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30 years of Macs: Up close and personal

Macs have been more then just a technology, they've been part of our lives for 30 years now. Here's a brief, personal history of Macs as I, and many of my fellow ZDNet and technology writers, have seen it for more than a generation.

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Topic: Hardware
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Apple Lisa:1983

Before there was the Mac, there was the Lisa. ZDNet writer Andrew Brust  recalled, "Apple came and showed it at my school, on a Saturday, before they released it.  Having only worked with Apple II computers and other 6502 machines, we were pretty mesmerized."

Everyone who used one was fascinated by them. Although they were over-priced and under-powered, ithe Lisa was like nothing anyone outside of Xerox's PARC labs had ever seen before.

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The first Mac: 1984

I was in Washington DC at a retail store when I first got to play with a Mac. I wasn't shocked though, which was the case with ZDNet contributing editor Jason O'Grady's mom. He recalled, "I ambled into a computer store-within-a-store inside The Bay department store in suburban Toronto while my Mom shopped. There I excitedly played with MacWrite and MacPaint on an original Mac128k. Imagine my Mom's horror when the salesman told her it cost $4,400." In 2014, that's $10,122 in 2014 dollars.

Not everyone was so excited. David Needle, now an editor at TabTimes, covered the original Mac announcement with a bunch of international reporters, remembered that Jobs did his thing, pulling the Mac out dramatically from a back pack and ran it through its paces. Then asked the group brashly: 'Well, what do you guys think?' A British journalist answered first: 'This is all very well and good Steve, but why on earth did you name it after a raincoat?'

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The "Fat" Mac: 1984

The fat Mac, aka the Mac 512K, was a vast improvement. With its "enormous" 512Kilobytes of RAM it had enough memory to get real work done. Long-time computer journalist, Keith Dawson, remembered, "My first was a Fat Mac, 512K, in 1985, about a year after the introduction. Inside of another year and a half I had cracked the case and installed an accelerator -- don't remember the company's name name, but it had a faster CPU -- and added a Hyperdrive, 20 MB. $800? A bargain."

And so it was! For 1984. Today you have more computing power and storage in your smartphone... even if you're smartphone is five years old! 

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Apple IIgs: 1986

 In the mid-80s, the Apple II was still alive and well, especially since Macs were so expensive. The IIgs was an attempt to add some Mac goodness to the II line. It didn't really work. Still, Tim Walker, an Austin Texas-based writer and analyst, recalled "My first Apple was a IIgs that my dad bought for me in high school -- it replaced the TRS-80 (with *two* 5.25" drives) that had sat on my desk for a couple of years. I used it all through high school (graduated in 1990) and halfway through college when I switched to the fancy new Macs in the computer lab at the University of Texas."

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Apple IIsi: 1990

This was the first Mac I pesonally owned. It wasn't an especially good model, but it mattered a lot to me. For me it was the computer I used to introduce my daughter to computing. Her grandparents, both now deceased, also recorded stories on it for her and she'd play them often.

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Mac SE/30: 1990

Technically speaking, this popular model would have been better for me. Alan Zeichick, long-time technology journalist, editor, and publisher, said, "My first Mac was an SE/30. Loved loved loved that machine, especially after I put in an expansion card and used it to drive a big color monitor." In 1990, with Windows 95 still years away, that was no small matter.

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NeXT Cube: 1990

Of course, not all "Macs" came from Apple. After Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple, he founded NeXT and started building Unix-based workstations. These would become the blueprint for today's Macs. Today's Mac OS X is a direct descendant of NeXT's NeXTStep operating system.

ZDNet's senior technology editor Jason Perlow agrees with me. "My first 'Mac' actually was the NeXT. I ran the computer lab at American University and had a lot of facetime with it. I practically monopolized them because it didn't run any software anyone wanted to use and they were so weird."

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NeXTStation Turbo Color: 1993

The top of the NeXT line were the lovely, and outrageous expensive workstations. I, Unix guy that I was, had one. I loved this machine.

I eventually ended up trading mine to an ISP senior engineer for a T1 installation and three free months of, for the time, a blazing fast 1.54 Mbps Internet connection. I should have kept the NeXTStation.

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Mac Centris 650: 1993

By the early 90s, Macs had become the go-to desktop publishing and design platform. Writer and editor Alyson Behr said that her first Mac "was the Macintosh Centris 650 that I used as a Creative Director to design magazine logos, feature spreads, etc. [I] also designed corporate logos, point of purchase campaigns. Photoshop v1, Illustrator and Quark early iterations were my tools." 

She was in good company. Many others were using Macs with the exact same software for the exact same purposes. That wasn't enough to keep Apple afloat.

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Power Computing Mac Clone: 1997

While Jobs was still out in the wilderness of NeXT, Apple decided to let other vendors make their own Mac clones. I reviewed many of these and I wasn't very impressed.

These rather drab devices did have one advantage: They were far cheaper than Apple Macs and they were very popular in their brief day. Once Jobs was back in the saddle, he killed the Mac clone business as fast as possible.

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Power Macintosh 7300: 1997

By the late 90s, Macs began to have the horsepower they needed to really make their programs sing. Well-known technology writer and editor Esther Schindler recalled, "Although I wanted a Mac for a long time, I didn't NEED one. Besides, I was best known for OS/2 so it behooved me to to buy more systems that'd run that OS. But then OpenDoc was announced. We pitched a book about OpenDoc to our publisher, who loved it. That meant we needed a Mac, so we bought one. And now our office, the BitRanch, is nothing but Mac and a few Linux servers, and a Mac server as well."

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iMac G3: 1998

The Macs of the late 90s weren't just for graphic designers and power users. The iconic , colorful tear-drop iMacs made Macs cool again. 

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Mac mini: 2006

Cool and powerful wasn't enough though by the mid-2000s, so Jobs introduced the first truly low-end Macs: the Mac mini. Still sold today, I've used Mac minis ever since day one as an affordable way to test Mac software and to serve as great little media servers.

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MacBook Pro

There have long been Mac laptops, but they really took off with the MacBook Pro. Some people, like my writer buddy, Andy Patrizio, just started with Macs in 2014. "My first Mac is 3 weeks old. Bought it because I want to see if I still have a knack for programming like I did, oh, 30 years ago. Going to try my hand at iOS development. Plus I wanted something sexier than low-end laptops."

Others, like my freelance writer friend, Ron Miller, adopted the MacBook Pro when it first appeared. "I was a PC user until 2007 when my friend convinced me to try my first MacBook Pro. I bought the 17-inch and it's still in operation. My wife started using it when I bought my current 15 in MBP a few years ago. One of the reasons I was willing to try it was the switch to Intel, which meant I could run Windows and OSX at the same time. This was important because I was still doing technical writing then and I needed to run Frame, RoboHelp and other tools that were Windows-based.  I will add, I had been using computers for 20 years when I tried my first Mac and I was just immediately captured by how well it worked. It's not flawless, but for the most part I don't have to think about my computer or my OS and that was never the case when I was a Windows user," said Miller.

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MacBook Air: 2008

The last really important new member to the Mac family from where I sit is the MacBook Air. While I love my Chromebook Pixel and Lenovo ThinkPads, I have to say there are times I bring out the Air simply because it's such a nice combination of light-weight, rich local applications and power.

Looking ahead, I can see many more Macs in my future. They'll never be my favorite platform— Apple's totally locked down software eco-system bugs me—but even so for me, and millions of others, Macs made sense 30 years ago and it will still be making sense 30 years from now.

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