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Thirty Years of the Apple Mac

by Alex Blewitt on Jan 23, 2014 |

Thirty years ago, Apple Computer announced the Apple Mac during a single run of the iconic 1984 advert, directed by Bladerunner's Ridley Scott. In it, the Macintosh operating system was revealed and in the process kick-started GUI based operating systems. The ideas were based on work done previously at Xerox Parc but were developed at Apple to bring point-and-click mouse operations, at the time referred to as WIMP (Window Interface Mouse Pointer). The Mac itself would be demonstrated later that year.

Although other GUI operating systems would follow (both Amiga and Windows 1.0 were launched the following year in 1985) the original Macintosh kick-started the process off, with features such as voice synthesis and anti-aliased text, at a time when the competitors had moved from CGA to XGA. The Mac also saw the first version of Microsoft Word, starting a new business focussed line of software (a few years earlier, VisiCalc provided the first spreadsheet software for the Apple II).

The next year in September 1985, Steve Jobs left Apple Computer to found NeXT and to develop the NextStep operating system, popularising a then unknown object-oriented language called Objective-C. The NeXT cube and workstations featured floptical drives, built-in faxing, display postscript for arbitrary resolution displays and monitors capable of displaying 24-bit colour, at a time when IBM PC clones were moving from XGA to VGA. Although Next was not a commercial success in either its hardware or software, it changed the world with Tim Berners Lee developing the World Wide Web on a Next workstation.

In 1997, over a decade after being forced out of the company, Steve Jobs returned to Apple as an adviser, then interim CEO later the same year. (The 'interim' title would not be dropped until 2000.) 1997 saw the beginnings of Jony Ive's rise to fame, perhaps even more important than Jobs' contributions to the success of the company. The release of the iMac in 1998 in translucent plastic colours was both an homage to the earlier Mac shape but also one in which design was placed above form. It had a carry handle uniquely balanced at the top, and built-in stereo speakers. It also became the first widely shipped desktop PC to not have a floppy drive, and arguably kick started USB's popularity for computer peripherals. Each iMac had a CD drive built-in, and essentially two cables; one for the power and one to the USB keyboard. The iMac also had a modem and ethernet networking built-in, with the i moniker standing for 'internet'.

Although the iMac shipped with OS 8, it would not be until then next year when OSX was released. The iMacs continued to dual-boot what became Classic MacOSX and OSX until the final iteration of Classic, OS9. By the turn of the millennium, NextStep would have become the standard operating system for Apple computers.

Arguably Apple has had two key changes of direction since its first launches as a computer company; the first, in 2001, was the release of the iPod. Although initially perceived as under specified in comparison to the mobile players of the time ("No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame" was one such review), the attention to detail both in the hardware and the software kick-started another revolution in consumer products. The trend would continue with first colour, then touch-sensitive displays, and caused Apple to subsequently change its name from Apple Computer to just Apple as it expanded the consumer device market. The iPod would also see the beginnings of iOS, a mobile port of OSX in subsequent iterations, although the first releases did not have this built in. The term iOS would be created later.

The second was the unveiling of the iPhone in 2007. By combining the iPod with an OSX based operating system and cellular capabilities, Apple brought the internet to the pocket of many Americans initially, then the rest of the world the following year. The marketing allowed customers to buy unlocked devices and use them on other networks, and with exclusivity agreements opened carriers to the possibility of providing uncapped, always-on data plans. Although it had been possible to browse the internet from a phone prior to this, data was often exorbitantly expensive and not widely used. BlackBerry had cornered the enterprise market with its always-on packet mechanisms, and Nokia was the king of the mobile phone market. The iPhone would end up overtaking both of them to become one of the leading two manufacturers of mobile phones, and the mobile browser engine Safari (originally a fork of khtml) now runs in every popular mobile device as well as desktop browsers such as Chrome.

With the app store providing an income for both Apple and commercial and hobbyist developers alike, and the subsequent release of the iPad in 2010, most of Apple's revenue now comes from consumer hand-held devices rather than traditional computers. The Mac may be a footnote in the history of modern computing, but the device that you are reading this article on can trace its ancestry back to that moment in 1984.

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