going to be a mass-market computer and the machine never went anywhere. The Mac was a mass-market computer aimed at general users. Its GUI and applications were the value, and expanded the Alto's basic icons and windowing system into a complete and comprehendible GUI with menus, drag-and-drop interaction, and a desktop metaphor.

The concept around the Alto of deep integration and expression of a computer language reminds me of the 1987 Canon Cat designed by Jef Raskin, one of the earliest engineers attached to the Mac team. The Cat was a text-only machine and had no mouse, icons or GUI. However, it was deeply tied into the Forth computer language and had a special button that directly linked the user directly to a Forth interpreter. This integration was its primary value. Back to the Mac.

For this post, I looked at some of my existing Mac ephemera. Most of my collection was destroyed in a flood, including hundreds of issues of long-gone Mac-market weekly publications such as Mac Today and MacWEEK (where I worked my way up the ranks to become Editor in the late 1990s), boxes of obscure monthly Mac publications from England and Japan where I had columns about Macintosh, and book-sized issues of the Berkeley Mac Users Group that were published twice yearly.

Still, a few items survived. One was the premier issue of MacUser, which was published from Sept. 1985 until the summer of 1997 when it was folded into Macworld. The book aimed at the "Mac power user" segment, and had columns on programming and business applications. And then there was a monthly column at the very back of the magazine by John Dvorak, who was no Mac fan.

His column shows the deep cultural problems the Mac faced from its very beginnings, and even as it started be accepted by a wide variety of market segments, including worldwide businesses such as Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co.; government agencies such as NASA, U.S. Naval Intelligence (I interviewed several techs who serviced these hush-hush applications); and entire universities.

In the months before the Sept. 1985 first issue of MacUser, Dvorak wrote a column in the San Francisco Examiner that described the Macintosh as a "wimp" computer when compared to the IBM PC/AT. He said that the AT is a "man's computer designed by men for men." Of course, this was a tongue in check comment, but it really reflected a market truth. This theme was referenced and expanded in his MacUser column.

The AT, for example, is big — it looks like a computer should look. It even has some lights on it. By contrast, the Mac looks like a kitchen appliance. Folklore has it that Steve Jobs demanded that the thing be designed to "look like a Cuisinart machine."

More than a few people are now recognizing the fact that the original Mac is too small to be perceived as the serious business computer Apple wants to sell. Meanwhile, a few marketing guys picked up on the size problem and were starting to see an emerging market for products to make the Mac look bigger.

Dvorak then spent a while describing several stands on the market as well as MacCharlie, a product that integrated a PC and Mac together. (Note: Charlie refers to the ad campaign for the IBM Personal Computer. IBM bought the rights to Charlie Chaplin's silent movie character The Little Tramp, and used him to promote the IBM PC/AT. It was a successful campaign.)

Now I suppose that it doesn't matter to a business guy that the total cost of the thing is more than the combined cost of a Mac and a loaded, lowball PC clone. You have to assume that the buyer of such a system is just using it to fool the boss that he's on the IBM team. All the while, of course, he's fiddling with FatBits. Needless to say in today's office the boss doesn't want to see a Mac and an IBM on the same desk. The Mac would have to go. This solves the dilemma.

It's no secret that I'm an IBM PC/AT. User. I've always been a follower of the 8 gang — all those chips that start with the 8 as opposed to the 6 gang. The eights began with the Altair and have moved up to the PC/AT if they can afford it. The sixes buy Ataris and Commodores and Apples, depending upon how cheap they are. While I'm in one camp, I appreciate and admire the other camp, which incidentally, never has a good thing to say about any 8080, Z-80, 8088 or 80286 product or owner.

I love this last comment. This culture war between PC users (now Windows users) and Mac users continues. Any complaint from a PC user will always get the same response from a Mac user: "If only you had a Mac." This drives PC users to grind their teeth and wish the worst on the Mac fan. The "6 gang referred to the Motorola 68xx series of chips that the Mac, Amiga and other niche computers used.

The FatBits comment above is a reference to the screen magnifier system built into the Mac Classic system. Dvorak (and others) often complained about the small size of the original Mac screen. He said he couldn't see the text clearly. I never groked this comment since it was easy to switch to a larger-size font. But then there would be less text displayed on the screen, the other side of the readability problem.

Whatever the case, that 8 gang has always appreciated big computers. The 6 gang has always appreciated cheap computers. Since the Mac tries to appeal to the eights it, by definition, should be big. But I digress.

I think the point I finally made is simple. It's not a point about computers, it's a point about people. The point is that if Apple wants to sell to businessmen, then it has to know and understand them. Knowing and understanding doesn't mean sitting back and arrogantly telling them about themselves from your pedestal-based perspective. It means being one of them. This means knowing that businessmen want computers on their desks, not Cuisinarts. It means a feather change for Apple.

I, for one, would be amused if Apple would change its feathers. I am not holding my breath.

The next generation of Macs, the Mac Plus, still came in the small, portable form factor that Dvorak complained over here. He always hated the small screen. It would be several years before Apple released the Mac II, a larger, expandable box that Dvorak refers to at the end, which supported larger screens. However, that machine was more expensive than the all-in-one models.

From the beginning, Mac users understood that the anti-GUI fight was doomed. First, GUI computing is better and easier for any user, whether in business or not. And the Wintel alliance wanted the capabilities of the GUI successor to PC DOS — Windows — to drive upgrades in hardware. And it did.

After the arrival of Windows 95 (for those who don't remember, that was 1995), the first widely accepted and robust version of Windows, Mac users had to wave a new flag. It couldn't just be about the GUI anymore. The new line was that the Mac is a better computer platform; it has a better hardware than is available from the PC makers, and its GUI is much better than Windows. This party line continues to today and it's been holding up well.

The PC camp seeks a commodity computer and a commodity experience. They can't comprehend why anyone would want anything other than the dominant Wintel platform, or purchase a computing platform with a potentially smaller peripheral and software base. After all, computers are mostly the same, so why would anyone want to spend money on a "Mac tax," the additional cost of the Mac platform.

However, numbers tell the story: people actually want to buy Macs! At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference last June, company executives showed off the features of the then-forthcoming Mavericks version of OS X and pointed to the latest figures for the installed base of Macintosh computers: 72 million. According to the company, the Mac platform had doubled in size over the past five years.

In the 2013 fiscal year, which didn't include the recent holiday buying season, Apple sold 16 million Macs. And in its last fiscal quarter ending last Sept., it sold 4.6 million units. So, we might roughly calculate that the Mac installed base today stands around 80 million units.

Twenty years ago, working as a senior reporter at MacWEEK, I didn't believe that I would witness the day when the Mac base counted 80 million units. Happy Birthday! Here's to 30 more years!

Topics: Apple, Operating Systems, Windows

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  • happy

    Happy birthday Mac !! Dragging disk to trash icon still gets me though :P
  • A Mac is still overpriced, explain that one?

    Which makes it to an extent, an elitist machine. Most people still can't afford one and many (not all) pick one as a status symbol.

    The Mac as a product remains excellent but the simple truth is you can get a Windows PC (since Windows 7) that is as reliable, as well made for a hell of a lot less.
    • You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about!

      A tech site recently did a cost of building an equivalent PC to the Mac Pro and found that it would cost $2,000 more and still not have Thunderbolt. That's just one example. Stop simply repeating what MS shills spout and do a bit of research.
      • Please back up that claim with the article?

        I do know what I'm talking about. I bought a Sony Vaio S laptop shortly after Windows 8 came out and strongly considered a Macbook Pro instead but couldn't justify the cost. My Sony Vaio S is exceptionally well built and Windows 8 (like Windows 7 before it) is very stable indeed.

        p.s - Not taking into account Thunderbolt, which I have no use for but even then is a minor point with USB3 in existence.
        • MS vs MAC

          As a user of both OS's, I prefer MAC over PC. As mention in prior articles people have to learn how to operate a PC, a MAC is as easy as 1-2-3. Every time MS changes its OS it has to run classes for the average operator to understand and use it. When ever MS changes it's OS it has to send out a million tweaks to make it work. The difference between a MAC and PC is the same as buying a HUNDAI and a Mercedes, you get what you pay for.
          • Which is why Apple offers traing classes with Mac purchases

            Because it's as easy as 1-2-3
        • I DID back-up the claim.

          Next time, read my response before demanding proof. I specifically included an example. Strewth!
    • Mac overpriced

      No explanation necessary. One of the attributes of the United States has been, since it's founding, the option of having what you prefer .. IF, you can pay for it.

      Food, Clothes, homes, cars, vacations, etc., etc.

      Granted, the liberals have made great strides in trying to change that. Everyone is ENTITLED!
    • Simple true? or flamboyant hyperbole

      "The Mac as a product remains excellent but the simple truth is you can get a Windows PC (since Windows 7) that is as reliable, as well made for a hell of a lot less."

      A sweeping claim.

      I defy you to put together a machine that fully spec matches the base model new Mac Pro for less that 50% MORE than the list price of the base model Mac pro.

      I want the 6 x20Gbit network (Thunderbolt 2 or equivalent) connections and 256G PCIe speed SSD, and the 3D rendering power. And don't forget to match the Power consumption, acoustic output and footprint.

      I'm looking to build a 512 node cubic cluster (each machine directly connected to 6 closest neighbours) for 3D rendering and all of the above are important criteria. So tell me, how do I match that spec for "a hell of a lot less"? And forget bulk discounts. They work in either world.

      As for reliability, over the years I have waisted many hundreds of man hours trying to find drivers for PCs and the latest greatest versions of windows. Often I have been unable to do so and in some cases forced to junk the machines, or to accept that their functionality had become limited. This is common to ALL Windows machines, no matter how expensive they were.

      I consider that to be a reliability issue. And yes, there are devices on machines that were bought new as Windows 7 machines that simply won't work on Windows 8.

      I have not spent 5 minutes worrying about drivers in the Mac world.

      Time is money.
      Henry 3 Dogg
  • It's about value, not price

    I personally do not believe you get the same value from a PC as you do from a Mac. I remember fooling around with the old 286, learning DOS the hard way and painfully trying to claw my way up into computer literacy.

    The boss insisted on buying two Macs, which I thought was a dumb idea because I could have bought about 10 PC clones for the same price. We had a little computer room with two 286 PC clones and two Macs (I think they were both the Mac 2CI model, one with a portrait scene and one with a 13 inch color display)

    When they came it was my job to hook them up, load software and get everyone in the office to use them. I figured if Mac was so wonderful and easy I shouldn't need an instruction book. So I hooked everything up and then tried to figure out how to turn them on (the on off "switch" was in the right hand corner of the keyboard). Took me a while to figure that one out but after that I was able to load software and immediately use the computers, without any instruction, memorization, or even a peek at an instruction manual.

    Later I built an Apple talk network all by myself (yes, even ran the wiring)

    You can guess how much the PC clones got used. They did but only for a few things related to accounting, everything else was done on Mac

    Was it more expensive than PCs would have been? By far (maybe 3X). Could I have built a PC network at my skill level? No way!

    I still have one of those machines. It still runs just fine, albeit primitive by todays standards. I have an old copy of Leisure Suit Larry in 8 bit graphics that is a hoot. You have to be my age to remember enough adult trivia to play it.

    I still have both a Mac and a PC, the PC for work related things, the Mac for everything else. It's better built than my Dell all in one and much easier to use and to me it has better value.
    • Most people don't compare Apples with Apples

      In The UK (I expect it's roughly the same worldwide), most people spend around £300-400 on a Windows laptop but £900-1100 on a Macbook. Yet they're amazed when the Macbook beats the Windows laptop hands down. I'm not saying you need to be spending £1000 on a Windows laptop but obviously a £300 laptop cannot compete.

      I am also specifically talking about PCs from the past few years and specifically Windows 7 and Windows 8. Windows has never been more robust.
  • You forgot the Lisa

    David, regarding:

    >> Jobs' 1979 visit to Xerox PARC and claim that the Mac ripped off the Xerox Alto GUI. This thesis is nonsense and can be disproved
    • You forgot the Lisa - my post above was truncated????

      David, regarding:

      "This thesis is nonsense and can be disproved simply by looking at the shipping products...."

      I tend to disagree. I do think that Jobs at least borrowed the concept of the GUI from the PARC, but it was initially applied to the Lisa, which was the mother of the Mac. The Lisa was the 2nd "business class" PC from Apple (the Apple /// being the first), and was revolutionary for its GUI, internal hard drive and bundled office productivity software. It was also so expensive that sales did not happen the way that Jobs wanted. The Mac, as we all now know, really took off and helped Apple recover from some serious financial doldrums. Apple stock is $546 today, back then you could buy it at $13-16 a share (I did) because the company was really struggling to evolve from the Apple //e and /// products and not sure where to go next. Jobs caused a lot of internal political strife and the company took a morale as he forcefully implemented his vision of moving away from the //e and /// platform to the Lisa and then Mac. Hindsight now shows that his vision was right-on about where he wanted his company to go. Happy 30th, Mac!!!!
  • I am both a Mac and PC user, and love both platforms

    They have such different focuses, and as a computer scientist and musician/artist, I love the fact that I can plant my feet in both worlds comfortably. They are both wonderful devices that have enabled people to be productive and express themselves creatively with a fullness earlier generations could not.

    I love seeing the thinking both Apple and Microsoft have poured into their machines, along with a bit of their souls. I dont' always agree with it, but it is fascinating to study the psychology of product development.

    It saddens me that some people are - well - basically enraged that other people buy a different type of computer than they would. I was really thrown a couple of years ago at a social event when I mentioned that I had a Mac, and a guy across the table went on an angry rant against me for doing so.

    It is just a computer, dude! And I really like computers, all of them.
    • Both Mac and PC user

      hey, great comment.

      Do you, like me, subscribe to both MaximumPC and Macworld?

    • Exactly. Tools that fit particular needs.

      Running Office on a PC gets me the exact same results as running Office on the Mac, the difference being I get a huge savings in costs of the system, so I choose Windows on a PC.

      When it came time for my wife to get her first smartphone, I bought her the iPhone4, as it's a good phone, and her friends and relatives had it, so she can share info between them, so it made sense. When I got her a tablet, the iPad mini made sense because it's what she's now already familiar with.

      I was at a little demo not long ago on a pre-order kiosk system that utilized iPads as the order system. The backend server where everything was controlled DB, and product wise was a Windows 7 system on a small Lenovo PC.

      I asked and they basically said that they chose what worked the best for each component of the entire system.

      They're tools, nothing more, and some tools just work better then others in different situations, no matter what many would want the case to be.
  • Then and Now

    Apple invented a new way to use a computer, but ignored 95% of the market. Then the visionary guy exits the stage, and the company takes a long slow ride to becoming a bit player as less innovative competitors that thrive in a commodity market take over the world.

    Is that 1985 or 2015? Take your pick.
  • Mac @30 Yay!

    Bought Mac (128) in March '84 as next best to a Lisa viewed in Phoenix show. $8,000 was too steep for Lisa. $3,000 was a lot for the little Mac. LOVED IT!

    IBM AT 20286 (6 Mhz) came out in August. Awesome! Upgraded to 8 Mhz a few months later and never looked back. Sold Mac to my Dentist for $2,000, he never forgave me as it became a doorstop.

    Retired and seriously re-entered photographic hobby. Switched to iMac w/OS X in 2005 .. never looked back!

    From 10.6.8 there have many 'changes,' but few improvements. Invariably, Apple doesn't concern itself with the developer's apps and we are left in limbo until all get sorted out again.

    David's comments about the "styling" of the Macs is right on, and even today, Apple puts FORM before FUNCTION. Witness the changes in the iMac last year; removed the opticall drive that we still use for moving tutorials and images around or limited specialized storing. Putting the Card Reader on the back is unbelievably stupid. "Knife edges?" Great for grabbing and turning to get to the inputs.

    The non-existence of easy 'box' access for flexibility and maintenance is a very near killer. We need graphic card access, for example. And, yep, quite aware that is available in Mac Pro .. but, at what price? 12 core users? great! 4 core? NOT!

    So, at the moment there is truly a fine line in choosing. None of the BS that is offere everytime a discussion takes place has anything to do with appropriate use.

    Microsoft is determined to have a"universal" OS for phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. One size fits all. Very rarely successful or desirable. Some similar uses, but otherwise, totally different requirements as to memory, power and storage.

    Apple, as usual, is a mystery as to what they are trying to do. Fodder to feed the numerous prognosticating articles .. very few in agreement and even fewer that will prove accurate.

    Time marches on .. and takes us with it
  • It's called licensing

    "Some Apple haters point to Jobs' 1979 visit to Xerox PARC and claim that the Mac ripped off the Xerox Alto GUI. This thesis is nonsense and can be disproved simply by looking at the shipping products."

    More to the point, Apple paid to visit Xerox PARC and to be allowed to make use of the ideas that they saw. They paid in Apple shares. It's called licensing.
    Henry 3 Dogg
  • I love the Classic Mac OS, but X still hasn't claimed me.

    Oh, now post-Mac OS X tries to work as well as any version of the Classic Mac OS from System 0.85 Finder 1.0 to Mac OS 9.2.2, but it still has 3 huge issues that make it only barely preferable to Windows 7 (although Vista and 8 artificially inflate the value of X by being such utter thermonuclear bombs attached to an innocent computer user's bawls, whether internal or external.) These issues are reduced compatibility with the Classic Mac OS over the versions, industry standards compliance, and that d*nged Terminal otherwise known as a command line interface, or otherwise known and reviled by those who have used the Classic Mac OS in general and the 128k in particular as a C!L!I!s, with the bangs being any cussword you can imagine.

    X may have been required to save Apple, but saving Apple by throwing away what made me want an Apple computer to an ever increasing degree is not the way to insure this customer's loyalty. Of course, Microsoft going from the usable 7 to the bomb in the bawls 8, as I said, forces ever more crappy versions of X on the user because they're just a little bit better than Windows.

    Apple may have gone bankrupt keeping to the Classic Mac OS, but I would rather Apple die a martyr for an OS worth something than produce an OS that all you can say about it is "it works better than Windows", which is like saying cough medicine is better than potassium cyanide, it's true, but it's not much to sell a product on.

    I used every version of X except for those which I didn't have a Mac to run until after they were obsolete-my few exceptions were Cheetah, Jaguar, and Mountain Lion and Snow Leopard was only good for the speech engine and Tiger was only good for Classic Mode on the few PowerPC Macs incapable of booting Mac OS 9.2.2.

    Sure, I can "sort of" use Mac or post-Mac OS X. But I promise you that if you give me a lifetime supply of analog boards, pre-inked ImageWriter ribbons, and a BRS/After Dark system for the rest of my life, I can be more productive on a 128k than I can be on a Mac or post-Mac OS X computer.

    But standards had to butt in, and they made a butt of Apple. And that makes a butt of my loyalty to Apple. (No rudeness intended, just frankness based on negative experience with post-Classic Mac OS and post-Newton mobile OS products.