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25 Years of the Mac

Via many sources (MacRumors, TUAW, AppleInsider, Macworld), today is the 25th anniversary of the Mac.

In January of 1984, I was still in the US Army, stationed in Würzburg, Germany, nominally as a Russian interpreter but rarely having any exposure to Russian. Frustrated by spending my time doing make work, and fascinated with computers, I had talked my way into a programming class and been assigned a job programming Apple II computers.

In those days long before the Internet, I was following computing developments in the US as best I could from afar, which meant via magazines, especially the great, long-lost BYTE. In 1983, BYTE had published a lengthy technical overview of Apple's Lisa computer, and the moment I read the phrase "data-as-object metaphor", I was hooked. At the end of the article, the writer alluded to Apple's plans to make a cheaper version of the Lisa (which cost $10,000 at introduction), and I knew it was something I would want -- just the idea of a reasonably-priced graphical user interface-based computer from Apple was all I needed to know.

Steven Levy wrote a story for Rolling Stone on the Macintosh that appeared around the time of its introduction. I can't find it online, but I recall that he cast the team of people creating the Macintosh as the last, best hope against a tide of soulless IBM-compatible PCs running DOS. For a 21-year-old dreaming of a degree in cognitive science and then a career figuring out how to make computers more intelligent and easier with which to interact, it was profoundly moving stuff.

I got out of the Army in June of 1984 and the first place I stopped was Providence, Rhode Island, to visit with a friend of mine who had gone home before me. I got in late one evening and the first thing I did the next morning was to get dressed and walk to the nearest computer store that carried the Macintosh. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

I bought my 128K Macintosh from another friend from my unit who had bought one for himself but then realized he was overextended and needed to sell it. It was literally the only thing of value I owned. I didn't have a car, but I had my Macintosh. It could be frustrating at times, as any Macintosh owner back then will tell you. One could copy only a windowful of graphics from MacPaint at a time. Duplicating a 400K disk with 128K of memory was a seemingly endless series of disk swaps. There was hardly any software available, and of those programs that could be bought, many were bad, thanks to developers who failed to fully embrace the Macintosh method of development. But none of this diminished my affection for the Macintosh.

I upgraded my Macintosh to 512K of RAM, and later to 1MB. I added a SCSI interface to it and a hard drive. I used it actively for about seven or eight years. At home, a Macintosh LC finally took its place, and I still remember how excited I was to get my Macintosh IIci at work. I had PCs at home and at work starting in the early 1990s, but it wasn't until 1998 or 1999 that I wasn't using a Macintosh on a regular basis. Apple had gone downhill and I had made the switch to Windows, though I was never truly happy about it. In as many ways as the Macintosh seemed elegant, Windows seemed clumsy, even after 15 years of development.

In 2005, I finally came back to to the Mac, buying an iMac for home use and figuring I'd gradually move my life back over to it. I bought my MacBook Pro two years later and it's one of the best computers I've ever owned -- so much so that when I travel for work and so must carry a PC laptop, I carry both.

This seems like as good a day as any to reflect on the profound impact the Mac has had on our world. Was the idea of a graphical user interface original to Apple? Absolutely not. But the Macintosh team took a brilliant idea that had been a commercial failure (at both Xerox PARC and with the Lisa) and made out of it a computer that literally changed the world of computing forever -- not just by making it less expensive, but more importantly, by giving it a sense of style, a consistency that inspired belief in its metaphors, and by making it fun in a hundred little ways.

Eventually, some sort of graphical interface would have replaced DOS. It was inevitable. But looking back at the contenders -- Windows, GEM, AmigaOS, and others -- we should all be profoundly grateful that it was the most elegant of them all that shaped how we interact with our computers today.


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