The excitement is palpable on Steve’s face. He’s so young at this point, only 28 years old. He’s wearing a full suit and a bowtie, a slightly jarring difference from his later subdued jeans and black turtlenecks. The crowd is in a frenzy in front of him, anticipating something big. He’s soaking it in, feeding off the intense emotion in the room. He walks over to a strange bag sitting on a table, unzips it, and reveals the Macintosh. He hooks it up, inserts a floppy disk, and the lights dim…
“What we’re doing here will send a giant ripple through the universe.”
Look around at the interface of the screen you’re reading this on. It’s made of pictures, icons, and graphics. You can click or tap on visual representations of digital information. This all probably seems so normal to you at this point that you don’t notice it. However, before Steve got up on that stage thirty years ago a computer meant rows and rows of text. The exclusive input method was a keyboard, and no one had heard of a computer mouse. The Mac changed that and every “personal computer” made in the last thirty years has used it as the basic blueprint.1
However, the Mac didn’t just blaze a light in 1984 and then fade away, it continued for the next three decades, constantly changing, for better and worse. The Platonic ideal of a Mac that Steve introduced on stage slowly began to be chipped away in the immediate years that followed. Instead of the small, elegant, simple, all-in-one package, the Mac soon became whatever computer Apple released, including some rather ugly, complicated beasts of computers. By the mid 90s, the Mac product line had become alarmingly similar to its beige box competitors and was slowly tipping towards the edge of oblivion.
Ironically, it was during this time period that I jumped on the Mac bandwagon. I was only twelve years old when my Dad brought home a Mac Performa 630CD. In some ways it symbolized much of what was wrong with Macs at the time – a big CRT screen, a separate beige box, an indecipherable model number. It was a far cry from the elegance of the original Mac and nothing about it screamed revolutionary or unique. Yet, I fell absolutely in love.
Clarisworks, Simple Text, ResEdit, Sim City 2000, Wolfenstein 3D, CD-Roms, Shareware, 28.8K modems, Myst, eWorld, AOL, Spectre.
Anyone using Macs at the time will recognize these things, and I ate them up along with everyone else. I was so enamored with the fact I actually had my own computer, in my own house, that I forgave all its flaws that seem so blatant in hindsight. At the time, I was also rather oblivious to the machinations of the business of Apple and never knew how close they were to simply ceasing to exist. I carried on using my Performa throughout most of the 90s, very happy.
However, the story of the Mac radically changed when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. He took back his baby and rejuvenated the product line with the iconic iMac. Everything about that iMac harkened back to the original Mac. It was all-in-one, it eschewed older legacy technology, simplified the computing experience, and it looked damned stylish compared to every other PC that was out there. The iMac was the second coming of the Mac lineup and without that computer, I feel the Mac most likely would have faded away.2
However, even with this new success, the Mac was not assured of surviving. I think Jobs saw how far Apple had fallen in the years after introducing the original Mac and didn’t want history to repeat itself. Thus, he constantly iterated the Mac, always trying to perfect the concept of what a Mac was, and by extension, what a computer was. Candy colors soon bleed into shiny white and eventually minimalist aluminum. The size and weight always coming down, the power and design always rising.
I personally went from an iBook to a PowerBook Pismo to a black MacBook during this time. While the Macs only got better and better over these years, Apple’s incredible success in the 00s lay mostly with its non-Mac devices, namely iPods, iPhones, and iPads. However, the Mac was never completely forgotten and continued to be the back bone of Apple, the business that had sustained it through all the lean years. While the public seemed to take less and less notice of new Macs, they still always seemed a focus of the company.
Then came the 2011 “Post-PC” keynote, where Jobs signaled that Apple’s future didn’t lie with the Mac anymore, but with mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad. The revolution that was the Mac had in some ways run its course, and the majority of people in the future wouldn’t be using boxes that sat on their desks. Everything was transitioning to iOS and cloud based computing and the “personal computer” according the Mac blueprint was declining. Of course, Apple didn’t get rid of the Mac lineup at that point, but it saw the writing on the wall and knew the Mac was steadily growing less and less in importance.
This keynote was rather poignant not only because it symbolized the end of the Mac’s dominance, but also because it was Steve’s second to last keynote before passing away later that year. He looked frail at the time, his body barely able to fill out his clothes, his voice slightly weaker. It was almost the exact opposite of the youthful man with a bowtie that had introduced the Mac decades earlier. Yet, in some ways it was appropriate that it was this Steve that was there to announce the end of the era he began. His life from 1984 to 2011 came full circle at that moment, from his youthful vigor in introducing the Mac to his declining health in announcing its demise.
In some ways this “Post-PC” period saddens me, if only for purely nostalgic reasons. The concept of a primary computer that sits on your desk and is the hub of your computing life appeals to me. That seems right in some way, maybe only for the fact it’s been my main connection with computing technology for almost my entire life. While I currently own a MacBook Air, my primary computer is still a large iMac. That’s what I see as my main device – my “computer.” All my other devices are important, but I still sometimes like to sit down at my desk, use a mouse, and stare at a big screen.
However, the way people use their technology is rapidly changing, and even I have started to use my iOS devices more than my Mac. But, while the Mac itself will eventually go away, its legacy remains. It changed the fundamental way people interact with digital devices and that change can still be seen today. We all still use devices that have graphical interfaces, even if we mostly directly touch those interfaces now instead of using a mouse. Its importance can not be understated, it was truly revolutionary. The ripple through the universe that the Mac started thirty years ago continues to extend out into the future.
1. Before I get feedback, I do realize the Xerox Alto and the Apple Lisa had been made public before the Mac and had GUIs and mice. However, both made almost zero impact in the market place. It was only the Mac that perfected the GUI and mouse interface to a degree that it sold in the millions and became hugely influential to the public at large.↩
2. In addition, the transition from OS 9 to OS X was a huge watershed moment for the Mac and allowed it to have a solid operating system that has lasted until today.