Steve Jobs Retrospective: Macintosh

Posted on Sunday, October 9th 2011 at 5:07 a.m.

In 1973 a group of engineers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Complex (PARC) developed the Alto, the first computer to use a mouse-driven GUI and use the desktop and document metaphor in organizing files. Xerox was uninterested in moving forward with an untested design, and the Alto was a white elephant that never made it out of PARC. However, Steve Jobs saw the Alto in 1979 and was highly enthusiastic about the GUI model of computing. He went back to Apple and put together the Lisa project, with an aim to developing an Apple PC with a GUI. The Lisa was envisioned as being a high-end business machine that would be used for spreadsheets, document editing, and project management. Lisa was released in January 1983 and priced at $9,995 – much higher in price than PC’s that IBM was beginning to sell and that were beginning to dominate the business market.

While the Lisa was supposed to be a high-end business PC, other Apple engineers envisioned a low-cost, easy-to-use computer for the average consumer. Jef Raskin was authorized by Jobs to put together a team in September 1979. Eventually Steve Jobs took notice of the Macintosh project and felt it was a better realization of his vision than Lisa. Jobs took over management of the Mac team from Raskin, who left Apple soon after his ouster.

Jobs’ takeover of the Macintosh team coincided with a layoff purge at Apple – the company had grown so quickly that it had made some bad management hires, and that management had hired others. A story from Apple’s Andy Hertzfeld illustrates how Jobs brought him onto the Apple project:

A couple of hours later, around 4:30pm, I was back to work on DOS 4.0 for the Apple II. I was working on low-level code for the system, interrupt handlers and dispatchers, when all of a sudden I notice Steve Jobs peering over the wall of my cubicle.
“I’ve got good news for you”, he told me. “You’re working on the Mac team now. Come with me and I’ll take you over to your new desk.”
“Hey, that’s great”, I responded. “I just need a day or two to finish up what I’m doing here, and I can start on the Mac on Monday.”
“What are you working on? What’s more important than working on the Macintosh?”
“Well, I’ve just started a new OS for the Apple II, DOS 4.0, and I want to get things in good enough shape so someone else could take it over.”
“No, you’re just wasting your time with that! Who cares about the Apple II? The Apple II will be dead in a few years. Your OS will be obsolete before it’s finished. The Macintosh is the future of Apple, and you’re going to start on it now!”.
With that, he walked over to my desk, found the power cord to my Apple II, and gave it a sharp tug, pulling it out of the socket, causing my machine to lose power and the code I was working on to vanish. He unplugged my monitor and put it on top of the computer, and then picked both of them up and started walking away. “Come with me. I’m going to take you to your new desk.”

The Macintosh project caused some strife within Apple – it was a machine that had the features of the Lisa at the price of the Apple II. Steve Jobs would regularly boast about the superiority of the Mac team, much to the chagrin of other Apple employees. He created a “pirate” mentality within the Mac team, setting them up in their own building, trying to recreate the startup spirit within a company that had grown very large very fast.

The Mac’s design was also at the forefront of Jobs’ mind. Raskin had originally conceived the Mac’s design as being similar to the Osborne 1 “portable” computer. Jobs had apparently never taken Raskin’s design seriously. In working with James Ferris, Apple’s director of Creative Services, Jobs talked industrial design and eventually suggested a classic style that would be timeless, such as a Porsche. Jobs also wanted the design to defy convention, and decided the Mac would have a vertical orientation with the monitor on top of the disk drive to minimize desktop footprint. Jobs hired Jerry Manock, who had designed the Apple II’s elegant case, to lead the design effort. After the first unveiling, Jobs was characteristically blunt: “It’s way too boxy, it’s got to be more curvaceous. The radius of the first chamfer needs to be bigger, and I don’t like the size of the bezel. But it’s a start.” The machine went through several design iterations, each more subtle than the previous, until the iconic design finally took shape.

The Macintosh was first announced to the press in October 1983, and was made famous with the Ridley Scott directed “1984” commercial that aired during Super Bowl XVIII on January 22 1984. The ad was created by agency Chiat\Day, but the agency credited Jobs with being the inspiration for the ad’s message of hope against a dystopian world of PC conformity. He wanted a commercial that would “stop the world in its tracks.” While Apple’s board of directors hated it, the public loved it, and when Jobs unveiled the Macintosh at Apple’s annual shareholders meeting two days later he enjoyed a five-minute standing ovation.

It’s hard to appreciate the psychological impact the Macintosh had at the time on anyone interested in computers. Everyone was used to typing in obscure commands in text and staring at black screens with green text. Suddenly there was this computer that you could just use – if you could point and click, you could manipulate files. Documents could have text manipulated with cut-and-paste rather than hard-to-remember key combinations. The world “revolutionary” gets thrown around a lot, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the impact the unveiling of the Mac had.

Because I had already used Apple PC’s at school, I was very excited about the Mac, and somehow managed to get into some kind of Apple convention in Toronto in either 1984 or 1985. I brought home tons of Apple promotional materials, including copies of the ads that Apple had run in Newsweek. I really identified with the populist tagline “A computer for the rest of us.” I would have to wait until 1989 before I could bring a Mac home for myself.

Next: Interregnum and Return

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