‘The Macintosh computer changed everything’

As the Macintosh computer celebrates its 30th birthday, Lou Hattersley takes a look the impact of the Mac on today’s technology.
 
  • The Apple Computer Inc., manufacturing plant in Milpitas, Calif., producing Macintosh computers, is shown in this Feb. 24, 1984 phot
    Lou Hattersley
    Last updated: 24 January 2014, 17:33 GMT

    The first time I used a Macintosh was at college, when a single Macintosh was placed alongside a stack of IBM PCs for students to write reports.

    I distinctly remember quizzically picking up the mouse, pushing it around and seeing the funny little cursor move around the screen. I remember gingerly learning how to navigate the visual interface. Eventually, I fell in love with it.

    I remember deeply wanting to own a Macintosh. I didn't know how much it cost, but I knew I couldn't afford it.

    Later I landed a job as a magazine writer. On my first day, I was presented with a Macintosh LC.

    In 1999 I bought my first iMac. This is the Macintosh most people remember, the colourful, translucent one designed by British design guru Jony Ive. Since, then I’ve owned pretty much every Mac computer Apple has released.

    Steve Jobs, Apple’s visionary founder and CEO, said of the Macintosh: “It didn’t just change Apple. It changed the whole computer industry.”

    It’s hard to pin down just why the Apple Macintosh had such a big impact. It wasn’t even Apple’s first home computer - when it was released in 1984 Apple had already been selling home computers for almost eight years.

    To open a folder on an IBM PC you’d have to type in ‘cd c:\window\documents’, the type ‘dir to view the files and ‘Edit <ARTICLE.TXT>’ to get to work."

    Contrary to popular belief the Apple Macintosh wasn’t the first computer to use a mouse and have a GUI (graphical user interface).

    Apple engineers got the idea from Xerox PARC, with Jobs paying $16.6 million (£10 million) up-front for sharing ideas.

    When Steve Jobs later accused Microsoft of copying Apple with its Windows GUI, Microsoft boss Bill Gates said: “I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbour named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

    Before GUIs, you used to have to use a keyboard and navigate file menus using text commands. To open a folder on an IBM PC you’d have to type in ‘cd c:\window\documents’, the type ‘dir to view the files and ‘Edit <ARTICLE.TXT>’ to get to work.

    Compare that palaver to opening a file with a double-click of a mouse and you can see why the Macintosh had such an impact.

    Jef Raskin was an Apple engineer obsessed with the idea that the computer could be a consumer device - something easy enough for people to instinctively use, like a toaster or fridge.

    His ideas caught the attention of Jobs, who wanted a successful home computer that was easy to use, and Raskin created a team inside Apple that flew a pirate flag outside their separate office.

    Designed from scratch, the machine was designed to provide a graphical performance that cost over $10,000 (£2,495) in a machine that cost around $1,000 (£600). Ultimately the first Mac cost $2,495 (£1500). Apple pushed the price down with each model until it hit that $1,000 mark – which is around the price home computers packed with the latest technology have been since.

    Somebody, somewhere sat down and thought up of a way to use computers that would make sense for ordinary people."

    Microsoft followed Apple’s lead with Windows and sold over a billion copies of the operating system worldwide. Thanks to Microsoft the GUI, with its desktop, files and folders, became the heart of what people know as a home computer.

    Often people don’t often realise that somebody, somewhere sat down and thought up of a way to use computers that would make sense for ordinary people.

    I recently used both an original Apple Macintosh and IBM PC at the Cambridge Centre for Computing - models from my college class all those years ago. I was struck by how easy it was to use the Macintosh, as all the menus and options are remarkably similar to the computers we use today.

    Next to the Macintosh sits an IBM PC running Wordstar. It asks me if I want to “Open a Nondocument” - IBM's way of saying “Create New File” before the language of computing was formalised.

    And that’s perhaps the real contribution of the Macintosh – it gave us the language that we use to interact with modern computers. By contrast you can’t talk to an older computer: it speaks a different language.

    Record producer Brian Eno once said “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." The Macintosh was our Velvet Underground: only a few people used the first Macintosh, but those who did never forgot it. They went on to create all the technology you use today. Almost every technology product you touch owes a debt to what was created by the Apple team in Cupertino in 1984.

    Lou Hattersley is a technology editor and writer. Her first work Mac was missing a floppy disk drive - she kept forgetting this and a screwdriver became her best friend.

    This article is the opinion of Lou Hattersley and not necessarily that of BT.

    Lou Hattersley
    Last updated: 24 January 2014, 17:33 GMT

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