January 24 of this month was a special day for Apple. On that day, the company celebrated 25 years since the birth of its flagship computer, the Macintosh. It may be hard to believe, but it has already been a quarter of a century since the first version of this computer came to be the talk of the tech world. Bringing more than a few innovations to the field, the accomplishment brought a certain degree of pride not only to the company, but also to Macintosh’s creator, Steve Jobs.
It was in 1984 that the world saw the first Macintosh, a computer that ended up giving birth to a series of world renowned products. This product range has always been both marginal and ahead of its time, and has always known how to pique the curiosity of the public. So, let’s take a look back on 25 years of Apple’s most emblematic machines.
Apple Makes Introductions
In 1983, Apple was still a young enterprise, with less than 12 years of experience under its belt. It was soon to make its name, however, with the Apple II, a computer that would be popular among businesses around the world.
But Apple decided to look for a new segment of users and began to introduce its products to the living rooms of America. Apple needed a product that appealed to a large number of users, which would be simple to use (most of the computers at the time didn’t use mice and relied on command-line interfaces) and reasonably priced. Macintosh appealed to both the general public and the professional world, and would end up contributing greatly to the evolution of technology during the 1980s.
The name Macintosh, as one can guess, came from the variety of apples known as McIntosh. The apple was named for its discoverer, John McIntosh, a Canadian farmer who started to cultivate this variety of fruit in 1811. When it came time to pick the company’s emblem, it was therefore a no-brainer to decide upon an apple. Another fun and interesting fact about its name is that Apple tends to name its computers (or any of the other products that have followed, for that matter) as if they were people. At Apple, you don’t call a Macintosh “the Macintosh”, but rather, “Macintosh.” You can see this illustrated quite plainly by hearing quotes from Steve Jobs at the time, such as “So you’ve already seen photos of Macintosh… now I would like to show you Macintosh in person.”
The Lisa, Mac’s Predecessor
It was in 1983 when the Lisa computer was introduced to the technology market. In addition to having an interesting design, it carried with it a whole series of innovations that would come to characterize Apple computers. As you can probably tell from the name, the Lisa wasn’t a Macintosh. But without the creation of the Lisa, the Macintosh would have never seen the light of day. The Lisa project got underway in 1978, when Apple II was being peddled out to various businesses. Steve Jobs was, at the time, the head of the division charged with creating this computer, and started by naming the project after his daughter Lisa.
Lisa was an ambitious project that would take four years to complete. The project integrated something that was not very widespread at the time: a complete computer within one casing. Only the keyboard and the mouse were separate from the central body, but the disk drive and the screen were part of the revolutionary all-in-one unit that didn’t come apart. Apple has always come back to this basic design.
Another innovation of the Lisa was the appearance of a mouse. Contrary to popular belief, Apple did not invent the mouse. This technology came from the laboratories at Xerox, a place frequented by Steve Jobs. But the engineers at Xerox, during a time when computers could be controlled well enough by a keyboard, did not think about the future of the mouse, and thus they readily gave all the information they had to Steve Jobs, who eagerly integrated it into his current project. Finished in 1982, the Lisa project was commercialized on January 19, 1983. Despite its many attractive characteristics, the computer was a bitter failure, mostly because of its price–the computer sold for $9995, a sum that very few households could afford. The following versions, the Lisa 2 and Lisa 2/10 (renamed Macintosh XL) would have similar luck. But for Steve Jobs, this was only the beginning. By 1983, he had already spent two years working on his new project, one that was largely based on the Lisa, but better adapted for the public: the Macintosh.
The First Jobs Revolution
The principle of the first Macintosh was simple: keep the best of Lisa, correct the mistakes, and reduce the price. The Macintosh would become the first big public project for Apple. The origins of this project went back to 1979, when Jef Raskin sought to create a simple-and-accessible computer and a simplified version of the Lisa. When Steve Jobs headed up the project in January 1981 (replacing Jef Raskin), the Macintosh was already outfitted with a Motorola 68000 processor (the same CPU that Lisa had, which according to Steve Jobs, could “eat an Intel 8088 for breakfast”) a screen with 384x256 pixels, and 64 KB of RAM, which would soon be doubled to 128 KB. The Macintosh launch took place January 14, 1984, during a press conference that would earn Steve Jobs a lot of praise. With a price of $2,495, the computer was still expensive, but its price was a lot more reasonable than what the Lisa computer had been. It was thus this computer, which was less powerful but also less expensive than the Lisa, that was geared for the general public. Apple also claimed it was on par with the recent PC from IBM. This rivalry would turn out to be the stuff of legends and would solidify Macintosh’s place in a world dominated by IBM.
The Departure of Steve Jobs
The company was co-founded by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who together gave Apple a dramatic dynamic. Unfortunately, this unconventional management style did not suit everyone at Apple, such as John Sculley, who left the firm after differences in management philosophy became increasingly grating.
Rather than appointing one of the two Steves for the job, John Sculley was given the position of chairman in 1983, a decision that was seen as a strategic placement. Sculley had just arrived from a position as chairman of one of the most powerful companies in the United States at the time: Pepsi-Cola. To place him at such a post at the heart of Apple was a direct jab at Apple’s big rival of the time, IBM.
Sculley did not get along with the capricious Steve Jobs, and in 1985, Jobs was told to pack his bags and leave the company he founded. This pattern of chairman superseding the head of the company would become frequent at Apple: in 1993, John Sculley left his job and was replaced by Michael Spindler, before he too was eventually replaced in 1996 by Gil Amelio.
While the successive presidents were very different, Macintosh’s popularity began to erode under the control of each. The famous “Apple design,” so dear to Steve Jobs stagnated. The rapid acceleration of the success and power of the PC and of Windows, which were not compatible with Apple computers, didn’t help to convince buyers of Macintosh’s worth.
In the mid-1990s, Apple considered buying the rights to another operating system in order to adapt it to the Macintosh, which would result in the Mac OS. Apple turned to Steve Jobs and his new company, NeXT with its NeXTSTEP. This synergy would serve as the basis for OSX. Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996 and he took up the position of intermediary chairman in 1997.
The Evolution of Mac
Although at the time he had become a kind of icon for Apple, the departure of Steve Jobs certainly did not stop the company from continuing down the path that he initiated. The Apple II and Apple III would continue to develop in parallel to one another while the Macintosh regularly underwent improvements so as to keep up with the ever-evolving tendencies of the market.
Only minor improvements, however, were usually ever made to Apple products. Between 1985 and 1991, the product line evolved in this order: the Macintosh Plus, then the Macintosh SE, the Macintosh SE/30, the Macintosh Classic, and finally the Macintosh Classic II. All of these machines kept the same general design, but offered improvements, such as the addition of SCSI ports. The public soon had problems distinguishing between these numerous computers that all looked so much alike. They also looked a lot like the old and out-of-date Macintosh II.
Among these office machines (Apple had also entered the laptop computer market at the same time) was the Macintosh Quadra. This computer had a different design, while the tower version was similar to the PCs of the time. Apple was still able to sell its machines to professionals but was no longer able to reach the public market quite as well. Very quickly, the flexible PC would overtake Macintosh in the business sector just as it had in the consumer market. During these dark days of the 1990s, Apple found itself slowly but steadily losing hope of reasserting itself as a leader in its sector. The arrival of Macintosh LC in 1993 regained public interest in the Macintosh, but mostly because of its very attractive price ($750 for a complete computer). This one success, however, came far from allowing Apple to gain a leading share in the PC market.
Finally, Some Color
One of the things that caused problems for Apple during Steve Jobs’ absence was its computers' notably late adoption of features that the competition offered. The most noteworthy development was the appearance of color images on Macintosh's screen. The first mass-produced Apple computer that offered color images was the Macintosh Color Classic (also known under the name of Macintosh Performa 250) in 1993. At the time, Windows 3.1 was available on the majority of PCs, and although PCs' graphics at the time were not as good compared to what the Macintosh offered, PCs offered graphics that were in color.
Despite the delay of color, Apple showed a certain amount of improvement in other sectors, like portable computers. In 1993, Apple put out the PowerBook, which was a laptop computer capable of displaying 256 colors on a 640x480 screen.
The First Macintosh Laptop Arrives
Apple entered the laptop computer market early. In 1989, the company launched the Macintosh Portable, which served as the independent version of its office computer designed to be portable (or “luggable”).
Unfortunately, this design was so unconventional that most people ignored it. Additionally, even if the computer could function effectively on an integrated and transportable battery, it was still a really heavy and bulky machine, weighing about 15 lbs. and was not exactly the easiest thing to carry around.
The Macintosh Portable was not at a dead end, however. It offered certain elements that were actually marketable to the public. Among these were the presence of a “trackball” that would come to replace the traditional mouse. It was a ball that popped out of the computer itself and was used by turning it in all directions so as to move the cursor on the screen. This feature, along with the computer’s 10-hour battery life (impressive even today), allowed the Macintosh Portable to get its foot in the door. But despite all of this, the Macintosh Portable was still a commercial failure for many reasons. For one thing, its weight made it a lot less transportable than its name would imply. For another, there was the issue of the hugely expensive price tag of $6,500, Finally, there was the fact that the machine was a lot less powerful than its non-portable equivalents from Apple. The public, although enthused by the arrival of this computer, did not buy it and Apple stopped selling it after two years.
Happy Anniversary, Have a Spartacus
The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (TAM), dubbed Spartacus, was proof that the range of computers from Apple was definitely not like that of other companies. For the twentieth anniversary of the company (not the Macintosh brand), Apple wanted to mark the occasion with a computer that was ahead of its time: a machine with power equivalent to that of other 1990s computers, but with a futuristic design that was completely different than the direction taken by other companies. Spartacus was an example of cutting edge technology with an LCD screen, a Bose audio system, and a CD-ROM drive that loaded at the front, which was a totally different design found in any other computer of its day. The outrageous price ($7,500 when it came out in June 1997) as well as its limited production (12,000) made it an instant collector’s item.
This deviation from the norm for Apple marked the beginning of a turnaround for the company. Scrapping a large part of its computer-design plans, Apple decided to update its products with a forward-looking image, setting it apart from other computers. And the return of Steve Jobs back into the heart of the company only helped to bring about these changes.
The Second Jobs Revolution
In 1996, when Apple was in its darkest days, the company was actively searching for a breath of fresh air. The company wanted to buy a new technology that would permit the company to create a new operating system, and then relaunch the Macintosh line. BeOS had been the first choice for this operation, but it was finally NeXT, the company founded by Steve Jobs, that was bought by Apple in a move that came as a surprise. It didn’t take Steve Jobs long to regain his position at the center of Apple and to bring with him numerous changes in the company, which showed record losses at the beginning of 1997. These changes would be radical: a new line of computers, a new name for the Macintosh (who would become just a “Mac”), new colors, and even a new logo for Apple, as well as the new slogan, “Think Different.” The company was in the process of constructing a new image, laid out almost completely by Steve Jobs. It was within this revival atmosphere that iMac was born in August 1998. The nuts and bolts of this computer were nothing revolutionary: a Power PC 3G processor working at 233 MHz and 32 MB of RAM. It offered, however, an improved performance, and above all, a surprising and audacious new design. It was the first computer from Apple (and certainly one of the first on the market) with a completely colored and translucent case. Going back to the famous “all-in-one” recipe, it presented itself as a lone, rounded screen, in which the rest of the computer was concentrated.
But the iMac did not encounter the success that Apple had anticipated. In fact, the first sales numbers were rather disappointing. Apple was having difficulty regaining its credibility of old. The company was not completely discouraged, however, and kept churning out iMacs. A unique clear blue computer would be followed by many other colors like red, green, orange, and gray, and even a “flower power” version, which came out in 2001. The iMac would undergo many design updates, but Apple always kept the same original principle of an “all-in-one” computer. A special mention must go to the first version of the iMac G4, which was quickly dubbed the “iLamp” because its design reminded many of a bedside lamp.
The Long-Awaited OSX
Since 1996, Apple had been desperately looking to renew its aging operating system. Certain projects had been launched and rapidly aborted or put to the side since the company was in full turnaround mode at the same time. It wasn’t until 2001 that the public saw a completely new operating system by Apple, the Mac OS X.
More than a simple development compared to the older versions of Mac operating systems, Mac OS X represented more of a radical change. While it remained functionally similar to the older version, numerous aesthetic changes were apparent. The Aqua interface played a big part in the interest that the public would bring to this system. We can see the appearance of a Dock, a bar at the bottom of the screen on which the main applications could be found, graphic animation throughout, transparent windows… Mac OS X was full of original improvements. There were so many new features, in fact, that PC users started wanting to put this system on their own machines.
This operating system also proved to offer security improvements that Apple would often refer to when referring to Windows, which was susceptible to many kinds of viruses.
iBook: Reinventing the Laptop
Laptops were not spared by the wind of change that blew through the corridors at Apple. Here too, the design was entirely redone, and even the name “Macintosh” disappeared (at least until the arrival of the MacBook series). The range of portable computers from Apple had been completely redesigned, and were linked to the iMac by the famous letter “i,” which became the letter that no product from the company today can escape. iBook came out in July of 1999 in the same colors that were offered with the iMac. The comparisons between the two machines did not stop at the color or name, since this series of portable computers also took on a round shape, similar to that of the office counterpart with a shape that would inspire original nicknames such as the “clamshell.” In 2001, this series was again updated, although it was more of a visual revision than a functional one. Indeed, iBook aligned itself again with its big brother for the office and passed into more sober tones of white, a color that had become fashionable.
The Intel Switchover
One of the biggest revisions from Apple was the switch to platforms that Intel offered. For the third time in its history, Apple chose a new manufacturer for its processors, going from MOS Technology from Motorola, to IBM for the PowerPC, and finally in 2006 adopting a CPU from the leader of the sector, Intel.
Although it may have seemed like a harmless switch at first, this platform change for Apple was far from being without consequences. To start with, the processors from Intel were incompatible with the old Power PCs used by Apple. This was a problem because the company had to assure software compatibility between the two platforms. From there, the concept of universal applications was born.
Developers did not have to create two versions of the software anymore, but could instead make one application to compile the two platforms. Similarly, the Intel versions of Mac (also known as MacIntel or Mactel) started using Rosetta, a transparent translator made for the PowerPC that was now able to be used on a Mac equipped with an Intel processor. But the other most important novelty was brought about by this change, which was the possibility of installing Windows on Apple computers. For the first time in more than 20 years, two worlds that had opposed each other for so long could be brought together. This was made possible by Boot Camp, an application developed by Apple that offered Windows the necessary environment for its installation (the Mac computers were not equipped with a BIOS comparable to that of the PC, which is a must for the installation of Windows).
Apple's Secret Society
Apple's strict secrecy policy has been in place since the creation of the Macintosh in 1984. Indeed, Apple maintains and handles this secrecy with a characteristic firmness. It’s simple really: no Apple product is announced outside of a press conference organized particularly for that purpose. It is extremely rare that information is leaked from companies linked to its projects, while everyone knows that Apple is unafraid to take action against either Websites or employees who may have been a bit too talkative. Whether it's a new iPhone or the teeniest revision of the iMac, no product comes out of Apple without the strictest control possible. The release of the MacBook Air, for example, has been the object of controversy. It was rumored that at the time of the presentation by Steve Jobs, only about 15 people in the world had seen the MacBook Air. Apple was not happy with people knowing how many people knew its secrets, but since these few minor rumors were the only sources of non-official information that had come out, Apple let them slide, but not without a certain degree of bitterness. It goes without saying that most consumers—and especially journalists–would prefer Apple to open up a little bit.
25 and Counting
We know that we haven’t mentioned even half of the products that Apple has launched during the past 25 years, but it would be nearly impossible to give all of them the attention they deserve. Those that are listed here have risen above hundreds of other products to become symbolic of the company and its history and represent the company's highs and lows.
If you have used a Macintosh that we haven’t talked about in these pages, don’t hesitate to share your experience with us and the other readers. We invite you to describe the computers that have impacted you the most, the ones that you have dreamed about, and even those that have made you want to run screaming back to Windows.