HISTORY OF MACINTOSH: A 38 YEAR LOVE AFFAIR
The now-famous Macintosh computer turns 38. When Apple President Steve Jobs launched this computer at the Flint Center on De Anza College campus on January 24, 1984, to the theme from Chariots of Fire, he called it “insanely great!”
The $1.5M “1984” Super Bowl commercial filmed by Sir Ridley Scott had appeared on TV two days before Macintosh went on sale, and the world was holding its breath.
When IBM released the so-called IBM PC in 1981, I remember saying to workmates I had at a Silicon Valley startup at the time that it
“legitimized the desktop microcomputer market,”
at least for business. Though it was called a Personal Computer, few people that I knew had one at home. It was driven to popularity with MS-DOS, a character-based user interface, first with green characters on a black screen, then in living color.
The PC had been around for almost a decade, back to the Xerox PARC Alto machine, but they were too expensive and too difficult to use for the ordinary mortal. The more hobby-friendly Commodore PET, Atari, and TRS-80 were within people’s budgets but were mostly used by hobbyists. Early adopters used CP/M operating system machines from Compaq in the business world. Even Apple II computers were around then.
But Macintosh was something different. Steve Jobs didn’t call it “The Macintosh,” but just Macintosh, like James Cameron’s movie, referred to the big boat as Titanic as if it had a name. Mac was a truly personal computer, ideal for the home as well as professional and educational environments. It was remarkable in that it had:
- Graphical User Interface (GUI) that even kids could figure out. I started each of my kids on Mac when they were 2 years old.
- Mouse/menu-based operating system that did not require memorizing commands and typing classical geek on the keyboard.
- Bit-mapped screen allowing drawing any shape or picture on the screen and not just characters. It had lots of different fonts!
I worked with one in 1984 but got my first one in 1985, as part of the Apple Developer Program. I drove up to the Apple loading dock in Cupertino and picked up my “toaster” box. I’d already spent a few hours with one in the office — where only marketing execs or publications folks got to use them. I was the corporate IT Manager administrating three super-mini computers at the time, and Macintosh was a curiosity.
My office mate had one and showed me how to use MacPaint and MacWrite — the only two programs shipping with the system — and I was hooked. I used it from home to dial in remotely via modem to the office to check my systems’ status using a text-based terminal program. When I later moved on to Sun Microsystems, I used the same terminal program to do “shell” access to my work computer and keep up with my email and Usenet.
I had gotten the “Fat Mac” which was just like the initial 128KB Mac, but now with 512KB of RAM memory. Who could need more!
Macintosh came with one floppy drive and no hard drive. Later, a SCSI interface allowed connection to a hard drive. For just $1,000 I got a 10MB hard drive to which you could network two Macs. This was living large.
At Sun, the early workstations used 70MB then 140MB SCSI hard drives. When they’d outlived their usefulness, I would rewire them with a SCSI ribbon cable and reformatted to Mac OS. Talk about information explosion.
Macintosh in the ’80s
In those early years, I would regularly attend the monthly A32 Computer Club meetings in Silicon Valley. These were attended by fellow geeks interested in the Apple 32-bit systems, aka the Motorola 68000-based Macintosh. There, I met the early Macintosh team and heard how they’d developed a particular system or what they were working on currently. from the original development team; Andy Hertzfeld showed us “Servant” (later “Switcher”) an early quasi multi-tasking system for Mac. I was in heaven. Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki would come out to speak. He was a regular favorite, always fascinating and funny.
“Now at the end of my talk I’d like to open it to Q&A or Question and Avoidance.
You ask the questions and I’ll avoid answering them.”
I was so into it that I even wrote articles and product reviews for a Macintosh journal at the time.
In 1987 when I was working at Sun, Apple released Macintosh II, the first color, open architecture, expandable system. Just two doors down the hall from me, company co-founder Bill Joy had one on his desk. I’d walk by often to drool.
Apple continued to come out with more powerful systems using faster 680X0 chips, as Sun was doing.
Interestingly, Sun was using the same industrial design company Apple used, the German frogdesign. But a marriage between Apple and Sun was not to be.
While I was at Sun — as the Program Manager on the ISV account Interleaf, a high-end desktop publishing package — I wrote articles on the Macintosh ecosystem. Here’s my rather nerdy report about the 1988 Macworld Expo, from the Usenet archives, where I mentioned Interleaf on Mac.
I got an opportunity to visit the Apple Campus in the late ’80s and even tour the lab. There I saw a Cray XMP supercomputer. It was a thing of beauty to behold. It was there to design the next Macintosh. The company founder, Seymour Cray famously quoted
“I use a Mac to help me design the next Cray.”
Macintosh in the ’90s
In 1990 Microsoft launched MS Windows 3.0. It shared some of the same design elements of the Macintosh user interface and though not as good, was deemed by many as “good enough.” The market responded to the cheaper “Windows PC,” which became the market share leader.
In the ’90s, I traveled internationally with a Macintosh PowerBook Duo, a very small and light laptop that was a real head-turner. But when I traveled to China, I could not connect it to any projection system unless I brought my docking station.
In the mid-’90s, Apple licensed Mac OS to 3rd parties to create clones. This foray into “openness” was shut down at the end of Mac OS System 7. I recall a talk at the San Francisco Macworld Expo — the biggest show of its kind in the newly opened Moscone Center and from which I’d bring home 20 lbs of brochures — when then Apple Exec Jean-Louis Gasée gave his astounding pro-proprietary talk “How to Keep the Japanese from Eating Our Sushi.” This was not as fatal as many pundits predicted: at over $2T, Apple has the highest market capitalization of any high-tech company, if not every company in the world. Even more than Microsoft.
The later ’90s were not as kind to Macintosh. Popular software applications became available on Windows first, and on Mac only much later, if at all. I’d often ask software vendors if they were planning a Mac version, and the answer was usually “if there is market demand for it,” which was code for “No.” By that time, I had to start carrying a Windows laptop for my international travel, and for almost a decade, I wandered in the Windows wilderness.
In 1994 Apple left the Motorola microprocessor line behind for the PowerPC chip, as the Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture seemed a good idea at the time. Even Sun had supported SunOS/Solaris on both 680X0 and PowerPC before moving entirely to Sun’s SPARC (Scalable Processor ARChitecture) RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) chip.
Macintosh in the ’00s and beyond
Apple in 2005 announced abandoning PowerPC for the Intel x86 platform, allowing Mac to run Windows or Mac OS… or both nowadays using virtualization technologies like VMware or Parallels.
Around the same time, my wife complained to me about how slowly her Windows laptop was running. I explained to her that to fix it, I would need to
- Back it up
- Reformat the drive
- Re-install Windows
- Then restore the applications and data.
This was the usual response from Microsoft Windows Support, essentially to “lift off the radiator cap then drive a new engine underneath it.” Or I could spend $600 on a Mac Mini. We went with the latter.
It took me 20 minutes to set it up and get it on the Internet. I was having so much fun with her machine that she kicked me off her machine after a month, so I got my own, an iMac — the successor of the original all-in-one Macintosh. I’ve had four since then and haven’t looked back. Macintosh is no longer the biggest moneymaker for the company — the iPod surpassed it, then the iPhone — in 2020, it moved on to its fourth processor: the Apple Silicon ARM-based RISC processor. It screams like a veritable Chiroptera out of the flaming inferno of the nether regions.
I still have my original 9″ Mac. And the latest 27″ iMac. And I’ve worked for companies civilized enough to supply me with a MacBook Pro. And don’t get me started on my love for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch!
Happy 38th Birthday, Mac.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian