Twenty years ago there was panic in Cupertino, Calif. Only a week remained before the team of whiz kids designing Apple's radical new computer had to turn in the final code. The giant factory was ready. The soon-to-be-famous Super Bowl commercial was ready. But the computer wasn't.
As recounted by software wizard Andy Hertzfeld on a new cyberdigital history site (folklore.org), the already overworked Mac team trudged back to the cubicles for seven days of debugging hell, fueled by espresso chocolate beans and a dream. And on Jan. 24, 1984, their leader, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, recited a verse from "The Times They Are A-Changin'," then formally unveiled the Macintosh, a boxy little guy with a winning smile icon on its nine-inch monochrome screen. The Mac-oids fully expected to make computer history, and they did. What surprises them now is that their creation is still around two decades later.
Only nine years after the first personal computer (a build-it-yourself box whose only input was a set of switches), Apple's team had delivered an experience that would persist into the next century. This was the graphical user interface (GUI), a mind-blowing contrast to the pre-1984 standard of glowing green characters and arcane commands. Though Apple didn't come up with the idea of windows on a screen and a mouse to let people naturally manipulate information, the Macintosh refined and popularized those concepts. Lots of people criticized--and some made fun of--those advances at the time. But even Apple's rivals became convinced that the GUI was groovy. Now, no matter what computer you use, you're using, essentially, a Mac.
The original Mac was costly, underpowered and had no cursor keys. Early sales disappointed Apple, and the then CEO John Sculley fired Jobs in 1985. Eventually, Mac became equipped with more memory and storage, and people began to discover the machine's ability to become a tool for the new pursuit of desktop publishing. The machine began to take off. But the business world never warmed to Macintosh, and by the mid-'90s tech pundits were crafting Apple obituaries. In 1997 prodigal cofounder Jobs returned and restored Apple's luster with innovations like the eye-popping iMac.
"I think Apple's now doing the best work it's ever done," says Jobs. "But all of us on the Mac team consider it the high point of our professional careers. I only wish we knew a fraction of what we know now."
Even now for its 25 million users, the Macintosh is a source of passion. (Journalists know that a disparaging word about an iMac or a PowerBook will unleash a hundred flames from rabid Apple-heads.) Steve Jobs thinks he knows why. "In the modern world there aren't a lot of products where the people who make them love them. How many products are made that way these days?"
If that's so, then why is the Mac market share, even after Apple's recent revival, sputtering at a measly 5 percent? Jobs has a theory about that, too. Once a company devises a great product, he says, it has a monopoly in that realm, and concentrates less on innovation than protecting its turf. "The Mac-user interface was a 10-year monopoly," says Jobs. "Who ended up running the company? Sales guys. At the critical juncture in the late '80s, when they should have gone for market share, they went for profits. They made obscene profits for several years. And their products became mediocre. And then their monopoly ended with Windows 95. They behaved like a monopoly, and it came back to bite them, which always happens."
A wicked smile cracks the bearded, crinkly Steve Jobs's visage, and for a moment he could be the playful upstart who shocked the world 20 years ago. "Hmm, look who's running Microsoft now," he says, referring to former Procter & Gamble marketer Steve Ballmer. "A sales guy!" The smile gets broader. "I wonder... " he says.