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40 years ago, the original Macintosh started a revolution

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

In the 1980s, the IBM PC was the computer that overwhelmed all other personal computer designs. Before it was introduced in 1981, serious computers were massive and expensive machines that didn’t belong in a home. Even small businesses resorted to adding machines and calculators for daily use. For more complicated work, accounting firms and companies specializing in computer processing were used. Apple set out to change that in 1984 with the Macintosh.

Of course, personal computers existed before 1981, and Apple was a major player, competing against Commodore, Radio Shack, and others. These relatively inexpensive devices with 8-bit processors often relied on connecting to a television instead of a monitor to keep costs down. Programs and data were stored on audio cassettes. This was exciting for hobbyists, but unworthy of serious work.

When the IBM PC came with a much more reliable design and a high-speed Intel 8088 processor that could handle up to 16 bits of data at a time, it was a momentous event that forced rapid change. IBM was the most respected name in serious computing and it instantly took over the personal computer market. Apple began preparing a response with a high-end business computer unlike anything previously seen by the public. However, this 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 Colegrove

The Apple Lisa had a revolutionary design, but it was targeted at large businesses and priced at just under $10,000. That’s a high cost even in 2023 and was way out of reach for most companies in 1983. Fortunately, Apple didn’t stop there. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs launched a pet project that ran alongside 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 dramatically reduced the cost to make a personal computer that was within reach of a much larger audience at $2,495.

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

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

Back in Macintosh history, Apple’s budget model challenged the IBM PC’s 8/16-bit Intel 8088 chip with a Motorola 68000 processor, a 16/32-bit chip that could handle twice as much data in a single instruction. The differences were also stark on the surface. The Macintosh was tiny compared to an IBM PC, and the computer’s motherboard and a floppy drive were built into the same case as its small but sharp black-and-white screen, leaving a small footprint on a desk. This was an important consideration at a time when desks were not designed for computers.

The main difference was the mouse and the graphical user interface, which made a computer much easier for anyone to learn to use. Apple did not invent this concept, it was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. However, the Macintosh was the computer that took this idea out of the laboratory and demonstrated that it was to be the way of the future.

The combination of the Macintosh with an Apple ImageWriter or LaserWriter made WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) desktop publishing a reality and became the biggest reason to choose a Macintosh over an 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. Yet Apple had already established itself as the primary choice for print work, and it took many years for Windows to catch up in that industry. For most users, the cheaper PC was still preferable, and Windows flourished.

With the launch of Apple Silicon, the Mac again challenges the Windows PC, but Windows is so widespread that the Mac may never catch up and become the most popular personal computer. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Apple is so keen on alternative technologies such as the iPhone and iPad. Apple has an opportunity to change computing again by championing new technology that needs help moving into the mainstream.

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