Apple’s Mac turns 30 today
NEW YORK—Look around. Many of the gadgets you see drew inspiration from the original Mac computer.
Computers at the time typically required people to type in commands. But once the Mac came out 30 years ago today, people instead could navigate with a graphical user interface.
The Mac introduced real-world metaphors such as using a trash can to delete files. It brought us fonts and other tools once limited to professional printers.
Most importantly, it made computing and publishing easy enough for every-day people to learn and use.
Apple sparked a revolution in computing with the Mac. In turn, that sparked a revolution in publishing as people began creating fancy newsletters, brochures, and other publications from their desktops.
These concepts are so fundamental today that it’s hard to imagine a time when they existed only in research labs—primarily Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in California.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his team got much of its inspiration from PARC, which they visited while designing the Mac.
The Mac has had “incredible influence on pretty much everybody’s lives all over the world since computers are now so ubiquitous,” says Brad Myers, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
“Pretty much all consumer electronics are adopting all of the same kinds of interactions.”
Apple didn’t invent these tools, nor was the Mac the first to use them. Xerox Corp. sold its own mouse-based Star computer and Apple’s Lisa beat the Mac by months.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened if those machines hadn’t flopped with consumers or whether others would have come along if the Mac hadn’t.
But the Mac prevailed and thus influenced generations of gadgets that followed.
The Mac owes much of its success to the way Apple engineers adapted those pioneering concepts. For instance, Xerox Corp. used a three-button mouse in its Alto prototype computer.
Apple settled on one—allowing people to keep their eyes on the screen without worrying about which button to press.
While Lisa had those improvements first, it cost about $10,000. The Mac was a “low” $2,495 when it came out on Jan. 24, 1984.
Apple also insisted on uniformity, so copying and pasting text and deleting files would work the same way from one application to another.
That reduced the time it would take to learn a new program.
And Apple put a premium on design. Early Macs showed a happy face when they started up. Icons and windows had rounded corners.
Such details made computers appear friendlier and easier to use—at least subconsciously, said Myers.
With the Mac came “the dawn of the notion of we can waste computing power to make it easier for people,” said Jim Morris, who worked on the Xerox Alto before joining Carnegie Mellon by the time the Mac came out.
“The Macintosh was not a business machine.”
Tim Bajarin, a Creative Strategies analyst who has followed Apple for more than three decades, said he was baffled—yet intrigued—when he saw the Mac’s unveiling at an Apple shareholders’ meeting in 1984.
“This really was a complete departure from the computing that we knew,” he noted.
“None of us had any clue what its potential would be.”
In fact, despite its radical interface, sales were lukewarm. For years, it was mostly a niche product for publishers, educators, and graphics artists.
Corporate users stuck with IBM Corp. and its various clones, especially as Microsoft’s Windows operating system grew to look like Mac’s software.