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Apple at the Core of PC Revolution

Tech 101 | Mac Focus

August 09, 2001|JIM HEID | jim@jimheid.com

When IBM introduced its personal computer 20 years ago, Apple ran a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal. A huge headline read, "Welcome, IBM. Seriously." Below that, several paragraphs pompously congratulated Big Blue: "We look forward to responsible competition in the massive effort to bring this American technology to the world. And we appreciate the magnitude of your commitment."

Apple was putting on a good face during what was a turbulent year. In February, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was injured in a crash of a private plane. That same month, 40 Apple employees were laid off on a day known as Black Wednesday. The Apple III, Apple's business computer, was suffering from reliability problems and floundering in the market. And when IBM introduced the PC in August, it created the most serious challenge yet to the Apple II, which was one of the dominant platforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But in the midst of this mayhem, a small engineering project began picking up steam within Apple. It was code-named Macintosh, and in its own way, it would have as big an impact on the computer world as IBM's PC.

The Mac project actually began in 1979, when Jef Raskin, Apple employee number 31 and a veteran of the Apple II team, proposed an inexpensive computer that would be as easy to use as a household appliance. But it was during 1981 that the Mac as we know it began to take shape. Many of the original Mac's engineers--Andy Hertzfeld, Bruce Horn, Donn Denman, Daniel Kottke, Randy Wigginton--joined the Mac team in 1981.

Many of these engineers had been working elsewhere within Apple. But some came from Xerox Corp., whose Palo Alto Research Center pioneered the key concepts behind the graphical user interface.

Indeed, Xerox introduced a milestone product of its own 20 years ago. On April 27, 1981, Xerox unveiled the 8010 Star Information System, whose interface was built around a mouse, windows, pull-down menus and icons. The $15,000 Star included built-in Ethernet networking and a laser printer that could reproduce the type fonts and graphics that appeared on the computer's display. The Star sold poorly, but it foreshadowed the future of computing. The same could be said of Apple's Lisa, which debuted in 1983.

Like the IBM PC, the Macintosh was a skunk works project created by a small group working in relative isolation. But the two computers had little else in common, and their contributions to computing couldn't be more different.

The PC was a solid but modest engineering effort that borrowed from the Apple II in providing expansion slots and an open architecture for add-ons. The PC's contribution was to add legitimacy to an embryonic industry and accelerate the personal computer's acceptance in business.

The Mac, in contrast, was an engineering triumph: a graphical computer with a compact, fan-free design--albeit a design that originally (and ironically) lacked the PC's expansion flexibility. The Mac's contribution was, of course, to popularize the interface concepts pioneered by Xerox and later adopted by the PC world.

Unlike Apple, IBM quickly lost control over the platform it created to clone manufacturers.

Apple flirted with a clone industry in the mid-1990s, licensing the Mac's operating system to Motorola, Power Computing and others. But Apple chief Steve Jobs ended all that when he returned to the company in 1997. Although the Mac represents a small portion of today's personal computer market, Apple still controls the platform.

The year 1981 was indeed a watershed in the history of computing, and the introduction of the IBM PC is one reason. But another reason is that 1981 was the year when graphical interfaces began the trek from the research lab to the desktop. It was a journey that would take several more years, but when it was complete, computers would never be the same.

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Jim Heid is a Contributing Editor of Macworld magazine. He owned a Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1981.

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