At 30, The Original Mac Is Still An Archetype Of Innovation

Jan 24, 2014
Originally published on January 24, 2014 6:58 am

Thirty years ago this week, Apple aired what is widely considered one of most iconic commercials in Super Bowl history. The ad boldly claimed that "1984 won't be like 1984" — the George Orwell dystopian novel — because of the imminent arrival of the Macintosh computer.

Two days later, on Jan. 24, a young Steve Jobs officially introduced the computer that would change not just the company but also the world of personal computing.

Its "1984" ad set up Apple as the undisputed rival to IBM in the personal computer market. It created an image of a company that was fighting for individuals in the face of terrifyingly powerful corporations.

Actually, at the time that commercial ran, the most popular personal computer wasn't an IBM — it was a Commodore 64. But the Mac marketing campaign created a narrative about a rivalry in personal computing: a plucky company fighting for individual creativity. It's a narrative that has helped sustain the brand.

The Mac had selling points of its own. It was a computer that a middle-class family might be able to afford. Its graphics were state of the art for the time. And it fundamentally changed the way people interacted with computers: You didn't have to enter DOS prompts anymore. Using a computer became more intuitive — and it was a design that Bill Gates and Microsoft took note of.

Since then, Apple has continued to innovate the way people use computing. The iPod ushered in a post-PC, mobile era; the iPhone and iPad helped merge computing and entertainment.

When Steve Jobs died in 2011, the company lost its public face — and perhaps some of its swagger. Current Apple CEO Tim Cook faces constant questions about what's next and whether the company can innovate the way it has in the past.

But Cook has seized upon this anniversary to articulate that the ideals that helped build the Mac are alive and well at Apple today.

"We don't want to linger too long and look back at the things that we've done — we want to see what's around the next corner," he said.

The world may be a bit impatient.

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Let's take a look, now, at an innovation from an earlier age, The Mac, Apple's iconic personal computer, turns the big 3 - 0 today. Ancient by the standards of the computer world and still much in demand.

NPR's Steve Henn sat down with one of the Mac's original creators, and now Apple CEO, Tim Cook.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Thirty years ago the Mac was launched with possibly the most famous Super Bowl ad of all time. Filmed by Ridley Scott, it was a nod to George Orwell with IBM cast as big brother.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh and you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984."

HENN: Apple's CEO Tim Cook says he doesn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about the past. But today is an exception because the Mac is turning 30.

TIM COOK: It's pretty exciting when you think about it, that not only that the product and the brand can live 30 years, but the values. The idea that we were going to take computing power that was for the privileged few, for a few universities and big corporations that had tons of money and give to all of us.

HENN: From it's beginnings as a research project the Macintosh was conceived as a computer for people - affordable, and incredibly simple to use.

BUD TRIBBLE: It requires some very deep thinking to design things that are approachable - that don't require you to read the manual.

HENN: In 1983, an approachable computer was more or less unheard of. Bud Tribble, who was part of the original Mac design team, says one reason was that 30 years ago computers were slow - and the convention wisdom was...

TRIBBLE: Any extra computing cycles you had should be used to make the spread sheet run faster. The Mac team had a different approach and we said, well, as - with this very precious computer power, lets devote some of it to painting pictures on the screen.

HENN: Why? Because people relate to pictures. They could use a mouse to click on picture and begin using computers almost intuitively. And the team that built the Mac was an eclectic group, not dominated by computer scientists or engineers.

TRIBBLE: Yeah, in the early days, of course, it was just a handful of people.

HENN: There was a brilliant self-educated drop out.

TRIBBLE: There was myself.

HENN: He was in the midst of an M.D. PhD program.

TRIBBLE: There were musicians. There were...

HENN: And artists.

TRIBBLE: There was an archeologist.

HENN: Tribble says all these different perspectives made the Mac possible. The team was building a tool they wanted to use - and they were a diverse group.

COOK: We define diversity with a big D.

HENN: Tim Cook.

COOK: It's not just the traditional measures of diversity, which are incredibly important, but also diversity of thought.

HENN: For a company that says its doesn't look back, Apple still draws lots of lessons from the development of that first Mac. For example, Tribble says Steve Jobs insisted that the Mac be more than just a machine - he wanted it to be a work of art.

TRIBBLE: Artifacts in our lives should be beautiful, they're part of the warp and woof of our life.

HENN: The team took a field trip to a Tiffany's factory in New York. Jobs once suggested redesigning a circuit board for aesthetic purposes only. And when the Mac finally shipped, every member of the team had their signature embossed on the inside.

TRIBBLE: That's a theme in my time with Apple and with Steve - that's an underlying current that is - was strong back then and if anything is even stronger now.

HENN: And 30 years ago, as a final reward for the folks who created the Mac, Steve Jobs bought the team a beautiful black Bosendorfer grand piano. That piano is still at Apple - a reminder that a technically brilliant instrument could also be beautiful - and a pleasure to touch and play.

TRIBBLE: So here it is.

HENN: So what do you want to play?

TRIBBLE: Robert Schumann.


COOK: Technology by itself is nothing.

HENN: But Tim Cook believes the Macintosh will still exist 30 years from now because it's designed to help people make their own mark on the world.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.


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