Today marks the 30 year anniversary of the Apple Macintosh personal computer, a tool that I have used almost every day of my professional life for almost that entire span. I feel particularly inscribed in the Macintosh story since its introduction coincided with the year I graduated from college and because it was associated from the very beginning with graphic design, the craft with which I began my working life.
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In truth, the Macintosh enabled many niche activities, particularly in academia. Steve Jobs in his introductory presentation for the Macintosh (see video below) refers to the twin audiences for the machine as “knowledge workers and college workers,” and he announced that day a university consortium of 24 American universities including the entire Ivy league as well as Stanford (of course), Carnegie Mellon and many other leading schools. The Apple II already had 70% of the K-12 education market and Jobs was aiming at higher ed to build the brand loyalty of the coming generation.
I was a member of that generation, though the $50 million of Macintoshes and Lisa’s that these Universities bought in 1984 were mainly destined for labs and the creation of courseware, not for student use. But I do remember, in my senior year as an undergraduate art major in the graphic design department at Yale, seeing the first Macintoshes appear in the shared studios of the graduate students. Some of those former students who I contacted yesterday, Joseph Guglietti and Barry Roseman, recall that it was not until 1985 that Macintoshes were in wide use in the graduate school, and in Wolfgang Weingart’s Yale summer typography program in Basel, Switzerland.
Typography was indeed one of Steve Jobs’ obsessions, although he was untrained as a designer (and a programmer for that matter.) What Jobs presented as “insanely great” for bitmapped screen type in 1984 is incredibly crude by the standards of the latest iPad’s retinal display. But the Macintosh has had a privileged position in the world of graphic design and particularly in the publishing industry where it is still the platform of choice.
Unlike its clunky predecessor, the IBM PC which was built for the cubicle-dwelling Dilberts of large corporations, the original Macintosh was highly portable (especially by 80s standards) and was imagined for, in fact, the 21st century startup economy we have today. If Jobs can be said to have made any miscalculation that led to his removal from the company the following year, it was that he was both insanely right but also insanely early. The future envisioned by the members of the Homebrew Computer Club, that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak dragged Steve Jobs to in 1975, did not (and in many ways still has not) materialized.
Instead, the tiny Seattle company that licensed IBM the operating system for its personal computer went on to license it to many other companies as well, and Microsoft became the threat that Jobs had imagined (and demonized) IBM to be. The Macintoshes decisive defeat by the PC (at least in terms of market share) put Apple in a minority position until the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Now with the benefit of the aura of Apple’s insanely successful mobile devices Macintosh sales grew almost 30% in 2013 against a backdrop of contraction for the rest of the industry.
What is striking about watching Jobs’ performance 30 years ago is how bald the salesman he was with his jaunty bow ties compared to the zen aesthete he became in later years. He was selling a stylized vision of technology, one in which “the rest of us” included women, children and all manner of command line averse knowledge workers. As primitive as the original Macintosh was, it contained all of the elements that we have come to recognize as integral to the personal computer, the graphic user interface with icons and drop down menus, the point and click mouse, the ability to store files in a portable manner. It even contained advanced features like animation and text to speech conversion, admittedly crude, but signposts to what our personal technology has become. Like the iPhone, it was the first complete encapsulation of the feature set of what became, in a sense, a generic product.
It is instructive, perhaps to compare the form factor of that original Macintosh to the new Mac Pro (insanely great animated demo here). In less space, and 2/3rds of the weight of the 128k Mac, Apple now runs a chip 500 times as fast with 100,000 times the amount of RAM for only 20% higher sticker price. Wow! That’s 30 years of Moore’s Law and Apple engineering talking!
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