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the impact of the macintosh

On my entry about the Mac's 20th birthday there were a couple of comments that are interesting enough to echo here.

First, Chris posted a link to the 1984 commercial (thanks Chris!).

Second, Doug posted a long comment that I'll quote verbatim before replying:

As I recall, the '1984' commercial did not have much impact. It was advertising a product that most viewers had never heard of, but failed to introduce the product or suggest any of its benefits. The commercial was never run again.

Also, the Mac wasn't really that 'innovative'. It didn't have much of anything that the Apple Lisa didn't have... except that the Mac was at least somewhat affordable.

Finally, I would note that the 1984 Macintosh was generally considered to be a flop. Sales were abysmal when compared with the then-ancient Apple ][ -- it had taken 74 days for the Mac to sell its first 50K units, but when the IIc was introduced a few months later, Apple sold 50K of them in 7 hours. Worse, Mac sales were miniscule when compared with the IBM PC. The Macintosh failed to stop Apple's decline from #1 microcomputer maker to tiny niche player. The 9" black-and-white low-res screen and undersized keyboard marked it as a rich man's toy.

It was the introduction of the Mac II in '87, with available 13" 640x480 color display and a real keyboard, that finally gave Apple a system that was attractive to professionals.

What Doug says is all true. However, I disagree with his implied conclusion (that the Mac, or the launch even, weren't as important as they were).

Specifically on the points Doug mentions. The Lisa was about one third of the price of a Xerox Star. The Mac was one-fifth to one-fourth of the price of the Lisa. The Mac-to-Lisa jump was done in part due to hardware advances, but more importantly, due to top-notch engineering. Price matters. Also, the Mac improved on the Lisa in several aspects and to a degree it was an independent project that was running in parallel and that Jobs took over when the Lisa project started to sink under its own weight.

Regarding sales, well, the first Mac was in part underpowered (a year later the addition of a hard drive among other things made the product a much better proposition, and it sold accordingly), which hurt its sales. But at the heart of the difference in sales there's also the "Apple factor": not licensing the OS, using proprietary components, pushing for very high margins, etc., which had a big effect IMO.

As far as the impact of the 1984 commercial is concerned, I would just ask how many other commercials for computers are still known to the level that one is, and leave it at that.

Finally, if we start comparing things on the basis of what had already been proposed or developed to a degree (but not seriously marketed) before a product was launched, then the Lisa wasn't really that 'innovative' either because it borrowed a large number of concepts from the Xerox Star (which in turn borrowed from Engelbart's work), as I mentioned in the entry. There's a big differecence between doing something for a tiny audience or playing with it in a lab and designing it so you can manufacture hundreds of thousands of units a year of it. We could also argue (for example) that as crucial as the Mac II was the Laser Printer and PageMaker, which made the idea of "desktop publishing" a reality.

The original Mac planted the seeds for what was to come, and the Mac II and everything after it, on all other sides of the aisle (yes, for example, Windows), resembles to a large degree what was in that "rich man's toy" as Doug describes it.

A "desktop". Icons. Mouse. Graphical filesystem navigation. Applications running inside windows. Menus. Bit-mapped graphics. The idea of a common "Look and Feel", established through published guidelines (this one is fading now though, what with our modern skinnable apps and such :)). An API (The Toolbox) for developing apps against it, with high-level OS services. Most of these things existed before it, but the original Mac had it all, and in some respects it was several years ahead of its time (we all talk about computers as "appliances" now given the right context, but Jobs always saw the Mac as that, a machine that could sit comfortable in any living room without looking out of place).

What is sad is that we haven't really moved too far beyond those basic ideas, particularly since many of them were not designed for the massive amounts of information we deal with today (say, the number of files on our hard drives) and so in some sense some ideas have been as much a problem as a solution. But that's how it played out.

The impact of the Mac is therefore, in my opinion, difficult to underestimate. It defined what computers should be rather than bringing up a fancier version of what they were. And that's what's important, I think.

Update: [via Peter] Andy Hertzfeld's Folklore page dedicated to the early days of building the Macintosh. Very, very cool.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on January 26 2004 at 12:08 PM

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