The Macintosh - Changing The Face of Personal Computing

Today, the Macintosh is widely seen as a landmark product. It introduced the masses to a graphical user interface; introduced, for the first time in mass production, the mouse, and had an impact on the trajectory of the entire personal computing revolution that followed. But its creation was far from straightforward.

In 1977, Apple Computer Inc released its second major product, the Apple II, which brought in almost a million dollars in revenue over the course of the following year. It was Apple’s first ‘ready-to-use’ personal computing device — in that you didn’t have to assemble it, like with the Apple I. The Apple II was a runaway success by all accounts. As expected, a large chunk of the company’s employees — Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak included — wanted to focus on refining the product, and thought that it made sense to release successive versions.

But Steve Jobs was dissatisfied. Even though he was officially responsible for heading product development, Jobs’ interest in the Apple II quickly ran out. He was looking for the next product that would change the world. On the back of rumors that IBM was going to launch a personal computer, Apple’s board gave him the budget and the resources to make it happen. This was the birth of the Apple III.

Jobs was intent on pushing the boundaries with this machine. He drove the engineers to achieve targets and work on timelines that always seemed to border on the impossible. An example of this was his demand that the Apple III should run in silence, which meant that the team had to find a way around the noisy cooling fans which were a staple of the computers at the time. This was very difficult — and naturally slowed development down to a sluggish plod.

As Jobs became increasingly disheartened over the Apple III’s progress, Apple started raising its second round of funding. By chance, in the summer of 1979, Xerox became an investor in Apple, and granted Apple a look inside their R&D center in exchange for a discount on Apple’s equity. The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center — popularly dubbed “Xerox PARC” —  was a mecca for anyone serious about the future of computing. In fact, a few colleagues from Apple had also been urging Jobs to check the place out.

When Jobs and his team finally visited Xerox PARC, they were shown three remarkable developments: the graphical user interface (commonly referred to by its acronym, “GUI”), object oriented programming, and networked computer systems.

Jobs was immediately (and rightly) convinced that the GUI was the future of personal computing. Today, it’s a little difficult to imagine what predated GUI because of how deeply it is integrated into all the devices we use. User experience dramatically pivoted from a text-only interface of alien characters on a black screen to a rich and colorful menagerie of icons.

One popular narrative goes that Jobs and his engineers built the Macintosh by stealing what they saw at PARC. What really happened was a little more complicated. Since Xerox PARC was a hub for the most talented minds in the field, researchers inevitably started leaving the center and joining other organizations — taking what they learnt with them. This led to ideas and inventions scattering far and wide across the industry. To add to this, unlike General Magic, a couple of decades later, PARC was not building in secret. The work of its researchers was widely published and they conducted multiple live demonstrations showcasing their technologies. Under these conditions, it would have been surprising if the Macintosh was not influenced by the inventions at PARC.

Jobs believed that he had seen the future at Xerox. Shortly after that demo, he abandoned the Apple III, which was fast becoming a marginally better version of the Apple II. He cast about Apple for another computer to work on — and found one in the Lisa. The Lisa was a machine with strong data processing capabilities being developed for use by Fortune 500 companies. When Jobs took control of the project, he told the team that they would create history by building the first computer to have GUI and a mouse. The problem? The features Jobs wanted to include were aimed at making the device more attractive to the ordinary consumer. The Lisa’s target customers were large corporations who needed machines that were built to handle large quantities of data. They didn’t care how user friendly the computer was. Jobs’ vision for the device was fundamentally misaligned with the actual needs of the enterprise clients being targeted, leading to friction within the team. He was kicked off the project less than a year after he joined.

(Ironically, after many delays, the Lisa shipped in 1983 with a graphical user interface and a mouse attached. At a hefty price of almost $10,000 (approx $30,000 today), Apple sold only about 10,000 units of the Lisa; the computer was widely regarded to be a commercial failure.)

Whilst all of this was happening, an Apple employee called Jef Raskin had been making slow progress on a small project called the Macintosh. His vision was to develop a “computer appliance” targeted at individual consumers that would sell for under $1,000. In the fall of 1980, after being kicked off the Lisa team, Jobs started looking for his next project. The Macintosh’s consumer-facing vision intrigued him. He decided to join the team. Raskin’s strategy to keep the device’s price low was to introduce only basic features, operating under the assumption that consumers would not need more advanced capabilities. This was where Jobs strongly disagreed. He wanted to build an “insanely great” product. And what of the implications on price? The team would simply have to find ways to make cutting-edge technology cheaper.

The Macintosh’s processing power led to one of the first major conflicts between Jobs and Raskin. Raskin had chosen a weak microprocessing chip — the Motorola 6809e — to keep costs down. This chip was not powerful enough to support a high resolution screen for bitmapped graphics or the use of a mouse. Jobs challenged a young engineer on the team, Burrell Smith, to incorporate a far stronger chip — the Motorola 68000 — without significantly increasing the overall cost of the computer. This was a big ask. For context: The price of one 68000 chip was approximately 20x the price of a 6809e. Months of hard work later, Smith succeeded. His key innovation was finding a way to multiply the flow of data from the 68000 chip through the circuit architecture, a trick that allowed the device to make full use of the increased processing power without requiring more support chips or circuits.

Jobs eventually succeeded in pushing Raskin out entirely. Soon after, he started recruiting the brightest minds at Apple into the Macintosh team. As the team grew, they began working out of dynamic workspaces that were insulated from the rest of the Apple offices. These spaces were set up to inspire, stimulate, and excite. The atmosphere was electrifying. And Jobs played a huge role in creating that. Clichéd as it may sound, in his presence, the people he was working with felt like anything was possible. A tight timeline? No problem. The same output at a fraction of the cost? Consider it done. Because he believed so strongly in his own vision, he was able to shift their axis of reality and possibility. Whole chapters of books have been dedicated to understanding this phenomenon (Chapter 11 of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, for instance). Even while aware of it, Mac team members recalled routinely falling prey to Jobs’s “reality distortion field.” And although it wore off once Jobs physically left their presence, most of them thought it was empowering. Walter Isaacson, who interviewed several of them, wrote:

“It enabled Jobs to inspire his team to change the course of computer history with a fraction of the resources of Xerox or IBM. “It was a self-fulfilling distortion,” she [Debi Coleman] claimed. “You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible.””

To be sure, it was not all fun and games. Jobs was infamous for being a hard taskmaster with somewhat erratic work habits. In fact, starting in 1981, the Mac team gave out an informal award to the person who did the best job of standing up to him. Jobs knew about it, and liked it.

The Macintosh was built with a strong overarching philosophy to make computers accessible and attractive to the masses. So much so that this messaging was even baked into the physical design of the device. The Mac carried forward the Lisa’s self-contained design (a single unit comprising of the disk-drive, circuitry, and display, accompanied by a keyboard and a mouse), but it differed in having its disk drive right below its display — making the unit look symmetrical and more suggestive of a human face. The close attention that Jobs paid to incorporating cues like this into the case’s design was unprecedented. It embodied his vision for the device to be regarded as a household appliance, as opposed to a complex machine. Jobs’s name is even on the design patent of the case with the two other producers. One of them later said:

"Even though Steve didn't draw any of the lines, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is. To be honest, we didn't know what it meant for a computer to be 'friendly' until Steve told us."

One intentional omission from the Mac’s keyboard greatly informed the way in which it was both developed and used — there were no cursor keys. It ensured consumer adoption of the brand-new graphical interface. Engineers were also compelled to write software that exploited the point-and-click driven GUI, instead of relying on existing keyboard-driven commands. A New York Times review of the computer published on January 24, 1984 remarked:

“The fundamental difference between the Mac and other personal computers is that the Macintosh is visually oriented rather than word oriented. You choose from a menu of commands by simply pressing the wandering mouse's button rather than by using a number of control keys or by entering words.”

If the Mac’s friendly exterior got ordinary users to actually switch the computer on, the graphical user interface made them keep using it. The interface humanized the experience of using a computer. Instead of teaching the user new skills to operate the device, it attempted to simulate the way things were already done in the real world.

Let’s say that you wanted to keep track of your monthly expenses. In the real world you would grab a pen and a piece of paper, jot down the relevant information (indicating the concerned month, listing out the expenses, etc.), and pin it up on your softboard or maybe slip the paper into the nearest open drawer. On the Macintosh 128K you would open a new document that looked like a piece of paper, type the relevant information, and drag and drop the document to an icon that looks like a folder which you specifically created for this purpose. Your desktop even had an icon resembling a tiny trash can, in case you wanted to “throw” your document away. Without the GUI, you’d probably have to first memorize and then type out strange commands which would typically show up as bright characters against the black screen. Engaging with the Mac’s interface was fun because the playfully designed icons did a good job of making the use of a computer seem natural, putting users at ease.

Jobs’s obsession with mimicking the familiarity of the real world extended to even the most minute details. He insisted that the user interface employed rectangles with rounded corners because of how often things in the tangible world were shaped that way. QuickDraw was another groundbreaking program written for the Lisa and Mac which made overlapping windows on a computer screen possible. This arranged the pixels to resemble “layers” when a user opened multiple windows — in reality a screen has no such underlying levels, this program ensured that the pixels were redrawn in real time as a user toggled between different windows.

Another fallout of not having cursor keys on the keyboard was that users were forced to use the mouse, a device which still had a fair share of skeptics. Jobs had a simple explanation for why this was important. In an interview, he said:

“If I want to tell you there is a spot on your shirt, I’m not going to do it linguistically: “There’s a spot on your shirt 14 centimeters down from the collar and three centimeters to the left of your button.” If you have a spot—”There!” [He points]—I’ll point to it. Pointing is a metaphor we all know. We’ve done a lot of studies and tests on that, and it’s much faster to do all kinds of functions, such as cutting and pasting, with a mouse, so it’s not only easier to use but more efficient.”

The early version of the mouse developed at Xerox PARC had three buttons, needed to be tracked over a special pad, and wore out quickly. It often got jammed when dirt accumulated inside it, which was especially problematic because you needed to take it apart with a screwdriver before you could clean it. To top it all, it was also frightfully expensive. Hovey-Kelley Design, the firm that Apple engaged to design the mouse, was tasked with making a cheaper, simpler, and more usable version. They delivered in spades. In a pioneering step, the Lisa and the Macintosh launched with one-button mice which had a ball-tracking control mechanism and could be cleaned very easily. Dean Hovey, one of the co-founders of the firm, reflected on this in an interview conducted almost two decades later:

“I think if there’s anything that made Hovey-Kelley, [it] was being able to say we did the mouse. It’s something that everybody knows, there are probably several hundred million people who use it on a daily basis, and they don’t even notice it’s there. So from a product designer’s perspective, you’ve done something wonderful because it’s disappeared: the technology is not in the way, it’s one with the person. and it works.”

On January 22, 1984 in a sixty-second clip aired during the third quarter of the Superbowl XVIII, Apple introduced the Macintosh to the world. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, the award winning advertisement pictures an unnamed woman being chased through rows of pale bluish-green beings and hurtling a hammer at a screen displaying a Big-Brother-esque figure. The commercial ends with two simple lines, designed to leave the audience hungry for more:

“On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984”.”

The ad has been widely interpreted as depicting Apple’s disruption of the personal computing space which was then dominated by IBM (popularly called “Big Blue”). Jobs showed the outlandish commercial to the Apple board only a few days before it was to be aired. They were horrified. The CEO John Sculley got so nervous about how it would be received that he even tried to offload the Superbowl airtime. As it turns out, he needn’t have worried.

Two days later, in an iconic keynote address at Apple’s annual shareholder meeting, Jobs unveiled the Macintosh and showed off its features. The team had even programmed the computer to introduce itself. Its first words:

“Hello. I’m Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag.”

The Mac went on sale that day at a price of $2,495. It sold over 50,000 units in just the first three months. After the hype wore off however, sales fell steeply. By the end of the year, per month sales were a meager 10,000 units. This was largely because the Macintosh itself was a deeply flawed machine. The bitmapping technology which made the beautiful graphics possible demanded a lot of power, making the computer extremely slow in completing most functions. It had very little memory, just 128K. The Mac was also released with very little software because the OS was being changed right up to the day it launched, making it incompatible with several applications. It was an incredible look at the future of computing, but it was far too weak to be effective. In realizing his vision for the Macintosh, Jobs traded-off on the actual utility of the device.

To be fair, Jobs’s insistence on making sure the Mac was beautiful — both inside and out — did eventually pay off. The Macintosh found product market fit with the design community, a legacy that continues today. A CNN feature which had prominent designers ranking the 12 best designs from the last century saw the original Macintosh coming in at number one. In the words of a co-founder of reputed design firm Seymour Powell:

"When Apple Mac said hello to the world in 1984 it turned the computing industry on its head. It seamlessly combined outstanding software and hardware into an experience. Other than the Jobs-less years it spent in the innovation wilderness, it's still doing it."

Less than a year after the historic launch, Apple released the Macintosh 512K. Since this computer had 4 times the RAM of the original model, it could run considerably more software programs which greatly increased the utility of the device.

The original model of the Macintosh didn’t make Apple a lot of money. It was not the first computer with a graphical user interface and a mouse. In fact, it wasn’t even the second or the third — the Xerox Star launched in 1981 and Apple’s own Lisa which shipped in 1983, both had GUI and point-and-click devices. Jobs himself said that the Macintosh used the same technology as the Lisa.

So how did the Macintosh change the world?

It wasn’t the revenue it generated or even its technical specifications. The Macintosh changed the world because it sold the masses on the idea that computers were accessible. Fun fact: when we take a second look at the legendary 1984 Superbowl ad that formally introduced the Mac, there wasn’t a single shot of the actual product. Apple was selling its audience a concept: the idea that a computer was something that ordinary people could use, and more importantly, actually wanted to use. There is considerable skill in bringing complex technology from the laboratory to the living room—and Apple succeeded in doing just that.


  1. Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Published in 2015.
  2. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Published in 2011.

Originally published , last updated .

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