Happy Birthday, Apple Macintosh, on your 30th

Happy birthday, Mac!

Apple celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the Macintosh computer on Saturday, Jan. 25, in Cupertino, California. The unveiling of the Mac to the world by Steve Jobs on Jan. 24, 1984 -- also in Cupertino -- was Apple’s most successful product launch to date, as Apple took on IBM’s domination of the fast-growing market for personal computers.

After the Mac was launched, Apple did well, then not so well in the ‘90s (Steve Jobs had been ousted from the company in 1985). Then he came back in 1996, when Apple bought his company, NeXT, and by the early 2000s Apple was doing well again, revolutionizing the personal computing world with the iTunes store, and iPods, and eventually iPhones and iPads.

Apple’s public pre-launch of the Mac came during SuperBowl XVIII on January 22, 1984 (the L.A. Raiders trounced the Washington Redskins, 38 to 9). A dramatic ad directed by Ridley Scott for the Macintosh ran during the game.

An army of grey robot-men march through prison-like corridors to an assembly area, as a Big Brother figure drones at them from a huge screen about conformity and power. Enter a female runner -- in color, representing Apple -- pursued by helmeted riot police. She runs before them, past the oblivious robot-men, turns once, twice, three times, and hurls a sledgehammer into the screen, smashing Big Brother, unleashing air and light, waking the robots from their authoritarian trance, and ushering in the Age of Macintosh.

“That day the earth’s axis shifted a little bit,” says Guy Kawasaki with a small laugh. At the time, Kawasaki was the Apple Macintosh division’s software evangelist. He was there two days after the Superbowl ad aired, when Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh.

“It represented an entirely new way of interacting with computers and accessing information,” says Kawasaki. “This was your computer, and you could do what you wanted with it.”

Technology writer John Battelle was an early adopter and covered Apple for MacWeek; he went on to cofound Wired and The Industry Standard (he’s now CEO of Federated Media). He says Mac’s graphical user interface -- clicking and dragging the mouse across screen displays -- made the personal computer something everyone could use.

“Simply put—you saw yourself mirrored in that machine,” says Battelle. “What you did was directly reflected in the interface of that machine. When you moved your hand, something moved on the machine. The WYSIWYG -- ‘what you see is what you get’ -- interface was magical, and it began a journey of our society into becoming digital and understanding what it means to be data.”

That first post-apocalyptic Mac ad ended with an announcer saying these words as they scrolled down the screen: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

The beige Macintosh personal computer that Steve Jobs described as being ‘for the rest of us’ -- the one that he believed would unseat IBM’s dominance of the market, and change the world -- had arrived.

Listen to an extended interview with Guy Kawasaki here:

What other technology was "born" in 1984? According to this timeline:

  • The Olivetti PC
  • Flash memory
  • 3D printing
  • The first portable computer (weighing in at 30 lbs)
  • The first desktop laser printer
  • Tetris!

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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