Apple execs reflect on the Macintosh at 30

"The best thing to happen to the Mac in last 10 years was iOS," says Bud Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology and a member of the original Mac team.

Dan Farber
8 min read
Metamorphosis of the Macintosh Apple/CNET

In an interview with CNET, Apple executives Bud Tribble, Craig Federighi and Phil Schiller share their thoughts about the impact of the Macintosh as it turns 30 today. 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.

Bud Tribble, currently Apple's vice president of software technology, was the first software developer to work on the Macintosh. In 1979, he joined the team started by Jef Raskin, who first came up with the concept of the Macintosh. Tribble managed the Macintosh software team until the end of 1981 when he left to finish medical school. He later reunited with Jobs at Next and again at Apple after Jobs returned as CEO.

Guy 'Bud' Tribble, vice president of software technology at Apple, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. Bloomberg via Getty Images

"The team working on the Mac really did have the idea that we were building something that was going to set the way that people interacted with their computers," Tribble said about the early days of the Macintosh. "We were trying to think as deeply as we could about how people were going to use these things, and how the mouse and the graphical interface could be the best that it possibly could. We were really designing something that was going to become part of the fabric of our lives, part of the fabric of society. There was a very strong feeling along those lines, and Steve encouraged it."

The Macintosh team famously talked about how the Macintosh would revolutionize computing for the masses, but didn't necessarily count on it lasting three decades.

"We really tried to bring aesthetics into it. We had a group of people from a variety of backgrounds -- myself in medicine, we had a physicist, archaeologist, musicians. There was a lot of attention to detail, a lot of thinking about how is this going to be the best way too interact with a computer for a long time. I don't know if we had 30 years in mind, but we were setting the way people were going to use these devices," Tribble said.

The Macintosh didn't dominate the market as the iPod, iPhone and iPad did when they were first introduced, but the DNA of the original 128K Macintosh persists in Apple's products over the last 30 years beyond the use of icons, windows, folders and the mouse.

"To me it's the same DNA, having been there then and heavily involved now as we develop new products," Tribble said. "The idea was we wanted to develop great products and that the user or person is at the center of the design, plus the fact that what we were building we ourselves desperately wanted to have. Those ingredients are still there, even more so today as part of the company because they are just reflex ways of thinking about things. Back then, it was very unusual for a tech company, and even today those values and that approach is pretty unusual for a technology company....It's a craftsman-like approach that was true back then, and if anything even more true today."

Craig Federighi

Craig Federighi, who oversees the development of iOS and Mac OS X, was first introduced to computers when he was 10. He learned to write programs for the Apple II. He was 14 when the Macintosh was introduced, and after seeing the new machine he vowed to get a job at Apple. "That was the moment that I said, 'when I grow up I want to work at Apple'. I wanted to work among the kind of people who can do this and care enough to make this kind of object," he said.

Federighi's desire to work at Apple took a detour during his college years. He became a fan of Next, the computer company Steve Jobs founded after he left Apple and where Tribble was leading the software engineering team. After college Federighi landed a job at Next. When Next was acquired by Apple for $400 million in December 1996, Federighi fulfilled his youthful vow. He left Apple for a decade to serve as the CTO of Ariba, and then returned to the company in 2009.

Apple's Mac through the years (pictures)

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Like Tribble, he sees a great deal of continuity between the original Macintosh and Apple's current products.

"You start with a goal about an experience you want to deliver and as a designer you want for yourself, and then you draw on the best technology and ideas available and the best lessons from humanities and science to deliver that experience," he said. "That thread has continued from the Mac to this day, and you see its expression not just in the Mac but in the iPhone and iPad. They all have clear lineage to back to that principle and pursuit. It is so incredible to think that any product could endure after 30 years."

He imagined that if he were somehow transported from the time he first saw the Macintosh to the present and saw an iMac he would be "blown away." He would immediately recognize it as "a Mac from the future" and know how to use it.

"There is something so durable and timeless about those founding ideas in the Mac that carries through everything Apple does," Federighi added. "OS X and ultimately iOS and the iPhone all have that strong lineage from both the early Mac as well as from Next.

The Mac ups its game
Indeed, Next played an important role in the evolution of the Macintosh operating system. It provided a software platform steeped in networking and security.

"In the late 90s, with the infusion of Next and Unix when Steve came back is probably when Apple became very serious about those things," Tribble said. "Unix grew up in a hostile environment, namely university students trying to break in, so security was built in. That set the tone to have the Mac up its game in that era, and we've never looked back, and we do a great job in those things."

Federighi added that iOS has also helped the Macintosh become more secure. "The iPhone really offered an opportunity -- given that we knew that the device would be out in the world in a way that could expose it to risk -- to design a great, next-generation security architecture in terms how things are sandboxed and signed, a really great set of technologies, which then we have been able to flow back to the Mac," he said. "That has been great with the advent of iOS. iOS and OS X are built on common foundations and now built by one team. A problem that might initially be the highest priority for one gets tackled, we get some great ideas, and to the extent those make sense for the other, they come back."

"The best thing to happen to the Mac in last 10 years was iOS. The cross pollination and the infusion in both directions has been invigorating for both the Mac and iOS," Tribble said.

Phil Schiller

Phil Schiller was 24 years old when he joined Apple in 1987 as a product marketer. At that point Jobs had left to start Next and the Macintosh was just beginning to flourish with desktop publishing and interactive multimedia applications.

"In 1987 we were growing the footprint of the Mac to do a greater variety of tasks for people," Schiller said. "We were working launching a more powerful Mac with the Mac SE and also Mac II, an expandable desktop." Apple was also among the first manufacturers to add high-quality color with a Sony Trinitron display.

"It was still a really exciting, great time. I also recall I was going door to door to companies trying to convince them that [Microsoft] Word and Excel were really great products and you didn't need to use Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect, and nobody believed us at that time. People forget that [Microsoft] Office was on Mac first," Schiller recalled.

"The arc of time for Apple over the last 30 years is an incredibly instructive one," Schiller said. "The Apple from 1997 to now, which I look at as one continuum of time, is an Apple that gets the core hardware plus software plus services ability to invent products better than we ever did before. We did it great in the 1984 time frame, and we get it much more now. The idea that it takes a cross-functional team of disparate people with amazing talents to work together to make something was part of the Mac team. I don't think that was Apple's entire culture then. Before it was a division culture, and now it's Apple's culture. That's one thing Tim [Cook] has been driving even more -- the idea that the collaboration of these teams creating the greatest breakthroughs and inventions for our customers is fundamental to the entire Apple now."

The Mac SE 30 (Credit: Apple)

When asked to name his favorite Macintosh, Tribble singled out the MacBook Air, especially for its long battery life. Schiller had three favorites, starting with the Mac SE 30. "The idea of taking a pro-level CPU and building it into a compact consumer Mac...it was just so fast in this little box. It was like putting a souped up V12 engine in Volkswagen bug.

Schiller was also fond of the Powerbook 500. "It was one of those start over with a clean slate and make whatever you think is best with modern, new technology," he said. He reserved his highest praise for the new, cylindrical Mac Pro. "I love it for its audacious insane craziness," he said. "To make something that is new, different and fun is the spirit of the Mac."

Federighi is also a fan of the Mac SE 30, as an expression of the early Mac experience. But today he loves his 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. "I think it's a perfectly balanced machine."

Where does the Macintosh go next? The interface has adapted to more pixels and color for example, but it has mostly remained the same over the years. "We don't change these experiences as a matter of fashion. It's driven by what is the right experience for that mode of interaction," said Federighi. "I expect the Mac to continue to be more fluid, powerful and integrated across everything you do and across all your devices, but I don't think you'll see us gratuitously change it. It's optimized for how you use it."