Steve Jobs' perfect pitch: The Macintosh launch

guest post Former Apple executive Jean Louis Gassée takes a nostalgic look at the Mac's historic launch and promises -- not to be confused with the hard struggle later on the battlefield.

Steve Jobs introducing the 1984 commercial on October 22, 1983 at the Apple sales conference in Honolulu. Apple video

Jean-Louis Gassée, the former president of the Apple Products Division, shares his remembrance of the October 1983 sales conference in Hawaii where Steve Jobs made his call to arms against IBM.

This article is part of a CNET special report on the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh, looking at the beginnings of Apple's landmark machine and its impact over the last three decades.


Lights go down in the cavernous auditorium and conversations die off. After a minute of silence, a post-apocalyptic video begins to play on the enormous screen. Through an oppressive gray haze, we see rows of forced-labor prisoners, an unquestioning audience to Big Brother's soporific sermon. One exception: Pursued by police in riot gear, a female athlete in red shorts runs in, rotates for momentum and launches a sledge hammer that breaks the screen and, with it, the spell. The video ends with a promise:

On January 24th, 1984 Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.

And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984."

The lights come up as a Macintosh slowly descends from above the stage, a gift from the gods. Halfway through its descent, the Mac powers up and emits the unforgettable startup bong.

When Steve Jobs appears on stage, the reaction is, as intended, a quasi-religious frenzy.

Steve doesn't disappoint and launches into a speech that moves from the video's promise to a veritable call to arms against Big Brother/Big Blue, against the mighty IBM.

This was more than 30 years ago, the October 1983 Apple Sales Conference in Honolulu.

We know the story only too well. In 1981, IBM introduces a 16-bit clone of the Apple II, down to game controller and tape cassette interfaces.

Jobs puts on a brave face -- and treats the facts in his usual way:

Apple welcomed IBM to the PC market in August 1981 with an advertisement following the debut of IBM's first personal computer, the IBM PC. Apple

Big Blue does better than shrug off Jobs' high-handed gesture. For its first PC, the starchy computer giant shows surprising cultural agility. First, it establishes authority by calling its new machine The Personal Computer, and gives it a human face by making Charlie Chaplin the central character of its ads. (At the time, I felt that IBM was "stealing our song.")

IBM quickly improves its product. By 1983, the PC has evolved into the PC XT featuring a hard disk and, more important, Mitch Kapor's Lotus 1-2-3 integrated suite, a "killer app" in more ways than one.

An early prototype of the Finder from spring 1982, created by Macintosh developers Andy Hertzeld and Bruce Horn. The image of a floppy disk, over which the files were represented as draggable tabs. Folklore.org

Apple has no reply. Despite an improved logic board, the Apple III continues to suffer from widespread reliability problems. Lisa, introduced in January 1983, is a truly modern computer inspired by work at Xerox PARC, but it proves to be too slow, too buggy, and too expensive to make a difference. (The Lisa would ultimately provide an invaluable service by bequeathing its desktop user interface to the Macintosh. In a prototype version of the Mac desktop -- the skeuomorphic "Flounder" -- rounded rectangular splotches that represent files are thrown around a picture of a black floppy disk that fills the screen. Jobs sees the light and adopts the Lisa desktop UI.)

At the end of a difficult 1983, Apple is on its heels. The Cupertino company is losing the hardware/software credibility fight with IBM. We're ready for Jobs' messianic message.

The day after the screening of the 1984 commercial (which would air in public only once before a massive audience, during the 1984 Super Bowl), we're treated to a mock "Dating Game" featuring Kapor, Microsoft's Bill Gates, and Fred Gibbons of Software Publishing fame, an event that was captured on video. Seeing these three software giants commit to Macintosh finished the job the commercial started. Watch the video and listen to the reactions, especially when Gates says half of Microsoft software revenue in 1984 will come from the Mac.

Jean-Louis Gassee
Jean-Louis Gassee

(I have a soft spot for Gibbons, the co-creator of the "PFS:" business software that ran on the Apple II and Apple III. I used PFS: a lot for file management and VisiCalc graphics integration demos. Just as important, PFS: software helped me produce the daily detailed sales reports I wanted -- something the centralized IT of Apple Europe was unable to do. In half an hour, I cobbled a PFS: Report template that allowed everyone in the organization to receive a "stimulating" view of everyone's performance.)

We have the Macintosh, a friendly, magical personal computer. The Mac comes with beautiful programs, MacWrite, MacPaint, and MacDraw. And three software giants, including the creator of the feared Lotus 1-2-3, are now behind it.

We file out of the Honolulu auditorium, satisfied and invigorated. 1983 is definitely behind us.

What could go wrong? Well, it turned out that on January 24, 1984, the Macintosh was a shot heard round the world that would forever change the personal computer. But Jobs' quest to save the world from Big (Blue) Brother, which turned into the Microsoft hegemony, would take a few more decades.

About the author

    Jean-Louis Gassée started Apple France in 1981, then moved to California in 1985 to became president of the Apple Products Division, covering worldwide product development, manufacturing and product marketing. In 1990, he founded Be Inc., a software company that in 2001 was sold to Palm. He has served as a director of publicly traded companies such as Cray, 3Com and Logitech. He currently sits on the board of Electronics for Imaging and has been a general partner at the venture capital firm Allegis Capital since 2003.

     

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