Happy 30th Birthday Apple Mac: You Were Almost A Huge Failure

Tomorrow, January 24th, is the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh.

The original “Mac” arrived along with the famous 1984 commercial, that aired during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. Two days after the Super Bowl, the Mac would be revealed by Steve Jobs during Apple’s 1984 Annual Shareholders meeting.

The unveiling of the Mac was extremely dramatic. When the lights went down, Jobs came on stage and read the lyrics from, “The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan.

After the formalities of the meeting were over, Apple’s then CEO John Sculley (the man who would “fire” Jobs sixteen months later), asked Jobs back to the stage with the following statement:

“The most important thing that has happened to me in the last nine months at Apple has been a chance to develop a friendship with Steve Jobs. Steve is a co-founder of Apple, and a product visionary for this industry, and it’s my pleasure now to reintroduce Steve Jobs.”

Jobs took the stage again and launched into a long speech about IBM’s dominance with the PC through the years, and how Apple was challenging that dominance.

“It is now 1984. It appears that IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, after initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM dominated and controlled future and are turning back to Apple as the only force who can ensure their future freedom.”

Steve Jobs took a long pause, then continued:

“IBM wants it all, and is aiming its guns at its last obstacle to industry control, Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right?”

The famous 1984 commercial was played and the auditorium was on their feet cheering.

The new computer, the Macintosh, was then taken out of its bag. Here’s the video:

But that enthusiasm didn’t translate into big success. While Apple sold over 70,000 machines by April of that year, after that, sales diminished sharply.

The Macintosh had an interesting design but, in realty, you couldn’t do a whole lot with it. It has only 128K of memory, not nearly enough for most software applications of the day. (The Mac Steve Jobs had demoed actually had 512K). Even just saving a file from two basic applications like MacWrite and MacPaint could mean a long wait. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of software available for it.

And it cost $US2495.

The press thought it was cool and impressive but, ultimately just an expensive toy.

In September of 1984, Apple introduced the “Fat Mac” with 512K, which helped to increase sales, but the Macintosh was clearly failing.

By late 1985, Steve Jobs had left the company.

It wasn’t until almost two years after the original Mac was introduced that Apple finally got it right with the Macintosh Plus in 1986. The Plus had 1 megabyte of RAM (more than the standard PC with 640K) and worked fast.

Used with a new software product called Aldus PageMaker (later acquired by Adobe), and a fast new printer called the Apple LaserWriter (both introduced in mid-1985), this new Mac launched the “desktop publishing revolution.” People and companies could print up their own brochures, newsletters in-house.

And that’s what ultimately saved the Mac.

ImacAppleToday’s iMac

It would take another year though, until 1987, before the sales of Macs starting inching past Apple II computer sales. Apple II sales remained a significant part of revenue for the company well into the late 1980s. If it hadn’t been for the consistently strong sales of the Apple II line, Apple could have gone out of the business, with the failures of the Apple III and the Apple Lisa.

Obviously, Steve Jobs eventually (1996) returned to lead Apple, saving it from bland PC offerings and a stale operating system. The software he developed at NeXT, the company he launched when he left Apple, became became Mac OS X (10).

Flash forward 30 years and the Mac is still around and as successful as its ever been.

It inspired the look of the later generations of Windows. It also inspired the look of the iPhone and that inspired the look of Android. No matter what computing device you use today, you’re using the legacy of the Macintosh.

So Happy Birthday Mac! You got off to a rocky start, but you certainly made a big impact on all of us.

Here’s the famous 1984 commercial:

David Greelish is a computer historian and founder of the Historical Computer Society. Greelish also pens the Classic Computing blog.

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