Dept. of Technological Anniversaries

Thirty years ago, on January 22, 1984, computing changed forever. The ad was a teaser; remember, it ran only once, but during the Super Bowl (Raiders 38, Redskins 9), so it’s safe to say lots of people saw it.

Jobs’ demonstration of the actual machine two days later made it clear that Apple was playing the game at a higher level than anybody else. Remember, at the time, the IBM PC was state of the art for personal computing: huge, bulky, unfriendly, and based on a command line interface. There was no sound beyond beeps and boops. Graphics were a joke on the PC, and required an add-on card. The GUI Jobs demonstrates here is, by comparison, from another planet. The technical information he outlines is similarly cutting edge, especially for a mass-market computer. To say this was an exciting development is to understate things by a couple orders of magnitude. The Mac changed personal computing in enormous and profound ways. Jobs’ examples of IBM missing the boat may seem grandiose, but he’s fundamentally right.

(Something else to keep in mind: in this video, Steve Jobs is twenty-nine years old.)

I didn’t join the Mac faithful right away — in ’84, I was in junior high. I made it through high school with a TRS-80, a cartridge-based word processor, and a cassette tape drive as my mass storage. (Bonus: without the cartridge in, the CoCo booted straight to BASIC.)

I went to college in 1988, but since my campus was more PC than Mac, I bought an AT clone that turned out to be the fastest machine in my whole dorm. That was kind of fun. It also turned out that computers made sense to me in ways that other people didn’t get, and so I stayed in the Windows world for a long time but for some very rewarding side trips largely because people were paying me to do so.

But I got there eventually, mostly because of how awful Windows became, especially on a laptop. In late 1999, I was traveling a lot, living out of a laptop, and writing lots of Office docs. Windows 98 on a laptop was a dumpster fire in terms of reliability — crashes were frequent, and the idea of putting your laptop to sleep was just a joke. Windows couldn’t handle it, so you were forever shutting down and rebooting. Then a friend of mine showed me his new G3 Powerbook. In the days before OS X, Macs were only a little less crashy than Windows, but it was enough to catch my eye. The functional sleep/wake cycle, a big beautiful screen, and a generally more sane operating environment closed the deal, and I made the switch in early 2000 to a 500Mhz G3 Powerbook.

What’s interesting now to me in retrospect is that I realized I’ve been on the Mac side for nearly half its life. I’ve used Macs way longer than I used PCs (1988 to 1999). I see no future in which I switch back. Had Apple not switched to a Unix-based OS, I’d probably have gone to Linux for professional reasons — and, honestly, desktop Linux would probably be a much better place. (Having a commercially supported Unix with professional-grade software written for it, running on premium hardware meant fewer people worked to make Linux on the desktop viable for normal humans.) Instead, Apple built OSX, and changed everything again.

Original Macs were sometimes derided by so-called “serious” computing people as good for design and graphics and whatnot, but not for “real” work; by shifting to the BSD-based OSX, Apple gave the Mac the kind of hardcore underpinnings that Windows could only dream out (and, really, still doesn’t have). The designers and creatives stayed, and a whole extra swath of web-native software people joined them as the Mac (and especially the Mac laptop) became the machine of choice for an entire generation of developers. That shift has been permanent; if you’re writing web code in Python or Ruby or PHP, you’re far more likely to be doing so on a Mac than on Windows simply because the Mac has so much more in common with your production servers than Windows does.

The end result is that the Mac platform is in better shape today, at 30 years old, than it’s ever been.

I tallied it up the other day. I’ve had five Macs as my personal machine, counting the G3 I bought back in ’99. I’ve bought two others for my household — a 2009 Mini that serves as my media server, and a 2012 11″ Macbook Air I bought Mrs Heathen last Christmas. Somewhat hilariously, in doing this tally, I realized that (a) I never owned an “iconic” square Mac like the one in the video above; and (b) four of my five Mac laptops have looked almost exactly the same: the 2003 Titanium Powerbook G4 (1Ghz, 512MB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive — a very high end configuration at the time!) was one of the first of the “sleek silver metal” Mac laptops, and that style was carried over to the upgrade I bought in 2005, though by then they were made of Aluminum. In 2007, I made the jump to the Intel-based Macbook Pros; the bump in power was pretty huge, but the chassis was substantially the same.

My 2010 update didn’t look much different, and the only significant visual difference between the 2010 model and the one I bought last fall is that my new one doesn’t have an optical drive and is therefore slimmer.

Eleven years is a long time for a product to look pretty much the same, especially in computing, but I’ve yet to see anyone complain that the MacBook Pro looks dated. That’s what paying attention to design gets you. I suspect that, eventually, the Pro will get a more Air-like profile, but right now the power consumption and temperature issues mandate the more traditional shape.

Anyway, Apple has a minisite up about the anniversary. It’s fun. Visit.

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