Skip to main content

40 years ago, Apple’s original Macintosh started a revolution

Nearly 40 years ago, the Apple Macintosh computer came out — a revolutionary machine that changed computing forever. Now’s as good a time as any to look back at what made the Macintosh 128K unique.

In the 1980s, the IBM PC was the computer that overwhelmed every other personal computer design. Before its introduction in 1981, serious computers were massive and costly 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 businesses that specialized in computer processing were used. Apple set out to change that in 1984 with the Macintosh.

A classic Apple Macintosh shows a friendly hello on-screen.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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 a television instead of a monitor to keep costs low. Programs and data were saved to audio cassettes. This was exciting for hobbyists but unworthy of serious work.

When the IBM PC arrived 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 occasion that forced rapid change. IBM was the most respected name in serious computing and it instantly took over the personal computing market. Apple started preparing an answer with a high-end business computer, different from anything seen before by the general public. This wasn’t the Macintosh, however, 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 big businesses and priced at just under $10,000. That’s 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 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 cut costs to make a personal computer that was within reach of a much larger audience at $2,495.

This might be the same approach that Apple will use with its AR/VR headset, launching a very expensive model that fires the imagination and following up with a lower-cost model soon after. If the Apple Reality Pro really does launch this year, a much more affordable Reality One model will likely 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 a Motorola 68000 processor, a 16/32-bit chip that could handle twice as much data in a single instruction. The differences were stark at the surface as well. The Macintosh was tiny compared to an IBM PC and the computer’s motherboard and a floppy disk drive were built into the same case as its small, but sharp, black and white monitor, making for a small footprint on a desk. This was an important consideration at a time when desks weren’t designed for computers.

The most important difference was the mouse and graphical user interface which made a computer much easier for anyone to learn to use. Apple didn’t invent this concept that was developed at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The Macintosh was, however, the computer that took this idea out of the lab and demonstrated that this should be the way of the future.

Combining the Macintosh with an Apple ImageWriter or LaserWriter made WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) desktop publishing a reality and became the number one 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. Still, Apple had already established itself as the prime choice for print work and it took many years for Windows to catch up in that industry. For most users, the lower-cost PC was still preferable and Windows flourished.

With the launch of Apple Silicon, the Mac is once again challenging the Windows PC but Windows is so pervasive that the Mac might never catch up and become the most popular personal computer. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Apple is so keen on alternate technologies like the iPhone and iPad. Apple has an opportunity to change computing again by championing new technology that needs help to move into the mainstream.

Editors' Recommendations

Alan Truly
Computing Writer
Alan is a Computing Writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. A tech-enthusiast since his youth, Alan stays current on what is…
Best Meta Quest 3 deals: Get Asgard Wrath 2 for free and more
A product shot of the Meta Quest 3 shown in dramatic lighting over a gradient background.

The Meta Quest 3 is on its way to claim its spot among the best VR headsets when it launches on Oct. 10. However, you can already start taking advantage of Meta Quest 3 deals ahead of the device's release. We've spotted the top offers for the VR headset right now, and it's highly recommended that you take advantage of them before they get sold out.
Today's best Meta Quest 3 deals
Meta Quest 3 (128GB) -- $500 with Asgard's Wrath II

If you buy the 128GB model of the Meta Quest 3 for its sticker price of $500 from Best Buy, you'll also get a copy of Asgard's Wrath II. In this sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed VR games, you'll be battling gods and monsters in an epic action RPG using unique weapons and different combat styles. The VR headset comes with a pair of Touch Plus controllers with wrist straps.

Read more
Best Surface Laptop and Surface Pro deals: Prices from just $500
Microsoft Surface Go 3 sitting on table.

While there's no shortage of laptop deals in the market right now, students and professionals who want touchscreen functionality should check out the available Surface Laptop and Surface Pro deals. Microsoft's lineup of mobile devices has steadily increased in popularity because of their versatility and performance, so there's always high demand for discounts. If you want to take advantage of any of the offers that we've gathered here, you should do so quickly as the bargains may end sooner than you expect.
Microsoft Surface Go 3 -- $500, was $550

Functioning as a 2-in-1 laptop that can switch between tablet mode and laptop mode, the Microsoft Surface Go 3 won't have trouble dealing with basic tasks as it's equipped with the Intel Pentium Gold 6500Y processor and 8GB of RAM. The 10.5-inch touchscreen with 1920 x 1080 resolution is bright and colorful, and its 128GB SSD is more than enough for your documents. The Microsoft Surface Go 3 ships with Windows 11 Home in Mode, so you can start using it as soon as you unbox it. The device also promises up to 11 hours of battery life before requiring a recharge.

Read more
Best Apple Studio Display deals: Up to 16% off the 5K monitor
Apple Mac Studio and Studio Display.

Graphic designers and creative professionals who are in the market for monitor deals should consider going for the Apple Studio Display, especially since you can now enjoy discounts on the premium screen. We've rounded up the best Apple Studio Display deals that are currently available right here so you can get the monitor at up to 16% off, but you'll have to proceed with your purchase as soon as possible because we're not sure when these offers will expire.
Today's best Apple Studio Display deals

Apple Studio Display (Standard Glass) --

Read more