mac.column.ted: 20 years and counting

mac.column.ted: 20 years and counting

by Ted Landau

A return to those thrilling days of yesteryear...

"The easiest-to-use, most powerful and innovative personal computer yet to hit the market." (InfoWorld)

"You won?t find another machine that?s as easy or as much fun." (Byte)

"It is far easier to use than anything we've seen before." (Bill Gates, as quoted in Macworld)

"The industry, as it catches its breath, is calling it a winner." (Softalk)

"It is the best hardware value in the history of the personal computer. It should establish itself as the next standard in personal computers." (In Cider)

What was the subject of all of this lavish praise? It was the Macintosh of course. All of these quotes come from magazines that were published shortly after the original Macintosh was released on January 24th 1984. As we approach the 20th anniversary of this historic date, I have begun looking back at how the Mac changed the computing world two decades ago. It seemed a perfect topic for this month's column. So return with me now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear?

I was one of the lucky ones. Lucky enough to have been there back in late 1983. Apple had established itself as a success with the Apple II. It was so successful that the Apple II was now referred to as the first standard in personal computing. The IBM PC had arrived in 1981 and had quickly established itself as the second standard. In fact, with the power of the IBM name behind it and running Microsoft's MS-DOS, it was already well on its way to eclipsing the Apple II.

I was in the market to buy my first home computer. At the university where I worked, we all used Apple IIs, so I was inclined to get one for my home as well. However, I admit to giving the IBM PC a serious look. There were also rumblings of the Macintosh on the horizon. Apple was already touting the Mac as the new third standard. I was skeptical, but I decided to wait and look at Apple's new baby before making my choice.

The morning after Apple's now famous 1984 commercial was shown during the Super Bowl, I ran off to my local computer store to check out the new machine. With apologies to my wife, it was love at first sight. It's hard to convey the excitement that the Mac generated when I first saw it. I was not blind to the fact that the Mac had some slight limitations. OK, some fairly huge limitations. But it did not matter in the least. What the Mac could not do was not nearly as important as the glorious things it could do.

I could see that the Mac was the future of computing and that's where I was going. I bought a Mac that day. The only mystery to me was why everyone else in America did not do the same thing. I could only conclude that they were suffering from some tragic delusional disorder. I took pity on them.

When I finally got my Mac home and unpacked, I put the cassette tape tutorial in my portable tape player and began a relationship that is still going strong. The Mac had only 128K of RAM (with 64K of ROM), a 9 inch black-and-white display, a single floppy drive that could only use 400K disks, and was powered by a Motorola 68000 processor running at 7.8336 MHz. But it was still a marvel.

What was it about the Mac that so dazzled me? Here's what:

  • The Macintosh desktop. One look at the high resolution screen, with its black text on a white background, and you knew you were in a different world from those suddently drab Apple IIs and PCs. But that was just the appetizer. The main course was the ability to move the cursor around the screen with the mouse. Unbelievable! You could select commands from menus, drag a document icon to a folder icon. No command lines to use and no commands to memorize. It was an operating system so elegant that you did not think of it as an operating system. It was just your desktop. [True, Apple's Lisa, released about a year earlier, included most of these features. And yes, the Lisa was based on ideas first developed at Xerox. But it took the Mac to bring all of this technology to a mass audience.]

  • MacPaint and graphics. Whenever I had a chance to show off my new Mac (which happened as often as I could manage), MacPaint is where I started. You could use a mouse like a paint brush and just draw directly on the screen. Whoa! You could use simple commands to modify your drawing - and create great effects such as filling in a circle with any of a variety of patterns. Drawing programs existed on other platforms. But nothing could begin to compare with this.

  • MacWrite and WYSIWYG. Right behind MacPaint on the "must see" list was MacWrite's ability to display a variety of different fonts on the screen exactly how it would look when printed out. You could change the font, change its style or its size, and it was all right there in front of you. It was called what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG). I just called it amazing.

  • Cut and Paste. With the Mac, you could select a section of text with the mouse, enter the Cut command, reposition the cursor and enter the Paste command. Presto. Your selected text was transferred to its new location. You could even cut a graphic from MacPaint and paste it into a MacWrite word processing document. Text and graphics could be side-by-side ? and all viewed on the screen in WYSIWYG layout. Nothing like this was even remotely possible on other computers.

I imagine some readers are yawning about now, unimpressed with these Mac accomplishments. And yes, if you've grown up with these features always available in every computer you could buy, it doesn't seem all that amazing. But trust me, if you were around in 1984, you'd be impressed. These features were completely unheard of in any home computer. The Mac initiated a seismic shift in the computing world.

Later on, as my interest in troubleshooting developed, I also became impressed with how accessible the operating system was, especially as compared to MS-DOS. You could just double-click the System Folder and start exploring the innards of the OS. And with a tool like ResEdit, modifying the System file was almost as easy as writing a letter in MacWrite.

But I would be misleading you if I did not admit that there were people, apparently rational and sane, that did not share my excitement. To be fair, I will try to explain their errant logic:

  • It's a toy. The Mac didn't have a full size keyboard. There was no numeric keypad and no function keys. It was too small and cuddly. But most importantly, the mouse and desktop metaphor made you feel like you were playing a game. Such was the point of view of those that snubbed their collective noses at the Mac, grumbling that "Real men don't use a mouse" or "You can't get serious work done on a Mac."

    Looked at in 2004, this criticism is laughable. You can't buy a home computer today that doesn't use a mouse and a desktop metaphor. In a scenario that would be replayed many times over the next 20 years, time would show that Apple had not been on the wrong path, it was just ahead of everyone else on the right path. [Of course, while Apple won this battle, it lost the war of which operating system most people now use with their mouse; but that's another story.]

  • It doesn't have any software. The Mac doom-sayers claimed it was too late to come out with yet another machine that was incompatible with every other computer in the universe. Heck, the Mac didn't even use the same floppy disks as those other computers. With thousands of programs available for the Apple II and the IBM PC, who would want a machine with only a half-dozen programs that run on it? And do you really expect developers to start writing new software for yet another platform?

    Admittedly, it did seem like an uphill battle. Yet Apple overcame the odds and won. The Mac OS was just too good to ignore. The Apple II is now extinct, MS-DOS is ancient history, and the IBM label is rarely seen on PCs today. But the Mac lives on.

    And one of the first companies to help it along was?Microsoft! The very first third-party productivity application that shipped for the Mac was Microsoft's Multiplan spreadsheet. And Word and Excel were both out for the Mac before they were available on the PC. Imagine that!

  • It?s under-powered and not expandable. This one was hard to argue with. If you bought a Mac in 1984, you were betting on the future. There was no doubt that you would be making sacrifices in the present. Like the toaster Steve Jobs wanted the Mac to emulate, there was no way for an end user to get inside it. You could not even add memory. Even if you did somehow get the special tool needed to pry open the case, Apple warned that you could get a serious electric shock if you touched the wrong component!

    Extra storage? Forget it. Even an external floppy drive did not arrive until months after the Mac was released. Until then, just copying a file from one floppy disk to another often meant a long bout of the infamous Macintosh shuffle.

    Hard drives weren't really a practical option until the SCSI port was added to the Mac Plus in 1986.

    The built-in monitor made moving up to larger display nearly impossible. Color screens were still years away. And, if you wanted to print out all those graphics and fonts that you saw on the screen, you had only one choice ? Apple's dot-matrix ImageWriter.

    Still, it's worth remembering how much could be done within these limitations. The entire Mac OS together with MacWrite and MacPaint fit on one 400K disk ? with enough room left over to hold a few documents!

    And let's not forget: It was only a little over a year later that the Mac once again transformed the computing world: With the release of Apple's LaserWriter printer and Aldus' PageMaker software, desktop publishing was born! Now, even a novice could design a newsletter that looked as if it had been composed by the staff of the New York Times. Add Adobe's Photoshop to the mix, and it's easy to see why the Mac soon became the preferred choice of "creative professionals." It took more than a decade before the PC platform would come close to matching the Mac in this area.

    Happily, Apple eventually did provide the Mac with the expandability it needed. What was once a valid argument is no longer worth arguing about.

The subsequent years were a roller coaster ride of spectacular triumphs and near-death experiences. Apple brought us QuickTime, HyperCard, MultiFinder, FireWire, AirPort, the Cinema Display, the iMac, the iPod, the iLife suite of software, the iTunes Music Store and, of course, Mac OS X. It also brought us the Newton, OpenDoc, the Copland operating system that died before it was born, and a series of dull beige computers in the mid-90's that almost sapped the creative spirit out of the Mac. Clones came and went. Steve Jobs went and came back.

Speaking of Steve, consider this: Whatever else, good or bad, you can say about Steve Jobs, it is indisputable that he saved Apple. By 1997, Apple was on the verge of imploding. Sales plummeted, losses mounted, and magazine covers were trumpeting the death of the company. Apple responded by purchasing the NeXT operating system and got Steve as part of the deal. I was not convinced this was a good move at the time. But it clearly was. Starting with the release of the iMac the following year, Steve started a turn-around that its still moving forward today. If you ever want an anecdote to show the difference one person can make, you won't find a better one than the story of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Returning to the world of today....it's tempting to look ahead. Where will Apple take us in the next 20 years? Will it still even be here in 20 years? Will Apple's market share ever reach double digits again? I honestly don't know. My crystal ball has always been hazy on such matters.

Instead, I would pose a different sort of speculation: Where would computers be today if Apple had never existed, if the Mac had never been released in 1984? How long would it take for other companies to develop all of the innovations that Apple created? I believe it would be a very long time indeed. The rest of the computing world still has trouble imitating Apple's successes. Inventing them from scratch? I don't know if we would ever see some of the things we now take for granted. Whether you are an admitted Mac fanatic like me, or have never used a Mac in your life, you owe a debt to Apple for much of what is innovative, exciting and just plain fun about using computers.

I have never regretted my decision to go with a Mac back in 1984. Not even for an instant. Thanks for the ride Apple. It's been great. Happy 20th anniversary!

Tip of the Month

For this month's Tip of the Month, I offer two items that should have been on my list of small changes in Panther - as detailed in last month's column (The "little" changes in Panther: Which ones were worth it?):

  • Classic menu added. The Classic System Preferences pane now includes a check box to "Show Classic status in menu bar." With this enabled, you can use the menu to check on the status of Classic (is it running or not?). The Classic menu also includes a list (accessible even when Classic is not running) of the items in Classic's Apple menu. Definitely worth it! This should have been included in OS X long before now.

  • Add to Favorites change. Apple eliminated the Favorites command from the Finder's Go menu in Panther. It also appears to have eliminated the Add to Favorites command (it's in the Finder's File menu in Jaguar but is gone in Panther). But all is not as it seems. The Favorites folder is still located in your Home directory's Library folder. It is used by default to store Favorites listed in the Connect to Server window. You can also easily add anything you want to the Favorites folder by holding down the Shift key when you select the Finder's File menu. The Add to Sidebar command in the menu changes to the old Add to Favorites command. To make it easier to access the Favorites folder contents, add the folder to your Sidebar. Apple almost certainly made this change to "encourage" you to use Panther's new Sidebar in preference to the Favorites folder. So I consider this change to be worth it if you agree with Apple's intent. Otherwise, it's probably not.

The fine print

If you have a suggestion for a future column, or comments on an existing one, I welcome your feedback. Email me at landau@macfixit.com.

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