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Archive for Sunday, February 1, 2004

Mac turns 20

February 1, 2004

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It changed computing as we knew it.

Twenty years ago, Apple Computer heaved a sledgehammer into the face of the establishment with its revolutionary Macintosh.

It gave birth to our culture of pointing and clicking, desktop icons, and dragging files to the trash. Later the Mac would bring CD drives, candy-colored cases and wireless networking.

But when it first said hello in 1984, it was as if all of Silicon Valley's technical brilliance and all of its verve had been captured in one plucky beige box.

"It opened the door to people using computers," said Chuck Colby, a California engineer who has created custom computer systems since the early days. "When the Mac came out, here all of a sudden you've got this really powerful machine that you could do everything with -- word processing, drawings, things that people had no way of doing before at that price."

Serves as example

Two decades after Apple's famous Super Bowl ad announced the new computer, the Mac's innovative influence has reached far beyond Silicon Valley. More important, it has continually dared its rivals to make computers not just faster, but also better -- easier for real people to use.

Although Macs now have only about 3 percent of the worldwide computer market, today's Microsoft-based computers look more like Macs than they resemble the old IBM PCs -- and the Mac is still the only computer the world knows on a first-name basis.

Bringing the legend to life was magnetic Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who heralded the arrival of a $2,500 computer "for the rest of us." Behind the 28-year-old millionaire was a phalanx of tousle-haired geniuses, college dropouts and artists, blurry-eyed from the all-nighters it took to finish the Macintosh.

They were the forerunners of the next generation's dot-commers and wireless wizards, though these pioneers sought a revolution instead of stock options.

"The mantra at the time was, we were trying to make a computer that even our mothers could use," said Bud Tribble, manager of the original Mac software team, who at age 31 ranked as an elder in the group. "I think the idea that a relatively small group of people with a vision can change a whole industry really grabbed people's imagination."

The seeds of the Mac were planted in 1979, when Jef Raskin, an early Apple employee, decided to name his dream -- a new type of user-friendly computer -- after a fruit he liked to buy as a boy in Manhattan.

Apple Computers Inc. chief executive Steve Jobs introduces the new
flat screen iMac at Macworld in San Francisco in this Jan. 7, 2002,
file photo. Twenty years ago, Apple Computers Inc. introduced its
revolutionary Macintosh computer with a Super Bowl ad. Since then,
other companies have changed the functions and looks of their
computers to compete with the user-friendly Mac.

Apple Computers Inc. chief executive Steve Jobs introduces the new flat screen iMac at Macworld in San Francisco in this Jan. 7, 2002, file photo. Twenty years ago, Apple Computers Inc. introduced its revolutionary Macintosh computer with a Super Bowl ad. Since then, other companies have changed the functions and looks of their computers to compete with the user-friendly Mac.

"I figured if I was going to name an Apple, it might as well be my favorite," he recalled.

So Raskin christened the project Macintosh, after the McIntosh apple. Though Apple had asked him to build a $500 game machine, he morphed that mandate into a $1,000 computer.

Well, sort of a computer. Raskin envisioned a machine people would love, a machine people would find friendly more than just necessary. Raskin's vision -- in broad strokes, at least -- carried through into the final product.

But it was Jobs who made the Mac real.

'Father of the Mac'

Jobs, who recognized the Macintosh project as an opportunity to fulfill his own computing vision, took control of the team from Raskin, and remade it in his own image. Jobs insisted that there should be a mouse, enough memory to run business programs, and other touches -- which, naturally, would cost more.

"Steve is really the father of the Mac," said Bruce Horn, who was in charge of developing the Finder navigation tool and other important parts of the software. "Steve was there every day all day and late at night, and he would cajole us and tell us we were great, tell us we were losers, do whatever it took to motivate us to create the best possible product. He also protected us from the bureaucracy that was Apple."

Jobs, who declined to be interviewed, also was the one to show off the computer, and build alliances that would be critical to the Mac's future. Adobe Systems co-founder Chuck Geschke was a tough man to impress back in the early 1980s, because he had seen much of the technology at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. But as he got to know the Mac, it wowed him.

He showed one to his wife, a librarian and artist, and she started using it.

"It really dawned on me that for the first time, computers were going to be accessible for people who were right-brain-oriented instead of left-brained like us."

Founder ousted

Apple sold 70,000 Macs in the first three months but sales slowed after 1984, in part because the machine lacked the power and memory to run many complex programs. And Jobs clashed with John Sculley, the executive he had hired as CEO from PepsiCo.

Sculley and the rest of the board forced Jobs out.

"Steve still has never forgiven me for what happened back in 1985, and I suspect never will," Sculley said in an interview.

That left Sculley with a Macintosh emergency. Desktop publishing -- the combination of Macs with Adobe laser-printing technology and software like Aldus PageMaker -- saved the Mac, said Jay Vleeschhouwer, a Merrill Lynch analyst who has watched technology markets for nearly 25 years.

"What triggered the growth of the Mac was the profusion of this software, and the number of users who could take advantage of it," Vleeschhouwer said. "It put Adobe on the map, it put Aldus on the map, and it put Apple on the map."

Sculley and his team meanwhile pushed forward, outfitting the Mac with digital cameras, flat-panel LCD technology and CD-ROM drives, years before those ideas caught on. The lovable computer was getting a makeover with color screens and multimedia, and was becoming a hit in schools, where teachers had shunned tough-to-use PCs.

"This guy was much more visionary than any of us could have thought at the time," said Tim Bajarin, president of the Creative Strategies consulting firm, speaking of Sculley. "In the end, because he was such a great visionary, he tried to put things into Apple much earlier than the market was ready for it."

The prime example was the Newton, a handheld computer that proved Sculley's undoing. Apple's board grew uncomfortable with Sculley's focus on the Newton, and in June 1992, after 10 years at the helm of Apple, Sculley resigned. But already there were forces in motion that would force the Mac into also-ran status for the rest of the decade.

Apple loses crunch

On the strategy side, Sculley said, it was difficult to sort out how Apple might have prevailed over Microsoft and Intel. But in the late 1980s, when Apple was deciding what processor to use, he certainly could have paid more attention to Intel.

Though Intel's computer chip technology didn't look the strongest at the time, in the ensuing years Intel's ability to improve would make up for any technical disadvantage.

During the 1990s, Intel would relentlessly improve the speed of its chips. Computers built from off-the-shelf parts including Intel's ever-faster chips and Microsoft's widely licensed Windows operating system grew cheaper and more powerful each year. And it happened at a pace the Mac and its customized parts couldn't match.

"In hindsight if we had ported the Mac over to the Intel processor, Apple might have had a chance to succeed in the 1990s," Sculley said.

Then, Apple could have gone through the years-long process of creating a version of the operating system that it could license to computer makers with Intel-based machines.

"If we made a mistake and didn't license it, I'll take the blame, because I was the guy in charge at the time," Sculley said.

In late 1995 and early 1996, Apple was adrift. The Mac desperately needed reinventing. Apple had failed to deliver a revamped Mac operating system and shut down a pioneering online service called eWorld.

Steves aboard

The company's buzz wouldn't return until the two Steves -- Jobs and Wozniak -- stood on a stage with then-CEO Gil Amelio, introduced as corporate advisers.

It was a taste of the future.

The maverick Jobs, the closest thing to a personification of the Mac, gradually took control of the company.

Soon, Apple launched the iMac, a jellybean-shaped computer designed to look friendly and connect easily to the Internet. It marked Jobs' triumphal return, and the spirit of the original Mac.

The years since have seen a flat-panel iMac, software for moviemaking that echoes the desktop publishing revolution, and a surge in Apple's reputation as its iTunes Music Store and iPod music player remake the world's relationship with recorded song.

"Steve has always been willing to take risks," said Adobe co-founder John Warnock. "If you look at a product like the iPod, it's clearly innovative, took risks -- a great product."

And so, even as the Mac turns 20, Apple is swinging another hammer at the establishment. It's not IBM anymore, or even Windows and Intel, though the company can't resist taking the occasional potshot. Now Apple is set against the established way of doing things, whether using computers, making movies, or listening to music. It's the reason why the lovable Mac -- now with a neck and a flatter face -- still has fans.

"It's amazing that Apple still makes things called Macintoshes 20 years later," said Andy Hertzfeld, who wrote a third of the basic code in the original Macintosh. "I love the Macintosh. Loved it then, love it now."

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