Happy birthday, Mac! Remembering the original personal computer, 30 years later

apple macintosh turns 30 mac bday 30th anniversary of the 1984 2014

In the latter part of 1977, Ken Olsen, president of the then-powerful Digital Equipment Corporation, dismissed the idea of the PC, saying “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” As crazy as that statement seems today, it was not unreasonable at the time. Early attempts at home computers often proved crude, unreliable and difficult to use. They also cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Then, on January 24, 1984, Apple released the Macintosh.

While most competitors relied on a command line operating system, like MS-DOS, the Mac used a ground-breaking graphical interface called Mac OS. Though many companies, including Apple, had tried GUIs before, they were either immature or paired with extravagantly expensive hardware. Though the original Mac’s price of $2,495 (over $5,000 when adjusted for inflation) seems prohibitive by modern standards, it was a bargain compared to other GUI computers like the Xerox Star, which started at $16,000 in 1981, and the Apple Lisa, which released at $9,995 in 1983.

The relatively inexpensive Mac’s impressive graphics made it the darling of desktop publishers and digital artists, a role that the brand retains to this day. Indeed, while both the hardware and software has changed significantly over the years, the Mac’s position in the market has barely budged. Apple released the Mac as a premium, but still obtainable, computer with an intuitive interface and adequately powerful hardware, and modern Macs boast the same traits.

Steve Jobs 1984Apple’s release of the Macintosh was also a declaration of war on IBM, a company that Steve Jobs despised, declaring in a 1985 Playboy interview that, if “IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter a computer Dark Ages for about twenty years.” Initially, the Mac seemed as if it could truly threaten Big Blue, and Apple sold the computers as quickly as they were built. But internal troubles soon saw the ousting of Jobs, and the quality of later Macs declined with a slow, but sure, devolution of the original’s simplicity. Apple never came close to removing “IBM compatible” as the dominant standard; that would be accomplished, later, by Microsoft and Intel.

While the Mac did not directly conquer IBM, it did set in motion a number of advances that would become an important part of modern GUI operating systems. Concepts such as icons, scroll bars and windows, though not necessarily invented by Apple, were popularized by the Mac’s success and adopted by competitors – including Windows.

IBM failed to keep up with the advances made by GUI operating systems and though  Big Blue did eventually offer its own with a 1988 update to OS/2, the operating system’s high price and compatibility issues sunk its chances. Apple planted the seeds of IBM’s downfall; it just didn’t reap the rewards.

Today, the Mac remains an underdog, albeit one with a powerful heritage. Early rumors that it might be abandoned in favor of iOS never panned out and, so far, there’s no indication that Apple intends to axe its PC line. While the operating system may change, it’s hard to imagine the company ever walking away from the Macintosh brand, a name that’s over a decade older than the industry’s second senior citizen which, ironically, is IBM’s ThinkPad.

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