Twenty-five years ago, Apple unveiled the Macintosh computer, a machine that would change the world. The Macintosh transformed the encounter between the computer and its user, making it easier for the ordinary person to understand and control the computing process.
The Macintosh and its success reflected the vision of Mr. Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple, and the commitment of a team of developers and designers to change the way computing worked. A quarter century later, most computers look like Mac, and Mac does not stand out so much — a sign of its success and the profound impact it has had on the computing world.
Until Jan. 24, 1984, computing was a chore. Indeed, the working assumption for the industry was that most folks did not need such devices. Consistent with that belief, the computing experience was for technicians, not for ordinary people. As a result, the machine and its operating procedures were for “the chosen few.” Apple disagreed. Its philosophy was unveiled in striking fashion during the 1984 Super Bowl telecast in a unique commercial. Despite its then historic cost of $1.5 million, it was shown on TV just once more — to announce that “liberation” was on the horizon.
The Macintosh that Mr. Jobs revealed a few days later rejected every standard feature of the computing industry. The machine was small, portable — it even had a handle — and it closed. Users were discouraged from fiddling with the interior. Its price at the time reflected a belief that ordinary people could and would want a computer. This was a device for consumers — the use of that very word “consumer” implied a different relationship between user and machine.
The most important part of the Macintosh was the way people used it. The graphic user interface (GUI) was a radical break with the prevailing computing ethos. Back then, computer screens were uniformly black and green and could not show graphics. Users launched programs by typing in strings of commands at a blinking prompt.
In contrast, when a Mac was turned on, users saw a desktop that looked like, well, an ordinary desktop. No special understanding or knowledge of computers was needed to make the system work. A file was visible. To read it, a user merely had to open it, as anyone would in the real world. Today, that visible presentation is standard on every device from computers to cell phones; a quarter century ago it was radical and even criticized as a distraction.
As important as the visual interface was the introduction of the mouse, a device that permitted users to operate the Mac in a way that was intuitive: Drag the pointer to the item you wanted to use and click. The experience was intended to be as simple as possible. A member of the design team enthused that the Macintosh was designed to be “a creative space, a play space.”
Mr. Guy Kawasaki, Apple’s Mac-evangelist, explained — the company’s readiness to put an “evangelist” on the payroll says volumes about its mind-set — “We were freedom fighters and we had a dream,” to liberate users from the uniform, Big Brother computing mentality and approach of IBM.
The ubiquity of the desktop interface on today’s computers is proof of the company’s success. That is despite the fact that Apple only holds a sliver of the global computer market. (If, as some insist, cell phones are considered part of the computer market — Mr. Jobs is among this group — then Apple is No. 4 with a 7.5 percent global market share.)
Today, Apple is synonymous with Mr. Jobs. He has supplied the company’s vision, its commitment to continually moving forward and a stubborn refusal to look back. Mr. Jobs’ focus has at times hurt Apple; at one point he was dismissed from the board only to be brought back years later. He has engineered its renaissance with the introduction of the iMac, new laptop computers, the iPod, the iPhone, and iTunes — which has revolutionized the marketing of music — but he has been criticized for retaining tight control of products and limiting third-party access to its operating system.
Mr. Jobs is certainly stubborn and can be prickly, but he is not close-minded. He adopted the GUI interface after observing it at the Xerox research center. He moved to Intel processors after the PowerPC platform that Apple developed with IBM and Motorola did not measure up.
He recently took a leave of absence from Apple because of health issues. Apple will survive, though, because Mr. Jobs’ ethos is embedded within the company. His quest to transform the computing experience is shared by Apple employees and by the millions of enthusiasts who demand that Apple continue to innovate and set the pace for the industry.
The GUI brought about a revolution, but there has been no great leap forward since then. The next big changes are likely to again focus on the interface. The first signs of change are visible in voice recognition and touch screens, but this technology is still young and underdeveloped. We are likely to be wowed again by products from Apple as this process unfolds.
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