Forty years ago today, Steve Jobs formally introduced the Macintosh computer at Apple’s annual meeting. His presentation created the template for every memorable “Stevenote” product launch to come. Of course I was going to write about a milestone like that.
As I probably don’t need to explain, that first Mac brought the graphical user interface and the pointing device known as a mouse to mainstream computer users, as long as they could pay the list price of $2,495, or about $7,300 in 2024 dollars. Though its reception was rhapsodic, initial sales fell far short of Apple’s forecast. But the Mac hung in there and survived Apple’s near-death experience in the 1990s. In the 21st century, it’s both helped to drive the company’s resurgence and benefited from it: I just walked around the WeWork where I’m writing this, and every computer I spied was a Mac of some sort, except for one Surface Laptop. Not bad for a machine dating to the first Reagan administration.
Still, even if everyone knows the 1984 Mac was a big deal, that doesn’t mean we fully understand it. I’m still gaining new appreciation for all the ways it mattered, despite following its progress from the start and being a Mac user—off and on—since 1987. (Six days after Jobs unveiled the computer at Apple’s annual meeting, he re-created his presentation for the Boston Computer Society; I was a member but failed to attend, to my everlasting regret.)
The most celebrated part of that original Mac was its software interface, which brimmed with new ideas, despite the lazy conventional wisdom that it merely imitated work done at Xerox’s PARC lab. But at the moment, I’m most fascinated by its industrial design. That petite all-in-one beige case, created by Jerry Manock and Terry Oyama, was unlike anything anyone had seen until then—at least outside of a kitchen. Jobs is said to have latched on to the Cuisinart food processor as design inspiration.
That original Mac isn’t just iconic. It might even be the single personal computer you’d choose to illustrate the concept of “personal computer.” And because makers of Windows PCs never knocked off its design, it remains uniquely recognizable—certainly more so than a MacBook or iPhone, both of which proved so influential that you could lose track of them in the sea of look-alikes they inspired.
But if all the first Mac inspires is nostalgia, we’ve lost sight of how daring it was. Unlike Apple’s first blockbuster PC, the Apple II, it had a built-in display but no integrated keyboard. It also sacrificed most of the Apple II’s defining features, such as its dazzling color graphics and expansion slots.
In retrospect, it’s among the gutsiest gambits Apple ever made. Imagine the company introducing a new smartphone that has virtually nothing in common with the iPhone. You can’t—or at least it strains my imagination. (Note to pedants: Yes, I am aware that Apple’s Lisa, released a year earlier, was essentially a proto-Mac—and I revere it for that reason.)
Compared to other PCs of the time, the Mac’s small size and unified design offered several benefits. First, it took up little desk space and made the computer easy to tote around: It even sported a handle for that purpose. Second, ensuring that every Mac user had the same crisp 9-inch monochrome display gave the experience a consistency that was lacking in most other computers, which users plugged into whatever monitor (or TV set) they chose.
Beyond those advantages, the Mac was just plain approachable, back when many competitors still had a faint whiff of industrial equipment to them. Remember, most people had never touched a computer in 1984, and more than a few were intimidated by the prospect. The Mac’s unassuming hardware mirrored the user-friendliness of its software.
What the first Mac didn’t turn out to be was timeless. Thanks in part to its success and influence, computers didn’t stay scary forever. More and more people craved ones with larger displays, room for expansion, and new features such as CD-ROM drives—attributes that were at odds with the Mac’s diminutive sealed case. As laptops became popular (including Apple’s own PowerBooks), the whole notion of a desktop computer needing to be small felt outdated.
In 1987, Apple responded to those trends with the Macintosh II, a big, expandable box more akin to the IBM PCs of the time. It discontinued the last Mac in a compact all-in-one case, the Color Classic II, in 1995, ending the era of design inaugurated by the first Mac.
Well, mostly. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of his first attention-grabbing moves was the introduction of the iMac. The all-in-one PC benefited from its obvious allusion to the original Mac, even though its bulbous, translucent case was hardly a remake. Later iMacs, including the current model, have lost all aesthetic kinship with their 1984 ancestors.
But even if the products Apple ships today don’t look like the ones of yore, the classic DNA is there. The deep integration of hardware and software, the willingness to dispense with features deemed inessential by Apple—they all date back to the Mac that Jobs revealed at the De Anza College Flint Center 40 years ago.
And it’s not just the current Macs I’m thinking about. Years later, Jobs introduced another surprisingly compact all-in-one computer built with approachability as its overarching goal, as groundbreaking as the Mac had been in 1984. It was called the iPhone. And if it’s still with us when its 40th anniversary rolls around in 2047, I hope that the Mac is around to share the glory.
BY HARRY MCCRACKEN