The Mac turns 40

Today, the computer that revolutionized the way we use computers — Apple’s Macintosh — turns 40.

It was on January 24, 1984, that Steve Jobs unveiled the original Macintosh 128k, letting it introduce itself to the world. A massive Super Bowl ad, one of the first commercials to take advantage of its timing, aired just days earlier to allude to the Macintosh’s introduction.

Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl advertisement teasing the introduction of its new Macintosh. “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

That computer — similar to the later Macintosh Classic I’m writing this very post on — is surprisingly efficient compared to modern computers, which are far superior to the “supercomputers” of the 1980s. The 128k had just that, 128 kilobytes (128,000 bytes), for memory. Its Motorola 68000 processor had 68,000 transistors and operated at 8 MHz (8,000,000 Hz). There was no hard drive — everything, including loading the operating system, was done from a single floppy disk drive. You could purchase a second floppy drive, otherwise there would be a lot of disk swapping as you swap between operating system, program, and storage disks. There was no color; The original Macintosh only had 1-bit monochromatic graphics on a 9-inch, black-and-white cathode ray tube.

The 1991 Macintosh Classic — pictured in August 2020 with an ImageWriter II printer — was used to write this post. The Macintosh also kickstarted the desktop publishing revolution, especially with Aldus PageMaker and the introduction of Apple’s LaserWriter printer.

However, this computer would be influential despite its initial flop. While the Macintosh brought the graphical user interface to the everyday man, like Henry Ford did with the Model T, it wasn’t affordable or usable enough in the beginning to make a big splash. Although Apple introduced two “killer apps” alongside the Mac — MacWrite and MacPaint, it still took some time for a sizable software library to be established. Many, in the meantime, deemed the Mac as a “toy” while command line-based operating systems, such as MS-DOS (or PC-DOS) and CP/M, still dominated the market — especially as IBM PC-compatible “clones” took hold.

Speaking of which, Microsoft “cloned” the Mac in the following year with its Windows graphical environment. It still operated on top of an existing MS-DOS installation until NT versions were released in the mid-1990s, causing random issues and making people pull their head out. (I grew up with Windows, starting out with Windows 3.11. I remember getting stuck in MS-DOS as a young child, with nobody knowing how to get out as my parents were technologically illiterate at that time.)

Other GUIs followed suite — such as Commodore’s Amiga, Digital Research’s GEM, and even Apple’s GS/OS for the Apple IIGS. There were even GUIs made for earlier Apple IIs.

However, only two really stuck around — Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Macintosh.

Today’s Macs are different from this Classic in many ways, but are also similar in many ways.

The hardware is definitely different, including the M1 Mac mini that will be used to prepare and publish this post. Its processor, Apple’s own M1 system on a chip, features 16 billion (16,000,000,000) transistors, and 16 gigabytes (16,000,000,000) of memory. It doesn’t have any removable media — no floppy, CD or DVD drives. It has a 256 GB solid-state drive, and — of course — color graphics. There are even newer Macs, like the new Mac Pro, that are far more powerful than my M1 Mac Mini.

The 2020 M1 Mac mini used to prepare and publish this post, seen with its Keychron keyboard and Satechi stand, is far more powerful than vintage 68k Macs. There are still even more faster Macs.

Looking ahead is interesting. On January 19, Apple officially released their new $3,500 Apple Vision Pro augmented reality (AR) goggles. Like the original Macintosh did in 1984, this new product is designed to change the way we compute… again. It also suffers from many of the same issues that hobbled the early Macs in the market: High price, a small software library and people considering it a “toy.”

Will the Apple Vision Pro become the next Macintosh, changing the course of computing? Will I — and most other people — be wearing these funny-looking goggles to work, play and learn? 

It’s fun to look back at how far we’ve come since 1984, and even further. It’s equally fun looking to the future, thinking about what the world might look like at the Mac’s 50th, 80th or even 100th anniversaries.

To celebrate the Mac’s anniversary, I (quickly) created a graphic in Aldus SuperPaint 3. Unfortunately I don’t have MacPaint (the original paintbrush application released for the Mac) installed anymore on this computer, or I’d be using it instead.

A 40th anniversary graphic I hastily created in Aldus SuperPaint 3.0 on the 1991 Macintosh Classic. Unfortunately, I no longer had MacPaint installed since I swapped the Classic’s original hard drive for a BlueSCSI.
Happy 40th anniversary, Macintosh! Here’s to another 40 years…

Post written using Microsoft Word 4.0 on a 1991 Apple Macintosh Classic.