The changing face of the Mac

This essay was originally published in 2009 for the 25th anniversary of the Macintosh, in Computer History Museum’s Core magazine.

The original Macintosh has been immortalized by history as nothing less than a silicon update to the myth of Prometheus — bringing enlightenment to a world overtaken by monotone, ugly, hard-to use and harder-to-love IBM clones. Hailed by Apple and others as the last true computer revolution and a machine perfect in every way, it’s easy to imagine it as a single, unified vision, brought to market with ruthless precision and efficiency. In reality, it was anything but.

The first incarnation of the Macintosh, as envisioned in early 1979 by Mike Markkula, Apple’s chairman, was a sub-$500 game machine — the smallest sibling of a troika that also included Apple III and Lisa. Jef Raskin, chosen to lead the project, had enough prescience (the game-computer price wars of the early 1980s drove most of the manufacturers to extinction) to counter with something more ambitious: a friendly, general-purpose computer for the masses, available as soon as Christmas 1981. Raskin started by compiling “The Book of Macintosh” — a collection of articulate and influential documents filled with rallying cries such as, “Let’s make some affordable computers!” and pondering, “What will millions of people do with them?”

An early Macintosh exploration from frogdesign

The Mac’s cornerstone was to be its friendly user interface. However, the familiar black-and-white reinterpretation of a desk top — developed in parallel between Lisa and Mac and much enhanced from its origins at Xerox PARC — was not the first choice. Raskin later built another computer as an example of the kind of interface he had in mind. Released in 1987, the Canon Cat did away with folders and files (replaced by one infinite document), and favored text and keyboard, over graphics and mouse.

But in Mac’s case, the mouse wasn’t a given either. Early memos mentioned a light pen, a trackball, and a joystick as the pointing devices of choice. But after being pushed by Steve Jobs toward Doug Engelbart’s invention, the design team built and tested over 150 mouse prototypes (the earliest ones using a ball from a roll-on deodorant). Even the decision to remove all buttons but one — often presented as Exhibit A to confirm Apple’s autocratic and arbitrary approach to interface design — was the product of many heated discussions.

The original Macintosh bag

The initial goal for the Mac’s case was to make it highly transportable. Early prototypes resembled Osborne’s later, popular portable, and even included provisions for batteries. As the project shifted from Raskin’s purview to Jobs’, however, this priority changed simply to something “different from everything else.” That included the Apple Lisa, whose design was derided by Jobs as having a Cro-Magnon forehead above its screen. But it might still have provided inspiration for the Mac’s eventual anthropomorphic cues: The facade resembling a human face, a smirk of a floppy drive, and a chin leaving room to slide in the keyboard. The team endured a couple of distractions — the “Cuisinart Mac” being the most famous of them — but ultimately Jerry Manock’s design remained the one chosen for the Mac’s premiere.

That covers the three most essential components. But pick any other part — even those that seem to scream “Macintosh” — and you might be in for a surprise too. The processor? The 6809e was the team’s first choice. The display? Initial plans called for a 4" or 5" screen, with a measly 256×256 resolution. Storage? The final product is credited with popularizing Sony’s 3½” disks, but the Mac is happily seen sporting Lisa’s five-inch Twiggy drive… in its own user manual.

Some Cuisinart-inspired Mac sketches

Even the name, chosen by Raskin as a tribute to his favorite variety of apple fruit, was in peril a couple of times. The advertisements proudly stated, “They didn’t call it the QZ190, or the Zipchip 5000.” Fortunately, they also didn’t call it Annie, Apple v, or Bicycle — though at some point all of these names were attached to the project.

But, as exciting as it is, juggling all these alternatives is, ultimately, pointless. Sure, this might be a favorite pastime for anyone with an interest in computer history: Armed with a sometimes-too-intimate knowledge of business blunders, close encounters, and last-minute plan changes, we enjoy conjuring alternate realities. What if Gary Kildall stayed in his office to talk about the operating system for IBM’s upcoming personal computer? What if hp decided to release Wozniak’s first machine? What if today’s most popular desktop computer was still Altair, and laptop — LisaBook Air? Finally, what if the Macintosh was indeed released as a cheap game console just in time to catch on to the runaway popularity of Pac-Man?

But this would be denying the Macintosh its true accomplishment. The first little beige box was finally announced in January 1984, with a $2,495 price tag. (“The design team was horrified,” wrote Andy Hertzfeld years later. “[This price] felt like a betrayal of everything that we were trying to accomplish.”) The launch was a carefully choreographed marketing event that was as memorable as the product itself. But what turned out to be just as fascinating as the Mac’s five-year crusade to establish its own identity was the apparent eagerness, in the decades since, to keep throwing it away.

An early Macintosh exploration from frogdesign

The Mac’s prototypical user, originally simply a “person in the street,” was quickly narrowed down to the “knowledge worker.” But the progeny of the first Macintosh found a different purpose in life: the classroom companion; the pioneer of the desktop publishing revolution; the multimedia machine; the hub for your digital lifestyle; the mother ship for your collection of shiny iPods and iPhones.

The exterior evolved as well. Cuddly, humane design gave way to sterile principles of Hartmut Esslinger’s corporate Snow White design language and the beige blandness of the Espresso style. The iMac era alone gave us translucent, colorful gumdrop curves and, later, foggy plastics — both admired and copied feverishly by competitors; and both incredibly dated next to today’s dark glass and aluminum enclosures.

Throw in both of the architectural transitions — to PowerPC in the mid-1990s, and to Intel a decade later — and the well-publicized drama of finding a replacement for the aging operating system, and it’s easy to see that the tumultuous five years it took to bring the Macintosh to market were only a foretaste of the Mac’s complicated future and quite possibly the most troubled upbringing of any computer product in history. (Even its near deaths in 1985 and 1997 had a precedent; Apple cancelled the Macintosh project in its early stages on at least three different occasions.)

An early Macintosh exploration from frogdesign

In some sense, however, all of these metamorphoses were entirely superficial. The principles that defined the Mac’s essence reach much deeper. Those principles haven’t buckled since Raskin and Markkula met in 1979 to talk about a “crankless computer” (in a nod to Ford’s Model T) in one of the rooms of the then tiny Apple headquarters.

The continuing focus on the integrity of the user experience (Raskin in 1984: “You don’t build a hardware box just to suit some hardware engineer and then try to cram software into it”) makes the competition lose as much sleep today as ever, prompting nervous responses to the popular “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads. And those ads have never really strayed too far from the first marketing campaign, with all its allusions to George Orwell’s 1984. The message didn’t need to change. Even though it celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday this year, and neither its enclosure nor the technology inside it would be recognizable to the original team, the Mac never sold its soul. It is designed better and easier to use than its competitors and, astonishingly, even with a market share again flirting with double digits, still feels like a “computer for the rest of us.”

One of the 40 pages from the Newsweek Mac advertisement

And, in the end, this might turn out to be the Macintosh’s most important legacy.