Apple’s Macintosh Computer Turns 30: Did You Know It Almost Failed?

What most people don't realize is that it wasn't until almost two years after the original Mac was introduced that Apple finally got it right.

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Today is the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh. The original “Mac” arrived along with the famous 1984 commercial, aired just once (but then aired many times on local and network news) during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII on January 22nd. It was then two days later during Apple’s 1984 annual shareholders meeting that Steve Jobs himself introduced the uniquely designed and revolutionary computer to the world.

When the lights went down, he came out to the stage and opened the meeting by reading a part of the lyrics from, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Bob Dylan:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

He then thanked Apple’s board of directors and turned the meeting over for the formalities. After that, Apple’s then-CEO John Sculley (the man who so-called “fired” Jobs just sixteen months later) introduced Jobs back to the stage with the following statement:

“The most important thing that has happened to me in the last nine months at Apple has been a chance to develop a friendship with Steve Jobs. Steve is a co-founder of Apple, and a product visionary for this industry, and it’s my pleasure now to reintroduce Steve Jobs.”

With that, Jobs took the stage again and launched into a talk about IBM’s past computer and technology dominance through the years, and the development of perceived threats to that dominance. He started with Xerox, then mentioned Digital Equipment Corporation (minicomputers) and ended with Apple. When he came to the 1980s, he stated:

“The early 1980s: 1981 – Apple II has become the world’s most popular computer, and Apple has grown to a 300 million dollar corporation, becoming the fastest growing company in American business history. With over fifty companies vying for a share, IBM enters the personal computer market in November of 1981, with the IBM PC.”

Steve Jobs spoke quickly and dramatically.

“1983: Apple and IBM emerge as the industry’s strongest competitors, with each selling approximately one billion dollars worth of personal computers in 1983. The shakeout is in full swing. The first major personal computer firm goes bankrupt, with others teetering on the brink. Total industry losses for 1983 overshadow even the combined profits of Apple and IBM.”

Jobs now slowed down and emphasized.

“It is now 1984. It appears that IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, after initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM dominated and controlled future and are turning back to Apple as the only force who can ensure their future freedom.”

Steve Jobs took a long pause, and the crowd was on the edge of their seats!

“IBM wants it all, and is aiming its guns at its last obstacle to industry control, Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right?”

The audience became frantic, as the already now famous 1984 commercial began projecting to the big screen on stage. When the commercial had finished, the entire auditorium was on their feet and cheering wildly. The build-up had been a huge success, only to be more so with the actual unveiling of the wondrous little computer. When ultimately taken out of its bag and revealed on the stage, the Macintosh even spoke to the crowd! You really need to watch this presentation if you’ve never seen it, as it was an exciting event. You just have to remind yourself how dramatically different the computing landscape was then – most people were still using text-based, green-on-black monitors with their PCs. Or, if you just want to see Steve Jobs smiling more than I think I’ve ever seen anywhere else, watch the video:

Apple sold over 70,000 machines by April of that year. However, after that, sales started diminishing quite sharply. By December, there were only less than 10,000 sold. Why did this happen? Well, many believe that the initial sales went to “early adopters,” and even though the Macintosh caught the public’s imagination and demonstrated the future, in realty, you couldn’t do a whole lot with it!

First of all, its 128K of memory just wasn’t enough to do much (the Mac Steve Jobs had demoed actually had 512K), and then there wasn’t a lot of software available for it. Also, at $2,495 with only one built-in disk drive, it was an expensive and painful system to use. Even just saving a file from two basic applications like MacWrite and MacPaint could mean numerous “disk swaps.” Many in the press dubbed it a very thought-provoking, impressive, cool, but expensive toy. In September of 1984, Apple introduced the “Fat Mac” with 512K, which helped to increase sales, but the Macintosh was clearly failing. By late 1985, Steve Jobs had left the company.

What most people don’t realize is that it wasn’t until almost two years after the original Mac was introduced that Apple finally got it right with the Macintosh Plus in 1986. It had a full megabyte of RAM (more than the standard PC with 640K) and a high-speed connection for a hard drive and accessories. This machine combined with both Aldus PageMaker software and the Apple LaserWriter (both introduced in mid-1985) started the desktop publishing revolution and ultimately saved the Mac.

It would still be about another year though, in 1987, before the sales of Macs started inching past Apple II computer sales. This was also after the introduction of the first reengineered “classic” form factor Mac, the Macintosh SE, and the first expandable color model, the Macintosh II. Apple II sales remained a significant part of revenue for the company well into the late 1980s. If it hadn’t been for the consistently strong sales of the Apple II line, Apple would have also crashed twice before, with the failures of the Apple III and the Apple Lisa.

So, what’s the legacy of the Macintosh? Most already know the legacy of Steve Jobs, and that he went on to return to the company in 1996, saving it from its bland desktop offerings and stale operating system. He also went on to upgrade the operating system that he brought back with him (from NeXT); it became Mac OS X (ten).

After thirty years, the Mac is still around and doing great! No, it’s not the dominant platform of computing, but its influence sure is. You can clearly observe that in all three tiers of personal computing: desktops/laptops, tablets and smartphones. Whether you use the Mac OS or Windows, iOS or Android, you’re using the legacy of the Macintosh. The iPhone changed everything in 2007, and if you watch its introduction by Steve Jobs, he touts that it was built on Mac OS X (go to time mark 8:13). I’m referring to the user interfaces here mostly, and how the devices operate, but the significant influences of Apple’s hardware designs for the Macintosh and mobile devices is evident in competitors’ devices as well.

So Happy Birthday, Mac! You got off to a rocky start, but you certainly did make a big impact on all of us.

This article was written by David Greelish and originally appeared on his website, ClassicComputing.com. It has been republished with permission.

Greelish is a computer historian. In 1992, he founded the Historical Computer Society and published a newsletter or “zine” of computer history nostalgia. More recently, he published all of those zines and his story in a book. He has also written numerous articles, conducted many interesting interviews and created podcasts. You can buy his book, and read or listen to his other offerings at ClassicComputing.com.