Entry: It was 20 years ago today, Apple taught the world to play... Monday, January 19, 2004

On 21st January, 1984, the Apple Macintosh first went on sale. Pitched as "the computer for the rest of us", it was radically new, radically different. Apple had a vision of the computer of the future, and put their money where their mouth was. Right from day one, they set themselves up as the adversary, the alternative - in those days the "enemy" was IBM and the IBM PC/DOS combination, and the arcane, awkward, and downright boring standard for business machines. On the other hand this was the era of the 8-bit games computer, and the Mac wasn't one of those either, though it was definitely closer in spirit to these than the IBM. Whatever the ups and downs of Apple over the years, and whatever you think of them (love or hate - there seems to be no in-between), the fact is, they were right - we are all Mac users now. Even if your particular flavour of Mac says "Windows" on the box. To the new generation of computer users who have grown up taking the mouse and windows for granted, it might be hard to understand what all the fuss was about. Back then, Apple had to include a tutorial program with every machine that taught you how to use the mouse, what an icon was, how to move a window. There is no doubt that Apple did create the computer of the future. The astonishing thing is, perhaps, that the Mac is still with us. Reinvented, certainly, but after 20 years you would expect that. Curiously, Mac OS X is not yet as usable and natural as that original Mac, though it's gradually getting there. In part that is due to the very ubiquity and familiarity of the graphical user interface - when the Mac was new every aspect of the GUI had to be explained, and made very obvious, natural, or at least forgiving of its users. Now, everyone "gets" it, so a few corners cut are permissable if it means getting worthwhile heavyweight features out of the door.

Personally, I have always been a Mac user, and in the early days, very much an evangelist for the platform. The GUI was definitely the way of the future - those who doggedly stuck to the IBM PC/DOS were missing the point, stick-in-the-muds, didn't GET it. For me, the Mac was the first machine I could actually get stuff done with. As Apple made error after error and allowed Windows to gradually catch up and eventually overtake, many of us who did get it were pretty dismayed, and gradually the enemy became Microsoft. But let's be clear - Microsoft did get it, in fact right from day 1. They so "got it" that Gates and friends knew they had to have Mac on a PC - they had seen the future and it worked. To many it seems unfair that MS got what Apple should have had, but the blame for this lies squarely with Apple. They had the ball, but fumbled it. It's a damn shame, but there it is. To my mind the success of Microsoft vindicates Apple's vision, and as such there is no point expending energy resenting it. MS's business practices, on the other hand, are another issue altogether.

I still choose Mac over Windows (note - nobody talks about the IBM PC anymore, though of course the modern Intel box is a direct descendant). It's partly a loyalty thing, partly a usability thing (I still feel Windows gets many of the details wrong - using a Windows box is usually an alienating and somewhat frustrating experience for me), and partly a quality thing - I've bought four Macs in my life, and all of them worked well, were built well, and lasted way longer than the average PC. Mac OS X is a thing of greatness. Apple are clearly back from the brink of oblivion and have been for some time. It remains to be seen whether the Mac regains some of the following it deserves - there are some signs that it is doing so, but it's hard to tell. The average computer buyer generally doesn't buy a Mac because there is a strong sheep mentality and pervasive ignorance at large, but so what, it really doesn't matter. People are fond of using car analogies to discuss Windows vs. Mac, and I'd rather drive a Merc than a Ford. The small market share of Mercedes doesn't worry anybody, so why should Mac users worry? They shouldn't. There is plenty of software for the machine, it plays well with others, and does everything that people need it to do. Be proud of being in a minority! You can remain smug and superior (if that's how you take your pleasure) when the next devastating virus knocks out most of the Windows machines in the world and doesn't affect Macs at all.

Where will we be in another 20 years time? Computers are still too hard to use, despite the great leap forward that the Mac gave us. It's unclear what the next leap will be, or even if there will be one at all. I think there does need to be - many of the aspects of computing we take for granted are actually pretty dumb, and as bad in their way as DOS was back in the day. Applications - huh? We shouldn't need to worry about applications, we should instead be focused on our data, documents, or whatever. It's the data I'm interested in, not the particular editor I need to manipulate it. Apple once again tried to move things away from applications with its OpenDoc effort in the mid 90s, but which died a death along with the old Apple (i.e. that before Steve Jobs' second coming). Perhaps it was an idea ahead of its time, and will emerge again, or perhaps they were barking up the wrong tree. Hard to tell. Networking - should "just work" - there is nothing so frustrating and demoralising to the average user than fiddling about with IP addresses and the like. Again, Apple had this sorted with its proprietary AppleTalk networking protocols, but since the rest of the world has condensed around TCP/IP, user transparency has suffered. Zeroconf ("Rendezvous") is addressing this issue, this time as an industry standard rather than a proprietary one. It will need MS to get behind it and adopt it though to make it really take off. Once again, Apple leads but we need to rely on MS to get it adopted widely. These things are not much of a vision of the future, they are just details. Computers should become so transparent, so obvious, so intuitive that we don't even know they are there. We should be able to just get all our stuff done without a second thought. I don't hold out much hope though, since usability of other devices (e.g. video recorders) has not improved greatly in 20 years either. Some things don't evolve much - the telephone has remained essentially unchanged since it was invented. Perhaps the computer of the future - 20, 50, 100 years down the line - will still be essentially the 1984 Macintosh, just a lot faster. One thing I do feel sure of though, is that Apple will still be there, leading from the front.


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