36 years ago, Steve Jobs launched the Macintosh, and changed the course of computers forever

36 years ago, Steve Jobs launched the Macintosh, and changed the course of computers forever

Everyone at a computer uses a mouse (or trackpad) to point an arrow on a screen with icons and windows with applications. It’s easy to forget that the future we got wasn’t the only one, or how much of the paradigm we owe to that first machine.

In 1981, it wasn’t a sure thing that every computer had to have a pointing device. We did have drawing tablets in the form of things like the KoalaPad, but the only common way you could talk to a computer was the keyboard.

Seriously. We used to draw with these.

in the beginning there was the command line…

And you had to know the right syntax. If you were using DOS, UNIX, CP/M, or something else, there was a whole language of commands to master.

If you wanted software (applications), you had to share a diskette, a cassette tape, or type in the code yourself from a magazine. The separation between “computer user” and “programmer” was very, very thin.

This was what you’d see on a screen. Graphics? Maybe with a Hercules add-on card.

There were efforts to change this. Whether it was greater software distribution through stores like Electronics Boutique or Egghead Software, or interface changes.

what should a new interface be?

Doug Englebart invented the mouse, and demonstrated it in what has come to be called “The Mother of All Demos”. Xerox pioneered the idea of a desktop paradigm and mouse. Jef Raskin came up with the concept of a “humane interface” that came to exist in the Canon Cat.

It was centered around the idea that with every other interface, humans have to adapt to computers. Raskin wanted a computer to be designed around the needs of the user and how a user thinks.

One of the things that makes Raskin’s Humane Interface so interesting was that there was no concept of ‘saving files’ – because everything was always saved. It wasn’t until Google Docs that the rest of the world started to catch up with the benefits of a world where the default is something other than, “lose all my work”.

Raskin championed having his Humane Interface be the interface of the Macintosh. He lost.

Instead, we got the GUI – a defining way of working with the computer. There’s a desktop, with icons that open applications or files, a mouse pointed to navigate… and well, you know the rest.

principles

One of Raskin’s principles agreed with those of Jobs – an interface should be pleasant in tone and visually attractive. That’s persisted to this day, whether it was Jobs’ focus on designing the Calculator app or the different permutations that OS X Aqua has gone through. It all started with Susan Kare’s icons. When Microsoft made their own desktop-icons OS, Windows 3.x, they hired Kare for their icons as well.

voice first

When Steve Jobs took the stage and unveiled Macintosh in 1984, he chose to do something that is still having rippling effects on computers today: the machine said, “Hello”.

The text to speech software had originally been written for the Apple II by a third-party developer, Mark Barton. It was quickly acquired and adapted for Mac, so that it could speak the words, “Hello, I am the Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag.”

The utility of speech as an interface is really only beginning to come to fruition in the past few years, with the advent of Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. These have a direct line back to the launch of the first Mac, but also satisfy some of the principles of Raskin – the idea of being modeless, of shifting contexts without having to change applications.

Steve Wozniak used to be fond of saying something to the effect that “All PCs are Macs these days, some are just better versions of it” – as a way way of saying, Windows operates on many of the principles the Mac did.

Today, Apple regularly questions what a computer is. Steve Jobs launched the iPad as a Post-PC device. But we would never have gotten here if it hadn’t been for the humble little Macintosh escaping the bag 36 years ago today in 1984.

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