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25 years of the Mac

January 27th, 2009

The Macintosh computer just turned 25

Johnny Got His Gun move

. I bought one of the original 128K Macs not long after they came out. I remember being reluctation to shell out $50 for a box of 10 400k floppy disks (these were the the 3.5″ type that weren’t actually floppy, and became standard on IBM PCs quite a few years later). I thought I was unlikely ever to need 4 megabytes of storage, so I got the store to sell me what was left in a box they’d already opened. And I was pretty dubious that anyone could really use the 512K of RAM offered in w the top-of-the-line “Fat Mac” which came out soon afterwards. It didn’t take me long to discover my error and upgrade.

I’ve owned just about every model since then**, and Macs have been a huge part of my life. I’d find it hard to estimate the increase in my productivity* associated with using Macs instead of typewriters or command-line computers back in the 1980s and early 1990s. This question was the subject of long-running religious wars which persisted until quite recently, but after the emergence of Windows it became pretty clear that the Mac style of computing was the only serious option, and that people who didn’t want to use Apple Macs for one reason or another would only have to wait a few years for the MS knockoff (next instalment, Windows 7).

For a while in the 90s, it seemed likely that Windows would prevail, but the return of Steve Jobs to Apple changed all that. Now, there’s a lot of talk that minimal net-based computers will take over, but such talk has been round many times before (smart terminals, thin clients and so on) and never gone anywhere. At this point in my life, I’m pretty confident Macs will be around as long as I am.

* That was before blogs which soaked up an awful lot of that excess productivity, though with lots of compensating benefits.

** Though not, IIRC, the Mac SE/30, listed here as the best Mac ever. At the time it came out, I was using a Mac II at work, and a much-upgraded original Mac at home.

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  1. tim watson
    January 27th, 2009 at 17:40 | #1

    Apple IIE’s were rubbish. Carmen San Diego and Frogga were about the only two good things about them.

    I’ve never touched an Apple PC since.

    My sister has one though and it does look all shinny and inviting.

    Things may yet change :D

  2. carbonsink
    January 27th, 2009 at 19:05 | #2

    Now, there’s a lot of talk that minimal net-based computers will take over, but such talk has been round many times before (smart terminals, thin clients and so on) and never gone anywhere.

    ProfQ, we’re about halfway through the transition and you haven’t even noticed :)

    Apple may well be around in 20 years, but I doubt the traditional Mac (where data and applications are stored locally) will be.

  3. January 27th, 2009 at 20:32 | #3

    PrQ,
    From my POV Macs lost for a simple reason – the same reason why they are more stable than Windows PCs. Hardware was always strictly controlled so that Apple could maintain control.
    This meant that if you wanted the fastest graphics, the most RAM or the snazziest processor you needed a PC. With that you had to accept instability. Without that, you could get a Mac.
    People tend to like some instability in return for the ability to control their computers for themselves.
    Freedom over allowing centralised control. I’m sure there is a metaphor there somewhere.

  4. nanks
    January 27th, 2009 at 20:38 | #4

    I’ve never got the Mac thing. I just see Apple as another big company. My first computer was a Mac and I’ve had them for work on and off. Love the design of the hardware but at times the service in Australia has not been great – to the point where I have had a better experience with PCs (I know that might seem hard to believe) Service seems to be much better post ipod with the introduction of more service agents.
    My daughter loves them because they are obviously much lovelier as design objects.
    I think people overstate the innovation side of Apple(eg They were slow on multitasking.) – it seems to me a lot of their early ideas came out of Xerox Parc and recent ideas might be out of the Unix/Free community or stuff from Sun and academic research. I don’t see that as a bad thing – I think it is great they take good ideas wherever they find them. And I am sure they are not short of their own, but so are lots of people.

  5. jquiggin
    January 27th, 2009 at 21:29 | #5

    #2 If Google Apps or webmail (any version, including Gmail) are examples of cloud computing, please include me out.

  6. January 27th, 2009 at 21:50 | #6

    For the record, the company I work for is going totally ‘thin client’ over the next few months. It just makes so much sense – processors and storage are centralised and RAIDed, so you never lose your data and any failures of individual components don’t impact your work at all; computer power is used more efficiently; servers can reside in a secure room with a better environment for electronics; maintenance and support is easier; users don’t have a hot, buzzing, whirring machine on the desk or at their feet.

    Though the only reason it has become feasible is because disparate sites are being centralised in a brand-new building. Starting from scratch, thin-client computing is the obvious way to go. I can understand companies in established premises and with legacy digital architecture not going that route because of the tremendous reorganisation such a switch requires.

    And Gmail is the best email application I have ever used, bar none. ;-)

  7. nanks
    January 27th, 2009 at 21:56 | #7

    Hi Jarrah – I am a gmail fan as well. Their new browser Chrome is also great – or will be when the bugs are ironed out. Crashed my machine last time I used it. No probs, early days.

  8. Jim Birch
    January 27th, 2009 at 22:10 | #8

    I’d never owned a mac or used one much until a couple of weeks ago. I’ve spent a lot of time managing a mixed IT world: mac design studio, windows business desktops and a variety of OSs on servers. Despite running Windows myself, I was well aware of significant Mac advantages and often recommended Macs to people. Apart from lay down superiority in the visual design area, Macs are much easier and more reliable for general intelligent non-specialist users. This is achieved by better design, more designer control, but also through limiting of options.

    It’s a bit of a furphy to scoff at mac design as if good design was simply a visual effect. It’s good integrated design through the layers, especially since the adoption of rock solid ‘nix kernel and networking layers into OSX (which annulled my main IT Manager’s gripe). There’s also something odd about the claim that Mac lost some kind of war with Windows, as if mass appeal was identical to a superior solution. No one around here believes that, do they?

    Anyway, I recommended a Mac to my mother after listening to her ongoing difficulties with her Windows box. She bought one but couldn’t or wouldn’t make the jump, so I ended up buying it from her. I more-or-less knew what I was getting, yet I’m pleasantly surprised: It’s sweet, it’s neat, it just works, the sort of thing I like to have around the house.

  9. nanks
    January 27th, 2009 at 22:10 | #9

    JQ, what browser are you using? I liked Camino when Mac-ing a couple of years ago

  10. Smiley
    January 27th, 2009 at 22:23 | #10

    As someone who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty with the hardware, I’ve never been a fan of the Mac. On the odd occasion that I’ve produced blue smoke or zapped some memory chips, it hasn’t been a worry because I’ve known that replacing the broken components wasn’t going to cost me an arm and a leg. I’ve only ever seen the Mac’s as a computer for those who place an extremely high value on their time and are not interested in looking under the hood.

    While I’ve never seriously compared prices, my impression has been that Mac’s are 50% more expensive than PC’s and I’m not sure that the nice finishing is worth 50%.

    Actually another impression that I’ve got from Apple is that if one of their machines breaks, it must be fixed by an Apple accredited technician. Is this true, or will Apple happily sell components to those who are willing to attempt to fix broken machines themselves?

  11. Alexander
    January 27th, 2009 at 22:57 | #11

    While I’ve never seriously compared prices, my impression has been that Mac’s are 50% more expensive than PC’s and I’m not sure that the nice finishing is worth 50%.

    When I’ve seriously compared prices, the Mac has not only been competitive with equivalent laptops from other manufacturers, but smaller and lighter for the same screen size. Even though I can’t stand to use Mac OS X my last two laptops have been Apples running Debian GNU/Linux.

    My last non-portable was also an iMac which I ran Mac OS X on; I enjoyed the physical design of the system which was much more convenient than having a big ugly desktop plugged into a screen, but I could never get used to the application-centred workflow Mac OS uses. After a year or so I was able to install Debian on it and it was by far the best computer I’ve ever had.

  12. January 27th, 2009 at 23:25 | #12

    “At this point in my life, I’m pretty confident Macs will be around as long as I am”.

    That reminds me of the story of the Irish wristwatch that had a lifetime guarantee. When the mainspring broke it automatically slashed your wrist.

    Which leads neatly on to the point about increasing productivity; there’s the same issue of needing to be careful about defining your objective, or you might end up with just precisely what you defined as your aim. What usually matters isn’t increasing productivity but increasing production, and as you note the former can manifest itself as freeing up effort for other areas rather than more of the latter. And when that effect shows up in the wider economy those other areas may well not be altogether constructive, e.g. unemployment… (No, that’s not the lump of labour fallacy at work, it’s a recognition that there are lags before everything adjusts – although we should also remember that a continual process of introducing such things can stay ahead of reaching a new equilibrium indefinitely.)

  13. Behemoth
    January 27th, 2009 at 23:54 | #13

    My Mac murmurs to me while I sleep.

  14. carbonsink
    January 28th, 2009 at 07:13 | #14

    #2 If Google Apps or webmail (any version, including Gmail) are examples of cloud computing, please include me out.

    There will always be luddites clinging to their old technology :)

    Software-as-a-service has unstoppable momentum. Ubiquitous access to your data is the killer app.

  15. Chris Warren
    January 28th, 2009 at 08:42 | #15

    Maybe MAC users have been conned.

    As I recall MACS came out with special deals for universities, and agencies. They then became a standard for much government and scientific work, despite their high price tag.

    I remember the Department of Administrative Services buying an Apple to do their accounts, and then the first IBM PC (1982?), while the parliament had Digital Decmates, and other agencies had Burroughs.

    So there were a lot of travelling salesmen in those days.

    The good thing about MACs is that they use the same platform as Linux.

    I always assumed that otherwise, outside universites, MACS were for rich kids.

  16. smiths
    January 28th, 2009 at 08:47 | #16

    i’ve been using macs for 8 years and am a great lover of them,
    i have never had a virus which is real plus,
    my current g5 at work is everything you could want in a computer,

    and my imac at home is brilliant, no box, looks beautiful, does everything perfectly

  17. January 28th, 2009 at 09:04 | #17

    “i have never had a virus which is real plus”.

    The Microsoft fans used to say “See? Even the virus writers don’t bother to support Macs!”

  18. Steve
    January 28th, 2009 at 12:58 | #18

    I use a brand new iMac at work, but a custom-built PC at home.

    A small victory for the PC:
    While the iMac keyboard is awesome, the flimsy little mouse that comes with the iMac is atrocious. I’ve switched to an ugly but better performing pc-esque mouse. (yes i know you can right click with a mac mouse, but in my experience it wasn’t 100% reliable, and got annoying).

    Re gmail: fantastic stuff. No need to file or delete with ever growing storage and a great search feature. Fanatastic spam filtering. Well functioning webmail is wonderful, access it from anywhere, work, home, friend’s place, phone, airport terminal, shopping centre. Google calandar is great too, i use both every day.

    “as if mass appeal was identical to a superior solution”

    Perhaps not with some things, but with computers? When compatibility, number of developers, range of software, and range of freeware are all issues, then mass appeal is a pretty big prerequisite for a ‘superior solution’ in my book, and is probably the main reason why i have stuck with the pc to date.

  19. January 29th, 2009 at 06:32 | #19

    I think the big appeal of the Mac has always been that it’s NOT Microsoft.

    But now there’s an even better way to ignore MS. I am using the latest version of Ubuntu Open Source desktop at home and it is ridiculously easy. Even better, it is 100% FREE, including regular security upgrades, and gives you access to mountains of free Open Source apps.

    I know Open Source is still a very scary-sounding thing to non-geeks, but desktops like Ubuntu (I’ve heard G-OS from Google is also good) are really set to decimate Windows’ market this year.

    And not just in Third World countries either – big global enterprises and government offices are already using Linux systems, and happily walking away from MS, where more jobs will be lost this year.

    While I appreciate Bill Gates’ recent philanthropy, his business ethics have always made MS a target of well-deserved ire, and I will enjoy watching his empire crumble.

    If you want to give Ubuntu a try, you can download the 700MB installer or order a free boot CD, which you can run as an app within Windows/Mac while trialling. Just take a look at:

    http://www.ubuntu.com

  20. Donald Oats
    January 29th, 2009 at 07:22 | #20

    The “Lisa” was the best Apple computer ever (for its time). It was about $10k in 1981 AUD…I don’t think it took off :-0

    The second best Appled computer was the “Performa”…but only because my employer back then got a package deal on 10 of them. Since it was a take it or leave it deal, the TV cards couldn’t be removed from the specs. After delivery I found it most pleasing for watching the cricket and tennis while marking exams. Broke down an awful lot though.

    Then there was the UNIX phase on mainframes, Sun computers of various types, and the Pyramid machine. All good but a bit bland.

    The modern Apple products look and feel great but I just don’t have a problem with Vista on an ASUS laptop – its my favourite mode of operating now. With all of the freeware and UNIX-like tools its good enough for me.

  21. Joe
    January 29th, 2009 at 10:53 | #21

    “I’d find it hard to estimate the increase in my productivity”. Probably a good thing you didn’t try John because for most of the 25 years it would have been negative, as Thomas Landauer’s book “The trouble with computers” (1995) showed. One among the many reasons he gives is that documents used to be produced by typists who could type quickly and were poorly paid; now they are produced by professionals who type slowly. (Typists could spell correctly, too). He gives an example of another situation we have all been in:
    “I was printing out this section… Table 2.1 got automatically separated onto two different pages, with a long footnote in between. At one point there were three expert users in my office for fifteen minutes trying (fruitlessly) to figure out how to fix it.”
    I’d guess that productivity has been positive only in the last five years, when children brought up with PCs started working, and applications stabilised. But then the growth of FaceBook and YouTube may well have wiped out any gains.

  22. January 29th, 2009 at 12:59 | #22

    joe – re productivity

    As recent (or as long ago as – depending on your age) as 86/87 I worked at a place that had no computers to speak of and had a central typing pool of 6 typists plus a supervisor in one room on a brand new WANG wordprocessing system. I had come from a workplace where I had installed Apples on a network.

    Any typing had to be dictated into a dictaphone and then given to the supervisor who allocated it to typists. If it was more than one tape it was given to different typists even if it was the one document. No communication was permitted with the typists, the supervisor sat at the door and had the only phone in the room, and a 3 day turn around was a bloody miracle.

    It was one of the reasons I moved on – the next place I had my own secretary who could type, and correct grammar and meaning and add content, as fast as I could dictate. But the real productivity came when she taught me to type and use Wordperfect on a non windows dos system and she changed into being a research and project assistant.

    From what I can tell that story is a pretty common experience. The leap in productivity /efficiency was enormous for a very many workplaces.

  23. jquiggin
    January 29th, 2009 at 13:08 | #23

    Joe, I’m confident that Landauer’s conclusions don’t apply to me for a couple of reasons

    On the first point, I learned to type at age 18 and type much faster than I can write. And it’s much easier correcting typos on screen than fixing up what typists used to make of the semi-legible scripts I handed in.

    On the more general point, this was clearly true of computers running MS-DOS and early versions of Windows, but not of Macs. The point at which (as you acknowledge) computers clearly became a net gain to productivity was when they all became more or less like Macs.

    The idea of that younger people are “computer natives” isn’t supported by research. It’s experience with computers that counts, and by definition no young person can have as much experience as someone who’s worked with them since personal computing became feasible.

  24. January 29th, 2009 at 13:19 | #24

    With regard to (inter)net(works)thin client systems – the old WANG wordprocessor was esentially that but I think limited to word processing.

    I suspect the cost of hardware has dropped to a point where old style thin clients don’t make sense because a decent enough laptop, running mail and calendar and connectivity to others off the net, and hooked up to a network for storage, can be had for not much more than $500. If you have access to a bigger better desktop for the (rare) power use then the cost of a thin client screen keyboard and mouse isn’t really any cheaper.

  25. Chris Warren
    January 29th, 2009 at 13:38 | #25

    The loss in productivity is probably in the fact that we purchase IT (and other capital items) offshore.

    The productivity increase we made during the 80′s and 90′s appeared as extra revenue for foreign companies.

    There is no point getting $100 extra productivity if you export $90 for it and end up with local unemployment (or additional labour market program funding costs).

  26. Bull Lee
    January 29th, 2009 at 23:24 | #26

    a pragmatist cares little about the origin of an idea, but much more about its usefulness. see pannell’s succinct evaluation of the pros and cons of each interface http://cyllene.uwa.edu.au/~dpannell/pd/pd0130.htm

  27. Alanna
    January 30th, 2009 at 03:47 | #27

    Joe#22 I once got a job as a branch accountant even though I had never seen the general ledger, done any journal entries, and didnt have any qualifications other than knowledge of excel on the first desktop macs in the 1980s (was it a 1o megabyte hard drive?). We arranged a swap so that they would teach me the general ledger if I would teach their accounts department to move from paper roll calculators (I forget what they called those small machines) and paper based systems to excel on macs. It didnt reduce paper or produce the paperless office as touted at the time though.

  28. Alanna
    January 30th, 2009 at 03:57 | #28

    I will say this though, the old paper accounts systems were very very tight. There were always two strips of added calculations on paper batch of cash receipt or cash payment transactions, done and signed off by at least two different people with separate roles. Then a third addition and sign off was done by the one who walked to the bank with the receipts (yes walked).

  29. carbonsink
    January 30th, 2009 at 10:19 | #29

    Arguing about Mac vs Win is a bit like arguing over VHS vs Beta during the DVD age. Its all going online. The UI will look the same on a Mac or PC, just like the UI I am typing into now looks the same on Mac or PC.

    From now on the UI will be designed by the developer of the online service.

  30. nanks
    January 30th, 2009 at 11:20 | #30

    productivity and efficiency always have an underlying ‘for whom’. I remember doing a pay audit at a large company in the 70s (worked as a junior for Coopers and Lybrand for a bit). If you started on Thursday you got a day’s cash on Friday. Post computing how long does it take? Who benefits from that delay?

  31. January 30th, 2009 at 13:25 | #31

    The operating systems on both Mac and PC I find to be the weak link, I understand that they are designed as software to make upgrades possible and to be a cash cow for computer companies, but it comes at such a high cost in terms of reliabilty. I remember the Commodore Amiga 20 years ago with a built in Windows style ROM operating system, it never crashed and couldn’t get viruses since it was read only it also booted instantly. Considering a computer usually gets upgraded as often as the operating system, why am I still paying Microsoft for software?

  32. Hal9000
    January 31st, 2009 at 09:06 | #32

    My own Mac history parallels your own almost exactly, Prof Q. Wrote my PhD thesis on an original 128K model successively upgraded to a 1MB version before it shuffled off its mortal coil (well, motherboard) one 40 degree day. I then had the fabled SE30, but its hard disk died too… after about 4 more years. I still have them all (8 in all) in a Mac museum my partner moans about occupying too much space in the spare room.

    There is so much I could say about why I remain loyal, but the main reason is that so much of how they work is just intuitive, something the IBM/MS world computers can never be accused of. I’m still somewhat miffed though by the policy shift brought in by the corporate types that ran Apple in the 90s not to offer upgrade paths for existing users when new models are introduced.

  33. JH
    February 3rd, 2009 at 06:32 | #33

    “For a while in the 90s, it seemed likely that Windows would prevail”

    It did – 90% or so of all computer users have Windows

  34. jquiggin
  35. Steve
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