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Happy Birthday, Mac

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Happy Birthday, Mac

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

Get out the cake and candles. Tomorrow is the 10th birthday of one of the greatest little guys you ever saw.

He was born with the name of a fruit, and has been known ever since as just plain Mac. Over the years, he's gotten bigger and smarter and fatter, but on the day Mac came into the world he was small and trim and light.

Because people fell in love with him, the world that revolves around computers was changed forever. So blow out the candles for Apple's Macintosh, and make a wish—that somehow, somewhere, some company just as crazy as Apple Computer has the same kind of vision to push us out of the mold once again in some other area of technology.

But there won't ever be another Mac. Once such a brilliant idea is turned into something we can all touch and use, it never needs to be invented again.

All the credit for the Mac has to go to Steve Jobs, who founded Apple Computer along with his equally zany buddy, Steve Wozniak, back in the 1970s. Both these Steves discovered years ago that their minds were too big for Apple's britches, and they went on to other things. Although Apple Computer's current bigwigs can proudly point to many employees who helped Jobs put together the first Mac, the real story is clear: One guy with an idea, a guy you couldn't say no to, made all the difference.

That idea was a computer that didn't look like a computer, that didn't act like the computers of 1974 acted, and that didn't sit there and wait for you to finish your degree in thermo-molecular biomechanical engineering before you could figure out how to work it.

The Mac created the need for a new way to describe the way it worked. It was "user-friendly." You never needed to learn anything. If you could move a palm-shaped thing around on the kitchen table, and you could push your finger down on a big button, you already knew how to use the Mac. With a Mac and a mouse, you could do anything.

Apple said later that its own studies had discovered a telling phenomenon: Of thousands of Mac owners surveyed, practically none of them had ever opened up the Mac's user manual. They didn't have to.

But the first Mac was almost a disaster. Having a special kind of vision was as much a liability as an asset for Steve Jobs. He designed the first Macintosh with almost no computer memory, with only a tiny floppy disk drive (and no other storage possibility), without a decent-quality printer.

After a sales spurt in the first few months, the Mac started to die on the shelves. There was practically no software to run on it, and the Mac was incompatible with every other computer made. Dealers began sending unsold Macs back to Apple, and the company laid off 20 percent of its work force in mid-1985—including Steve Jobs.

Traditional wisdom says the Mac was saved by a printer—the Apple LaserWriter, which allowed anyone with a Mac and $7,000 to start a publishing business. The LaserWriter's debut in 1985 even prompts another new way to describe using a Mac: "desktop publishing."

But something much more basic saved the Mac. Few Mac users could afford a LaserWriter. What mattered to the fans of the Mac was the way it looked. It was cute.

Steve Jobs could have plunked the Mac's innards into a big, ugly box and made it look like the PCs of 1984—and the PCs of 1994, too, since they haven't changed—but instead he put everything except the mouse and the keyboard into what looked for all the world like a little guy with a big, square face.

He even smiled at you and wrote "Hello" on his screen when you turned him on.

Historians of technology can say what they want, but "cute" gains more loyal fans than "ugly" any time, and that's just what the Mac got. Apple knows this, too. After taking all the cuteness out of most of the current Mac models—which look just like PCs now—it has seen its sales slipping, and is getting ready to introduce a bunch of cute Macs again. They won't look like the Mac we know and love, but they sure won't be confused with PCs, either.

So raise your mouse high to the kid who started it all.

Happy birthday, little guy.

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