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The meaning of the Mac at 30

It’s the unlikeliest of success stories.

In the 30 years since Steve Jobs pulled Apple’s first Macintosh computer out of a bag and introduced it to the world, the diminutive machine has never topped the sales charts. Its global market share, according to Net Applications, hovers around 7.5 per cent in an overall PC market that Gartner estimates shrank by 6.9 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2013 over the year-ago period. In the Apple stable, the Mac was long ago eclipsed by the iPhone and iPad. No one lines up around the block for the latest iMac.

Yet the machine gets a bigger birthday celebration than IBM’s PC, which launched in 1981, or Microsoft Windows, which bowed in 1985. What gives?

Bigger than it looks

The hoopla surrounding the Mac milestone has little to do with outright revenue and everything to do with influence. Sales metrics don’t explain the Mac story any more than a standard ranking would explain what made its creator, Steve Jobs, historically unique. What the Mac brought to the table on Jan. 24, 1984 was an entirely new way of looking at computing.

Until the first – and last – broadcast of the now-famous Ridley Scott-produced Super Bowl ad depicting an athlete throwing a hammer at a Big Brother-esque establishment, computing had been relatively unattainable. While IBM’s PC had been around for almost three years by then, it was still largely a business tool, designed to be used by people who knew how it worked, and were willing to relearn complex command structures every time they loaded a new piece of software. There was nothing personal about a blinking green cursor on a black screen.

The Mac’s then-radical graphical user interface introduced now-everyday concepts like what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) and double-clicking. It freed users from having to memorize and type arcane commands. Instead of reading the manual, users simply grabbed the mouse and started exploring.

While the US$2,495 computer was hardly inexpensive, it nevertheless brought advanced-for-the-time technology to the masses in a way the Byzantine PC could not. It made technology usable, and in doing so influenced every computer and consumer electronic device that came after. Virtually every competing operating system since, including Windows and Linux, has adopted the basic concepts of overlapping windows, common menu structures, multitasking, and cutting and pasting objects from one application to another.

Not so revolutionary

For all its pioneering accomplishments, the Mac itself was hardly a pioneer at all. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, built the first mouse-driven, graphical interface-based computer, the Alto, in 1972. Jobs and his team famously visited the facility in 1979 and freely spoke about how PARC’s research influenced them. Even then, the Mac can’t claim to be Apple’s first advanced design. Credit for that would go to the $10,000 Lisa, which hit the market in 1983 before sinking without a trace. The reason: Price.

The genius of the Mac lay in how it delivered the Lisa’s technology at a 75 per cent discount, and how it reshaped Xerox’s commercially untouchable offerings into something regular consumers could afford. That bridging of revolutionary technologies to mass market dynamics – by refining products others had developed, yet failed to properly market – would become a defining pillar of Apple’s culture. It would also set the tone for how the company would innovate in the decades to come, and how its more recent products were developed and marketed.

The iPad wasn’t the first tablet, but it was the first one to succeed because it abandoned the clunky, expensive approach of earlier competitive offerings for a spare, stripped down, consumer-friendly device that was affordable enough for them, as well. That technological, corporate, cultural and marketing and blueprint started with the Mac, and remains as market-relevant today as it did 30 years ago.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.