Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mac computer sparked a revolution

Thirty years later, desktop continues to be an influence

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NEW YORK -- Look around. Many of the gadgets you see drew inspiration from the original Mac computer.

Computers at the time typically required people to type in commands. Once the Mac came out 30 years ago today, people could instead navigate with a graphical user interface. Available options were organized into menus. People clicked icons to run programs and dragged and dropped files to move them.

The Mac introduced real-world metaphors such as using a trash can to delete files. It brought us fonts and other tools once limited to professional printers. Most importantly, it made computing and publishing easy enough for most people to learn and use.

Apple sparked a revolution in computing with the Mac. In turn, that sparked a revolution in publishing as people began creating newsletters, brochures and other publications from their desktops.

These concepts are so fundamental today it's hard to imagine a time when they existed only in research labs -- primarily Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his team got much of its inspiration from PARC, which they visited while designing the Mac.

The Mac has had "incredible influence on pretty much everybody's lives all over the world since computers are now so ubiquitous," says Brad Myers, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "Pretty much all consumer electronics are adopting all of the same kinds of interactions."

Apple didn't invent these tools, nor was the Mac the first to use them. Xerox Corp. sold its own mouse-based Star computer, and Apple's Lisa beat the Mac by months. It's impossible to say what would have happened if those machines hadn't flopped with consumers or whether others would have come along if the Mac hadn't. But the Mac prevailed and thus influenced generations of gadgets that followed.

The Mac owes much of its success to the way Apple engineers adapted those pioneering concepts. For instance, Xerox Corp. used a three-button mouse in its Alto prototype computer. Apple settled on one, allowing people to keep their eyes on the screen without worrying about which button to press.

While Lisa had those improvements first, it cost about $10,000. The Mac was a "low" $2,495 when it came out on Jan. 24, 1984.

Apple insisted on uniformity, so copying and pasting text and deleting files would work the same way from one application to another. That reduced the time it would take to learn a new program.

And Apple put a premium on design. Early Macs showed a happy face when they started up. Icons and windows had rounded corners. Such details made computers appear friendlier and easier to use -- at least subconsciously -- to the user, Myers says.

Of course, the Mac's success was never guaranteed. Initially, many people "thought it was a waste of time and a gimmick," says Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

He says longtime computer users already knew how to perform computing tasks "very efficiently with just two or three keystrokes. It might have been more efficient for them than to use a mouse."

Despite its radical interface, Mac sales were lukewarm. For years, it was mostly a niche product for publishers, educators and graphics artists. Corporate users stuck with IBM Corp. and its various clones, especially as Microsoft's Windows operating system grew to look like Mac's software.

Now the world's most valuable company, Apple Inc. nearly died in the 1990s as its market share dwindled. After a 12-year exile from Apple, Jobs returned in 1997 to rescue and head the company. A year later, he introduced the iMac, a desktop computer with shapes and colours that departed from beige Windows boxes at the time.

Then came the iPod music player in 2001, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad tablet in 2010. They weren't Macs, but shared the Mac's knack for ease of use. Elements such as tapping on icons to open apps have roots in the Mac.

In recent years, PCs have declined as consumers turn to mobile devices. Apple sold 16 million Macs in the fiscal year ending Sept. 28, down 10 per cent from a year earlier. By contrast, iPhone sales grew 20 per cent to 150 million and iPads by 22 per cent to 71 million.

The Mac has aged to the point it's starting to draw inspiration from iPhones and iPads. Several Mac apps have been refined to look and work more like mobile versions. Macs now have notifications and other features born on mobile devices.

Yet without the Mac, we might never have had the iPhone or the iPad, and phones might do little more than make calls and send email.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2014 B15

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