40 years ago, the original Macintosh started a revolution

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh computer, a revolutionary machine that changed computing forever. Here’s what makes the Macintosh 128K unique.

In the 1980s, the IBM PC was the computer that overwhelmed every other personal computer design. Prior to its introduction in 1981, serious computers were massive and expensive machines that did not belong in a home. Even small businesses resorted to adding machines and calculators for daily use. For more complex work, accounting firms and businesses were used that specialized in computer processing. Apple began to change this in 1984 with the Macintosh.

A classic Apple Macintosh displays a friendly hello on-screen.

Of course, personal computers existed before 1981 and Apple was a major player, competing against Commodore, Radio Shack and others. These relatively low-cost devices with 8-bit processors often relied on connecting to televisions rather than monitors to keep costs down. Programs and data were saved on audio cassettes. It was exciting for hobbyists but not worthy of serious work.

When the IBM PC came along with a more reliable design and a higher-speed Intel 8088 processor that could handle up to 16 bits of data at a time, it was a momentous occasion that forced rapid change. IBM was the most respected name in serious computing and quickly captured the personal computing market. Apple began formulating the answer with a high-end business computer that was unlike anything the general public had seen before. However, it was not the Macintosh, but the Apple Lisa, one of the first computers to come with a mouse.

A Lisa-1 computer on display at the Byte Shop Computer Museum in Boston, MA September 2022.
timothy colgrove

The Apple Lisa had a revolutionary design but was targeted at large businesses and cost less than $10,000. This is a high cost even in 2023 and was well beyond the reach of most businesses in 1983. Thankfully, Apple didn’t stop there. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs started a pet project that ran parallel to the development of the flagship Lisa computer. The Macintosh 128K, named for its relatively large amount of memory, stole many of the best parts of the Lisa technology, simplified the design, and cut costs dramatically to create a personal computer that cost $2,495. But it was within reach of a much larger audience.

This could be the same approach Apple will use with its AR/VR headset, launching a very expensive model that will fire up the imagination and soon following up with a lower-cost model. If the Apple Reality Pro does indeed launch this year, a more affordable Reality One model is likely to follow in 2024.

A render of Apple's VR headset.
Apple AR / VR headset render Ian Zelbo

Back to the Macintosh story, Apple’s budget model challenged the IBM PC’s 8/16-bit Intel 8088 chip with the Motorola 68000 processor, a 16/32-bit chip that could handle twice as much data in a single instruction. The differences were apparent even on the surface. The Macintosh was smaller than an IBM PC and the computer’s motherboard and a floppy disk drive were built into the same case as its smaller, but sharper, black-and-white monitor, making for a smaller footprint on a desk. . This was an important consideration at a time when desks were not designed for computers.

The most important difference was the mouse and graphical user interface which made the computer very easy for anyone to learn how to use. Apple did not invent the concept which was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. However, the Macintosh was the computer that took the idea out of the lab and demonstrated that it should be the way of the future.

Combining the Macintosh with the Apple ImageWriter or LaserWriter made WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) desktop publishing became a reality and the number one reason for choosing the Macintosh over the IBM PC. Here’s a video of Jobs introducing the Macintosh that macessentials posted on YouTube.

The Lost 1984 Video: Young Steve Jobs Introduces the Macintosh

Microsoft stepped in with Windows, a mouse-driven user interface that gave the PC similar capabilities. Even then, Apple had already established itself as the dominant choice for print work and it took several years for Windows to catch up in that industry. For most users, the low cost PC was still better and Windows flourished.

With the launch of Apple silicon, the Mac is once again challenging the Windows PC, but Windows is so widespread that the Mac may never catch up and become the most popular personal computer. This is probably one reason why Apple is so keen on alternative technologies like the iPhone and iPad. Apple has an opportunity to reshape computing by championing a new technology that needs help going mainstream.

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