Mac at 30: How Apple revolutionized cool computing

'Insanely great' computer changed how we work

Producers: Tara Kimura & Robert Vajda, CBC News Last Updated: Jan. 24, 2014

Thirty years ago, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs pulled a 16-pound, 32-bit machine from a duffel bag to a round of applause from a rapt audience. The Macintosh - which boasted a 9-inch black-and-white screen and a novel pointing device called a "mouse" - pushed the computer from the realm of futuristic, nerd appliance to ubiquitous necessity.

With the early '80s anthem Chariots of Fire humming in the background, Jobs demonstrated the new MacWrite and MacPaint software, as well as a calculator and chess game. The showstopper? The cube-shaped, portable computer made its own saucy introduction: "Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I'd like to share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met an IBM mainframe: NEVER TRUST A COMPUTER YOU CAN'T LIFT."

Apple's skillful hype machine drew new consumers - though some would later remark that the Mac wasn't quite what was promised. Disappointed observers dubbed the computer the "beige toaster," criticizing the machine for its speed issues and workflow quirks. In its first three months, sales of the Macintosh totalled 50,000 - not a failure, but not a wild success either.

But in the long view, the Macintosh was hugely influential. It was among the first affordable computers for consumers. And more importantly, it uniquely offered a user interface that general consumers could control easily with a mouse. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in later years compared the Macintosh, for all of its faults, to the Model T Ford - the blueprint for all future models. Three decades after its debut, we consider seven ways the Macintosh forged a bold, new path.


Introducing the Mac

Price: $2,495 in the U.S., $3,595 in Canada
(Current equivalent $5,000/$7,200)

Processor: CPU Motorola MC68000
CPU Speed: 8 MHz
Memory: 128K RAM

Monitor: 9-inch black-and-white
3.5" Floppy Drive
Detachable keyboard, Mouse
Weight: Less than 16.5 lbs

In the '70s and early '80s, competition in the personal computing market sputtered to life. Apple's success with its Apple II was tempered by its dismal results with its Lisa computer. The Lisa, which had a graphical command line interface, had a hefty price tag of $9,995 (which would amount to nearly $21,000 today). IBM meanwhile introduced its popular 16-bit Personal Computer with a massive advertising campaign. The computer boasted a reasonable selling price of $1,565. Apple responded to IBM's success in 1981 with a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal that opened with, "Welcome, IBM. Seriously." The ad commented on the computer revolution underway but Apple also laid claim to having invented the first personal computer system.

By 1984, Apple set its sights on cracking open the market with its Macintosh. Apple figured ease of use would help sell the machine to new users, noting in its advertising campaign that only a fraction of the 235 million people in the U.S. could use a computer. This computer they promised was "insanely great." They also boasted that "soon there'll be just two kinds of people. Those who use computers. And those who use Apples" - a concept the company continues to tout to this day.

(Photo below: Apple employees (L to R) Andy Hertzfeld, Chris Espinosa, Joanna Hoffman, George Crow, Bill Atkinson, Burrell Smith, Jerry Manock)

"Why 1984 won't be like '1984' " - The Ridley Scott commercial

"I want to stop the world in its tracks" - so said the memo from Steve Jobs to the advertising agency tasked with creating a Macintosh ad slated to run during the Super Bowl.

The commercial, directed by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott, immediately became legend in advertising circles and cemented itself in the cultural zeitgeist.

The 60-second spot harkened back to George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eight-Four. The concept: Expressionless men cast under a grey-blue light march down a long corridor into a room with a giant screen featuring the image of Big Brother. Meanwhile, security guards pursue a young woman, but she outruns them. She approaches Big Brother and throws a sledgehammer, shattering the screen as white light floods the room. The ad closes with, "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984'."

Members of the Apple board didn't like the ad - so much so that the chairman immediately called for a motion to fire the ad agency, recalled copywriter Steve Hayden in Adweek. But co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak persisted and the 60-second ad aired during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Hayden also noted that a 30-second version also aired in the top 10 U.S. markets - and Boca Raton, Fla., headquarters for IBM's PC division.

More than 90 million people watched the ad, later deemed among the greatest television commercials ever.

Two days after the Super Bowl, a 28-year-old Jobs donned a bowtie and demonstrated the Macintosh before a crowd of Apple employees, shareholders and journalists. The theatrical reveal was a hint of things to come from Apple, a company that has thrived on event marketing and hyping new products with a slow - if not always fulfilling - tease.

Some trickery was deployed before the big event. The demonstration computer was outfitted with extra memory so it could perform more feats than a typical 128K - including a speech in which the Macintosh introduced itself. The crowd went wild for the talking computer, according to biographer Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs. Audience members jumped from their seats and pumped their fists in an effusive five-minute standing ovation. Jobs - known for his steely and at times cutthroat style - smiled and nodded before choking up, according to Isaacson.

In later years, Jobs swapped the bowtie for a black turtleneck and jeans at events that came to be called "Stevenotes." He also coined the catchphrase "one more thing" - a remark delivered with a knowing grin before the unveiling of new products including the iPod Mini, the iPod Shuffle and the MacBook Pro.

The rise of the Apple hype machine

Buying up Newsweek - The advertising blitz

In an unprecedented move, Apple purchased all of the advertising space in a special edition of Newsweek commemorating the win of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Jobs and Apple CEO John Sculley, who had been recruited from PepsiCo, conceived of the massive spread after viewing the curiously cryptic 1984 ad, recalled adman Steve Hayden in Adweek. Jobs and Sculley felt there would be an "information vacuum" and ordered up the $2.5-million ad campaign, laying out the case to consumers as to why they should buy the computer.

The ad was lighthearted and crisp: "For the first time in recorded computer history, hardware engineers actually talked to software engineers in moderate tones of voice, and both were united by a common goal: to build the most powerful, most portable, most flexible, most versatile computer not-very-much-money could buy."

In the pages that followed, Apple laid out its new features (including the mouse, fonts, the ability to cut and paste, its drawing program) and also compared how the Mac handled word processing and number crunching as compared with the IBM PC.

It also featured testimonials, including one from a young Bill Gates. Gates, who would later spar with Jobs over the Windows operating system, is shown in the advertisement alongside the presidents of Lotus and Software Publishing Corporation. "To create a new standard takes something that's not just a little bit different," Gates is quoted as saying. "It takes something that's really new and captures people's imaginations. Macintosh meets that standard."

In 1979, Apple and Xerox struck a deal. Xerox agreed to show its technology under development in exchange for 100,000 shares in the company. After much negotiation, Xerox programmers showed Jobs and the Apple team its programming language Smalltalk.

"It was like a veil being lifted from my eyes," Jobs said, according to the Isaacson biography Steve Jobs. "I could see what the future of computing was destined to be."

What Jobs observed was a departure from the traditional command lines and DOS prompts. The new system used a graphical user interface - with windows, icons and menus - on a bitmapped screen. Xerox was also using a mouse, which was invented in 1963, with its computers. Apple mimicked this new operating system with their 1983 Lisa, though this machine failed to catch on with the public owing in part to its high price.

In a bid to force consumers to embrace the mouse, Apple left the arrow keys of the Mac keyboard. Computer shops touted the innovation and offered workshops to the curious.

Fred Lebolt writing in Toronto's Sunday Star remarked on how easy the new machine was to use. "By rolling the mouse on the desk, you move the cursor anywhere on the screen. The cursor points to various commands - represented by pictures or words on the screen - and then you push a button on the mouse," he wrote. "That's it. No memorizing complicated command symbols, no special-function keys, no necessity to hit three keys at once to get something done."

Behold a new pointing device called "The Mouse"

'The Miracle of miniaturization': Computers now portable

In the modern age of skinny smartphones, the notion of a "portable" device weighing 16 pounds (7.3 kg) seems laughable. But in 1984, the Macintosh seemed a waif of a machine and Apple touted its size calling it a "miracle of miniaturization" in its ads. By comparison, IBM's Portable PC, released in 1975, weighed 55 pounds (25 kg) and the Compaq Portable, released in 1986, was still a hefty 26 pounds (11.8 kg).

Observers were impressed with the sleek Macintosh, emphasizing the importance of being able to take what you want, where you want.

Writer Larry Magid in a review in the Los Angeles Times observed, "The entire system can be slipped into an optional ($99) padded carrying case to be hoisted over your shoulder or placed under an airline seat. The case and computer together weigh 22 pounds."

Apple would continue to focus on portable products with its game-changing iPods, svelte MacBook airs, and slim iPads.

"Who out there in the general marketplace even knows what a 'font' is?" asked John C. Dvorak in a Macintosh review published in the San Francisco Examiner. The question was fair enough. After all, before the MacWrite word processor, fonts were the business of professional typesetters.

A review in the New York Times remarked on the groundbreaking novelty.

"MacWrite is a word-processing package the likes of which you have never seen on a personal computer," wrote Erik Sandberg-Diment. "Being graphics oriented, it gives you a choice of numerous type faces, similar to Helvetica, Bodoni, Times Roman, etc. You can use all these fonts in plain text, bold, italic, outline or shadow."

But MacWrite was not without its quirks. Sandberg-Diment noted that MacWrite had distinct workflow problems - notably that it had a limited file length of up to 10 pages. "It is like having a filing cabinet that will hold only folders of the same capacity," said the review. "If you need to prepare a 20-page report, you will have to separate it into two sections. That is not too convenient." The review also remarked that printing was unusually slow.

The addition of the mouse to the computer also allowed for innovation in design programs. With MacPaint, users could paint and doodle as they would using a canvas or sketchpad - an innovation marveled at by iconic pop artist Andy Warhol, who encountered the machine at a 9th birthday party for Sean Lennon. Jobs had brought a Mac as a present to the party. Warhol was at first confused by the mouse, said journalist David Sheff in PBS's Steve Jobs: One Last Thing.

"Andy sort of fooled around with it and he was completely mesmerized," Sheff said in the documentary. "I mean when he zoned in on something the rest of the world disappeared and that is what it was like watching Warhol in front of a Macintosh for the first time. And then you know he got this big smile on his face and he said, 'I drew a circle.'"

A new set of tools: Fonts, bold, italics and paint


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