Are today's Macs related to the Mac Daddy?

After 25 years, is there much remaining of the first Macintoshes in today's much faster, more powerful models?

The MacBook Air seems a long way off from the original Macintosh. But according to some, there remains some hereditary DNA from its 1984-era ancestor. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

What is a Macintosh?

After 25 years on the market, it's a good question, since someone with no knowledge of computers looking at, say, today's MacBook Pro, would not necessarily know that it evolved from 1984's original 128K Mac.

But evolve it did, and on the 25th anniversary of the release of that original machine (which is this Saturday), one might indeed wonder what hereditary DNA, if any, today's Macs retain from their much more humble ancestors.

The answer is some, but not that much, at least not when it comes to specific identifiable hardware features, according to two experts interviewed for this article.

One half of an ad for the original 128K Macintosh from 1984. Courtesy of the Digibarn Computer Museum

"Very little, in terms of the hardware, remains," said Bruce Damer, co-founder of the Digibarn Computer Museum, "except for the fine-quality industrial design of the cases."

But there must be something linking the earliest Macs with today's models besides the name and company that produces them. Otherwise, the famous Macintosh community known by names like the "cult of Mac" or " MacHeads " wouldn't be such a powerful force.

"At its essence, you look at it where it (is) relative to what it was before," said Raines Cohen, the founder of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, and "there's a sense that it's still a machine that you turn on and you do things (easily) with it. It's an interface that stays out of your way."

Basically, Cohen said, the Mac is all about ease of use and simplicity--as well as the continuity of a low-maintenance user experience.

"Recently, I had a chance to go back and use the old Mac," Cohen said. "The essential consistency was still the same. You could take a Mac user who has been on ice for the last quarter century and put them on a modern Mac, and they'd be up and using it within a matter of moments."

Perhaps that's because of a few software elements that today's Macs have that first appeared in the first versions of the computer.

"On the software side, the primary elements left from the original Mac OS come through in the user interface," said Damer. "The single menu stripe--File, Special, etc.--is a vestige of the original limited screen real estate of the 128K Mac."

The original Mac was a simple machine that changed the way everyday people saw computers. The machine helped open up desktop publishing to a mainstream audience. Courtesy of the Digibarn Computer Museum

Damer said there are a few other recognizable holdovers as well. For one, the arrow-cursor remains almost identical today to its origins, and window-handling also has stayed the same. In other words, he said, today, as in 1984, you can only resize a window from the lower right corner.

Today's Mac OS X got its beginnings at NeXT, the company Steve Jobs built during his years in exile from Apple. When Apple bought NeXT and brought Jobs back, first to consult and then run the company, the NeXT OS came along with him and formed the basis for the future generations of Macs.

But Apple knew that its fans had an idea of what the Mac OS was supposed to look like, Damer suggested, and as a result, it found a way to maintain some of the consistency to which Cohen referred.

"In some sense, to try to keep some of the original look and feel of the old Mac OS, the Apple team 'dumbed down' the NeXT GUI," Damer said, "which was in some ways more powerful and flexible."

But all along, Cohen said, the Mac operating system has kept the basic elements of menu navigation and windowing more or less the same.

And that, aside from the much more abstract notion that a computer built by what is seen by many to be a company obsessed with design and a somewhat pirate-like mentality, may be what really makes a Mac a Mac.

"Apple's UI guidelines have been there all along," Cohen said, "so that programs have to be consistent and have that (high) level of consistency in order to be successful on the platform."

See the rest of our Mac anniversary coverage here.

 

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