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Macintosh: my part in its triumph

Yes, today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Macintosh. My diary tells me I was at the London press conference on January 24th 1984 and my memory tells me that it involved ‘that’ music from 2001: A Space Odyssey (mind you, 2001: a Space Odyssey was apparently obligatory at all press conferences around that time, so I could be mistaken).

In fact I was quietly smug as I settled down with my press pack and earplugs because I had made my acquaintance with the Macintosh several weeks before - way back on New Year’s Eve.

It was a Saturday, and I had been granted a bit of an exclusive. A scoop.

Now some journalists will crawl through broken glass and mud to get closer to the sound of gunfire and that exclusive story. I was prepared to give up my weekend and drive through a wintery afternoon to a town, 20 miles or so north of London, called Hemel Hempstead. There my task was to find the anonymous warehouse - it would be called a logistics or distribution centre today - and within that was my exclusive Macintosh.

I had only a press pack for vital details and around an hour with the Mac to get a feel for what it could do. I also had a photographer who met me there with a Volvo estate full of equipment and who expected to spend a good proportion of my precious hour playing lights over the thing and taking it to bits. We always took them to bits in those days. We thought people were interested in what was inside. Perhaps they were.

So in we went. Yes, the photographer did expect to go first. Yes, he did want it opened up. We took a shot of the single board with its big (for that time) Motorola 68000 processor. The Mac had just 128 kilobytes and a single, hard-shelled four inch floppy disk drive. Things like hard drives came later. We marvelled over its deskspace-saving shape.

The cover of the magazine (see above) reminds me that we decided to put the Macintosh on a wooden pallet, and onto a forklift truck to take the main shots. But, as you might be able to see, the carefully orchestrated warehouse-style background was just crowded out by all the coloured blocks, rendering the ‘Apple Wheels in the Macintosh’ coverline somewhat meaningless.

Eventually I bid goodbye to the photographer and spent the last half hour hurredly using the Mac and gaining impressions.

It would feel right at this point to say something like, “little did we know that what we were looking at was the future of computing,” but reading it back now it seems that we did! My opening salvo was…

“Some new micros offer little more than a drop in price, or a slighly novel facility: not many make you think you’re witnessing the cutting edge of computer technology. But then, very rarely, you know you’re seeing something which represents a big step forward.”

This was hype - just hype that on this ocassion turned out to be right on the mark. The Macintosh was indeed recognised as an obvious next step by most of the people who saw it then. Just as, I suppose, the iPhone was instantly grasped by most of us more than 20 years later.

The mouse and icons (point and click) combination had already been given an outing on Apple’s upmarket Lisa computer. Now Jobs had packaged the concept up to run on a cheaper platform. The Macintosh cost just £1800.

But it was the graphical user interface overall which made a lot of sense. At the time disk operating systems (as they were called) did just that and gave you a screen with a command line on it. So the resulting application programs were all different as there were no user interface rules.

If it was something big and complicated (like a word processor or a critical path analysis system) it just took you hours to get into it and learn the way it (or rather the programmer who devised it) thought. Then, as a software reviewer you had to unlearn it all to get to grips with the next one.

So the importance of the standard GUI that all the apps could follow was instantly appreciated - as my review pointed out.

When the hour was up I was ushered out and reminded that everything was under a strict embargo.

Imagine that today! The idea that Apple would let a me in to see its most important product EVER on the understanding that I would be a good boy… honest. Not a chance. Then, I doubt that it even crossed my mind to break it to win an exclusive.

Thirty years on and a Macintosh is still on my desk - I think I’ve owned or used about a dozen in the interval. And even if I do decide my Mac days are over, the mouse, pointer and clicky graphical interface are all still the key feature of the browser I now mostly use. It all really started with that Macintosh, 30 years ago today.

Follow the writer on Twitter @ ian_TTV

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