35 years ago today, during Apple’s annual meeting, Steve Jobs stood on a stage at De Anza College’s Flint Center in Cupertino and formally unveiled the company’s new computer, the Macintosh. Birthday tributes to the Mac often focus on Jobs’ presentation (the template for many Apple launches to come) and Ridley Scott’s Super Bowl ad (to some, the greatest commercial of all time). In 2014, for the 30th anniversary, I also wrote about the presentation Jobs gave at the Boston Computer Society–six days after his Cupertino demo–where computer fans were wowed by the Mac in person for the first time.
But for all the initial hoopla, it’s worth remembering that the Mac was not an instant blockbuster. During its first year, according to Steven Levy’s seminal Mac history Insanely Great, it sold as few as 5,000 units some months, which was one tenth of Steve Jobs’ rosy expectation.
And then it all started coming together. Apple fixed the worst flaws of the original Mac, like its anemic 128K of RAM. Third-party developers started offering software–such as Aldus’s PageMaker desktop publishing package–that was so good it sold people on the Mac. The platform became a success–and despite some bumps along the way, remains one today. Which is astounding for a line of computers launched during the first Reagan administration.
Stewart Cheifet’s long-running public-TV series The Computer Chronicles provides an invaluable record of the PC business’s adolescence. In March 1985, Cheifet and cohost (and software pioneer) Gary Kildall taped an episode devoted to the state of the Mac after its first year. It’s a neat little time capsule, and here it is:
The episode features Joanna Hoffman and Larry Tesler, two members of the original Mac team; footage from the bustling first-ever Macworld Expo show in San Francisco; demos of ambitious Mac apps; and a look at GEM, a Mac-like interface for IBM PCs. Watching it, I could viscerally feel the Macintosh gaining traction all over again.
But even in early 1985, not everyone was aboard the Mac bandwagon. The episode also includes a segment with tech journalist Paul Schindler, who–in an Andy Rooney-like rant–says that Apple’s machine is too pricey, slow, and limited by its black-and-white graphics. “I just don’t think Mac is the answer,” he laments, predicting that it would never catch on with businesses.
Schindler was right about the original Mac’s defects. It’s just that none of them was a permanent fact about the platform. 22 years later, numerous pundits similarly looked at the original iPhone, saw a device with its share of downsides, and helpfully explained why it would flop. Instead, Apple industriously improved upon the first version–just as it had done with the Mac–and people noticed.
That remains an underappreciated element of the Apple story: As good as it is at defining new categories of products, it’s even better at building on those beginnings. If it wasn’t, the Mac would never have thrived. And Apple itself might well have joined Commodore and Atari in the dustbin of PC history–long before it had the chance to sell a music player, mobile phone, or wristwatch.