The Mac turns 20

“On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”

This haunting line is spoken at the end of the TV commercial, which aired in the US for one time only (as the legend goes) in October 1983 during Super Bowl. It announced a vision for computing that emphasized the individual’s creativity. The commercial evoked images from George Orwell’s novel “1984” where Big Brother (IBM?) talks, via a huge screen to the masses of homogenized workers about “information purity”, only to be smashed with a sledge hammer thrown by a defiant woman athlete in red running shorts and an Apple T-shirt.

That was the spirit of the Macintosh: a computer created around the needs of individuals, not by the dictates of corporations or governments.

This month the Macintosh will turn 20. It’s the computer that brought the mouse, windows, icons, point-and-click and many other innovations to the masses.

With the mouse and the graphical user interface (GUI), the Macintosh launched the desktop publishing revolution. In fact, this newspaper you’re reading (if you’re reading the paper version) was laid out on a Macintosh. This article was written on a Mac. Did you know that the first version of Microsoft’s Word was actually for the Mac?

Apple did not invent the mouse and the GUI. In fact, Xerox did (but it’s executives were too blind to see their value). Steve Jobs (who started Apple with his friend Steve Wozniak) in 1976, basically “stole” these concepts when he visited Xerox’s research labs and saw what they were working on. The rest is history.

In the public mind, Steve Jobs is inextricably connected to the Macintosh, although, the truth is that he actually tried to kill the project in the beginning, only embracing it after he was kicked out of the team working on Apple’s failed Lisa computer.

The real father of the Macintosh is Jef Raskin, who in 1976 joined Apple as employee number 31. Raskin, initially employed as “Consultant and Writer”, brought with him an amazing wealth of experience in fields ranging from photography to computer design.

In a long document entitled “Holes in the Histories” on his website (humane.sourceforge.net) Raskin writes “In the spring of 1979 I went to the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Apple, Mike Markkula, and proposed that Apple build a new kind of computer. It was to be inexpensive; have a small footprint; use a built-in, graphics-based screen; and?my most heretical point? it would be based on human factors considerations rather than driven by whatever was hottest in electronic technology at the moment. My name for this project was ‘Macintosh’”.

The Macintosh, like any success has many fathers. Raskin left Apple in 1982, and went on to design other computer and consult on matters relating to human-computer interfaces.

Jobs was expelled from Apple by its board in 1985. The Macintosh’s road to success was not without bumps but it established itself in the market as a computer that is friendly and easy to use. Jobs returned in 1997 and re-energized the company. Today Apple is a leading force in making the computer the centerpiece of our digital lifestyle, especially in the fields of digital video, photography and music. Apple today is the world leader in selling portable MP3 players (the iPod) and selling music online via its iTune music store. On the professional end of the market, the Macintosh is used in professional music production, film editing and special effects.

Apple’s and the Mac’s history as told and retold in countless books, magazines and websites, holds many lessons for individuals or organizations interested the concepts and inner workings of technological and business innovation. Beyond that, this history is also the embodiment of the creative spirit of Silicon Valley.

Happy birthday, Macintosh.


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