The Mac computer turns 30

Thirty years ago this month, a little-known company with an unassuming name began to transform the world. The company was Apple Computer and the signal event was a television advertisement broadcast during America’s Super Bowl. The advertisement announced Apple’s introduction of a new product in two days.

The commercial break came in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, the National Football League’s annual championship game. The television screen filled with gray-blue images of a woman running with a sledgehammer, chased by riot police, interspersed with shots of workers marching together in single file or sitting in front of a video screen that projected images of Big Brother exhorting them to think together.

The woman stopped in front of the screen, spun three times and unleashed the sledgehammer, shattering the screen. At that moment, words scrolled across the video and a voice announced that “On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ’1984.’ ”

Two days later, on Jan. 24, 1984, Steven Jobs, the boyish head of Apple Computer, took the stage at the Apple facility in Cupertino, California, in front of shareholders, employees and journalists, quoting Bob Dylan: “The times they are a changin’. ”

Jobs told a story of technological development, from the birth of the mini-computer in the 1960s to the creation of the personal computer in 1977 by Apple, “a young fledgling company on the West Coast.”

The portrait of Apple was accurate, but more significantly it slipped neatly into a narrative of upstart hero tackling the villainous giant — in Jobs’ telling, IBM — that threatened to create a world of colorless, mindless drones under its control. (The metaphor targeted control of the industry, not the entire world, although evoking “1984″ in the context of IBM and its “company man” may have encouraged darker musings.)

After showing the commercial one more time to the by-then adoring crowd, Jobs pulled the Macintosh computer from a bag in the middle of the stage. Inserting a floppy disk — remember those? — an overhead screen filled with images from the computer, until the computer actually introduced itself to the crowd with a digitized voice and warned the crowd, “Never trust a computer you can’t lift.”

The Macintosh broke all rules and expectations of what a computer was and what it could do. Back then, computing consisted of simple commands that told a machine merely what actions to take.

The Macintosh was a new type of machine and this novelty transformed the relationship between operator and technology. The unveiling was a media sensation, but the transformation process took longer than expected. Part of the problem was price: The new machine cost $2,500, the equivalent of $5,430 today. It had limited memory and just two types of software.

The Macintosh, usually referred to as “a Mac,” would sell 70,000 units in just over four months. That was good, but not enough to outpace IBM (which was not even the leading maker of personal computers; that honor belonged to Commodore, a Canadian-based company that would go bankrupt within a decade). That “failure” would be a key factor in the decision to force Jobs out of Apple for 13 years.

While the Macintosh is heralded as a breakthrough technology and the harbinger of Apple’s emergence as a world-beating innovator, it is important to recognize that elements of the Mac predated its introduction.

For example, the “mouse” that so transformed the user’s interaction with the machine was a Xerox innovation, as was the graphical user interface and the “desktop” conception.

And despite significant changes in the ways we compute — from desktop to laptop to mobile devices — the structure of communications remains very similar to that of three decades ago: The software still features a desktop and we continue to use icons to navigate between programs.

The Mac operating system remains the basic conceptual framework for all personal computing devices. The hardware has changed as technology has improved and Moore’s law continues its inexorable march. Devices are much smaller and infinitely more powerful: One of today’s smart phones has 8,000 times the memory of the Mac.

The march continues. To his credit, neither Jobs nor the company he created has been content to rest on its accomplishments.

Indeed, one of Apple’s most remarkable principles is the way it has refused to spare even its own products as it innovates. The iPhone has cannibalized the iPod, just as the iPad may yet replace the portable computer.

Behind every one of those devices, like the Macintosh itself, was a simple philosophy that encompassed both design and use. Objects were to be elegant, if not beautiful.

Jobs insisted that the Mac should be a work of art. But, above all, they were to be accessible; as a member of the Macintosh team explained, a user would not have to read the manual to use the product. The simplicity of the design and the intuitiveness of the operating system allowed the user to encounter the technology at his or her pace, a concept utterly foreign to the cold forbidding machines that existed up to that point. And a pointed rebuke to the images of “1984″ that prompted its birth.