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Apple Mac: Still stylish at 30

About the author

Jonathan Glancey is a journalist and broadcaster. Formerly Architecture and Design correspondent of the Guardian and Architecture and Design Editor of the Independent, he writes for the Daily Telegraph and works with the BBC on radio and television documentaries. His books include The Story of Architecture, Lost Buildings, Spitfire: the biography, Nagaland and Giants of Steam.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The compact machine set a new standard for design and ease of use when it was launched in 1984. Jonathan Glancey explains why it’s still a classic.

It seemed like sorcery at the time. Here, at last, was a personal computer – complete with screen, keyboard and mouse – that pretty much anyone could learn to use within half an hour. Neat, compact and portable, it would not only sit on 100,000 desks within six months of its launch, but it would make desk-top publishing possible while encouraging any number of small businesses to get started in bedrooms, garages and at kitchen tables.

Small wonder, then, that when Steve Jobs first showed the Apple Mac to an audience of 3,000 ecstatic employees, computer buffs, financial backers and journalists in January 1984, he did so sporting floppy hair, a double-breasted blue blazer, green bow tie and the manner, as well as the look of a Las Vegas show host crossed with a cheesy TV magician.

At the climax of his show, the Californian computer impresario pulled a new Apple Mac from a bag like a rabbit from a hat. To the accompaniment of Vangelis’s synthesised Chariots of Fire theme, Jobs switched the little machine on, inserted a floppy disk into a slot below its screen, and off it went, performing a comic digital routine that immediately endeared the Mac to thousands of buyers and users not just in California, but across the US and, soon enough, around the world.

Until then, – it was a world largely free of mobile phones, and the internet, let alone laptops, tablets and wireless devices, and computers were known as those stern machines, bedecked with great reels of tape and fed by punched paper. They performed their ineffable functions for state departments and giant corporations in air-conditioned laboratories, attended by intensely serious men with side-partings, clipboards and white coats.

Steve Jobs with a room full of computers, 1984 (Getty Images)

Steve Jobs with a room full of computers, 1984 (Getty Images)

Affordable luxury

There were, of course, smaller computers than these, but the Apple Mac was rather like the first Box Brownie – a compact, hand-held camera that launched popular and ‘personal’ photography, freed from glass plates, tripods and ‘birdies’ – or, perhaps the computer era’s equivalent of Henry Ford’s Model-T, a car that any able-bodied American could drive, without a chauffeur or mechanic in tow, and that many millions were soon able to afford. Today, the original Mac is, by and large, a museum piece, a collector’s toy along with 35mm SLR cameras, vintage watches and popular design classics of the early 1980s like the DeLorean car or the Renault Espace.

And, compared to exquisite, analogue engineering-led ‘personal’ machines like late model Olivetti typewriters, there was something a little gauche about the casing, colour and general appearance of the Apple Mac. It was upright and boxy, made of beige plastic and looked more like a small dishwasher than a machine that, along with IBM’s more ‘scientific’ small computers, was about to revolutionise communications worldwide. And, yet, this is very much a part of the original Apple Mac’s appeal today. It is a classic by virtue of establishing a new design order for personal computers – as well as in the relaxed and easy way it works. Today, it is no surprise that the earliest Apple Macs, despite their limited 128K memories, are much sought after by museums and private collectors. They are part of folk memory in much the same way as those millions of very largely redundant Model-Ts and Box Brownies are today.

There are, though, enthusiasts who enjoy bringing their Apple Mac 128Ks as up-to-date as possible with colour screens – the original 9in screens were black-and-white – upgraded software and extended memories. This is a bit like bringing handsome public service Bakelite telephones into line with the latest telecomm electronics, or fitting an E-Type Jaguar with vastly improved suspension, brakes, gearbox and fuel-injected engine.

Nowadays, many desktop computers and digital gizmos have been frustratingly short-lived. This is not true of the original Apple Mac; a thirty-year old machine tucked away in box in the attic will work as well as it did when it brought personal computing into design studios, homes and colleges for the first time in 1984.

The friendly machine

What the Mac offered, as Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs was keen to stress, was a new form of personal freedom, the freedom for people to get away from conventional jobs and to run their own creative businesses, their own lives. So, the launch of the Apple Mac was accompanied by a stirring and memorable 60-second TV commercial created by Chiat/Day, a Los Angeles ad agency, and produced by Ridley Scott, director of Bladerunner, a film from 1982 concerned with the innate desire for freedom at all costs. The Apple ad was titled 1984. Borrowing the name of George Orwell’s savage political novel, it showed people under the thumb of a Big Brother figure whose image was destroyed as the voiceover announced, “On 24 January, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

It had taken around five years to get the Apple Mac into production with Jef Raskin leading the team, and a lot of information gleaned on the way about software, especially from Xerox. The name of the all-purpose Apple computer – that of the McIntosh, a popular all-purpose species of apple good for eating, cooking and juicing – had to be changed, however, for legal reasons, even if only by one syllable; so it became Macintosh. At one point, Job had wanted to call it the Apple Bicycle, as in “as easy as riding a bike”.

Jerry Manock and Tony Oyama styled the casing, mouse and keyboard, and in early models the names of the entire design team are moulded inside the cases. Manock and Oyama liked the idea of the computer having something of the proportions and stance of a human head: it was always meant to be a friendly machine, a desktop companion rather than a cold, efficient, scientific device. It was, said Steve Jobs, “the computer for the rest of us.”

This – a truly popular personal computer – was something Jobs and Steve Wozniak, his friend and original Apple partner, had been aiming for since they first met in 1971 at Hewlett-Packard. Wozniak, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley had signed up full time with the established Californian information technology company while Jobs, still at high school, had a summer job there. Jobs quit college in 1974 and designed video games for Atari – to finance a trip to India in search of spiritual enlightenment – before teaming up with Wozniak in 1975 to get a personal computer into production. Apple, founded in 1976, was incorporated two years later, together with its famous logo designed by Rob Janoff. In 1980 the company went public generating more capital than any IPO (Initial Public Offering of stock) since Ford in 1956. With 7.5 million shares, Jobs was suddenly worth $217m. And the confidence of the company soared.

Today, Apple Macs have come a very long way in terms of software, performance and aesthetics. The latest models, styled by a team led by Apple’s British-born designer Sir Jonathan Ive, are smooth, sleek, silver and glassy. Except in their clarity and ease of use, they are a world away, aesthetically, from the original Apple Mac of thirty years ago. And, yet, there is something endearing in the quiet and friendly functional simplicity of the original design, a machine that belongs to a tradition of apparently simple, even obvious, designs that like Polaroid and Kodak Instamatic cameras, the Renault Supercinq launched the same year as the Mac or, in fact, the best domestic appliances. They are devices that have taken considerable thought and deft styling to work so well and with such ready and reliable charm.

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