40 years ago, the original Macintosh started a revolution

40 years ago, the original Macintosh started a revolution

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh computer, a revolutionary machine that changed computing forever. Here’s what made the Macintosh 128K unique.

In the 1980s, the IBM PC was the computer that overwhelmed all other personal computer designs. Before their introduction in 1981, serious computers were massive and expensive machines that didn’t belong in a household. Even small businesses resorted to adding machines and pocket calculators for everyday use. Accounting firms and companies specializing in computer processing were used for more complicated work. Apple wanted to change that with the Macintosh in 1984.

A classic Apple Macintosh shows a friendly hello on the screen.

Of course, PCs existed before 1981 and Apple was a major player in competition with Commodore, Radio Shack and others. These relatively inexpensive devices with 8-bit processors often relied on connecting to a TV instead of a monitor to keep costs down. Programs and data were stored on audio cassettes. This was exciting for hobbyists, but not worthy of serious work.

When the IBM PC came out with a much more reliable design and a high-speed Intel 8088 processor that could handle up to 16 bits of data at a time, it was a momentous occasion that forced rapid change. IBM was the most respected name in serious computing and immediately took over the personal computing market. Apple began preparing a response with a high-end business computer that was unlike anything the general public had seen before. This wasn’t the Macintosh, however, but the Apple Lisa, one of the first computers to feature a mouse.

A Lisa-1 computer on display at The BYTE Shop computer museum in Boston, MA, September 2022.
Timothy Colegrove

The Apple Lisa had a revolutionary design but was aimed at large businesses and cost just under $10,000. That’s a steep price to pay even in 2023 and was well out of reach for most companies in 1983. Thankfully, Apple didn’t stop there. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs started a pet project that ran parallel to the development of the flagship computer, the Lisa. The Macintosh 128K, named for its relatively large amount of memory, stole many of the best bits of Lisa technology, simplified the design, and drastically reduced costs to produce a personal computer that was within reach of a much larger audience at $2,495.

This could be the same approach that Apple will be taking with its AR/VR headset, launching a very expensive model that fires the imagination, and soon followed by a cheaper model. If the Apple Reality Pro really does launch this year, a much more affordable Reality One model will likely follow in 2024.

A rendering of Apple's VR headset.
Rendering Apple AR/VR headsets Ian Zelbo

Going back to the Macintosh story, Apple’s budget model challenged the IBM PC’s 8/16-bit Intel 8088 chip with a Motorola 68000 processor, a 16/32-bit chip that could put twice as much data in could process in a single statement. The differences were also strong on the surface. The Macintosh was tiny compared to an IBM PC, and the computer’s motherboard and a floppy disk drive were built into the same housing as its small but sharp black-and-white monitor, taking up minimal desk space. This was an important consideration at a time when desks weren’t designed for computers.

The main difference was the mouse and the graphical user interface, which made a computer much easier to learn for anyone. Apple did not invent this concept, which was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. However, the Macintosh was the computer that took this idea out of the lab and showed that this was to be the way of the future.

Combining the Macintosh with an Apple ImageWriter or LaserWriter made WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) desktop publishing a reality and became the number one reason to choose a Macintosh over an IBM PC. Here’s a video of Jobs showing off the Macintosh that macessentials posted on YouTube.

The Lost 1984 Video: Young Steve Jobs introduces the Macintosh

Microsoft stepped in with Windows, a mouse-driven user interface that brought similar capabilities to the PC. Still, Apple had already established itself as the first choice for print, and it took many years for Windows to catch up in that industry. For most users, the less expensive PC was still preferable and Windows flourished.

With the arrival of Apple Silicon, the Mac challenges the Windows PC again, but Windows is so ubiquitous that the Mac may never catch up and become the most popular personal computer. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Apple is so keen on alternative technologies like the iPhone and iPad. Apple has the opportunity to change computing again by championing new technologies that need help making their way into the mainstream.

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