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

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.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

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!

Editorial standards