In the beginning: The making of the Mac

Editor’s note: This article originally posted on the 25th
anniversary of the Macintosh.

In 1977,
made a splash on the world stage by introducing the
Apple II, one of the world’s first personal computers. In the
time between the Apple II’s release and IBM’s introduction of
the first IBM PC in 1981, Apple dominated the personal computer

However, almost as soon as the Apple II was launched, the
company began planning successors for its flagship product,
fearing that the Apple II would have a limited lifespan. (These
fears wound up being unfounded, as variations on the original
Apple II model sold well for more than 15 years.) The most
enduring result of this quest was the Macintosh computer.

The course of events that led to the Mac as we know it was
convoluted, the result of luck or coincidence as much as
planning. But those events began with desire of Apple
executives to develop a next-generation computer following the
success of the Apple II.

Apple III

The first stop on the journey to a post-Apple II world was the
Apple III. Conceived as a business machine, the Apple III was
compatible with Apple II hardware and software but also ran
software designed specifically for the Apple III.

Apple III Wikipedia
Apple III

The Apple III turned out to be one of Apple’s biggest flops.
Plagued with design flaws (including an overheating issue, due
Steve Jobs’
insistence that the system ship without an
internal fan) and offering hardware that didn’t go
significantly beyond what could be added to the less-expensive
Apple II, the Apple III was eventually pulled from production
after costing Apple $60 million (most of it in support efforts
for customers).


Apple’s Lisa

Another next-generation computer conceived as a business
machine was the Apple Lisa. The Lisa’s original specifications
were for a basic business computer with a price tag of $2,000.
It was not intended to offer any next-generation features. But
when it was released in 1983, the Lisa became the first Apple
product to feature a graphical user interface (GUI), similar to
the one that would ship on the Mac a year later.

Early in the development of the Lisa, Jobs and a handful of
Apple engineers made two trips to the Xerox Palo Alto Research
Center (PARC)
had created
as a think tank for engineers to develop new
technologies—a place where some of the brightest technical
minds could work to develop innovative products.

Technologies such as ethernet, object-oriented programming, and
GUI operating systems that accepted input from a mouse all
emerged from PARC. Focused more on its copier business than on
the emerging computer revolution, Xerox let many of these
technologies languish because executives couldn’t understand
how to turn them into marketable products.

In 1979, Jobs and a team of Apple employees arranged two visits
to PARC, allowing Xerox in return to invest in Apple before the
company’s initial public offering. After seeing the earliest
examples of many modern computing technologies—most notably the
mouse-driven graphical operating system of the Xerox Alto—Apple
decided to add as many of these technologies as feasible to the
Lisa spec sheet. Engineers at Apple set about
reverse-engineering and expanding on many of the features they
had seen at PARC.

The result was a computer that looked little like the original
plans. When the Lisa shipped, it included a built-in display, a
keyboard and a one-button mouse. The Lisa operating system
featured not just a GUI that responded to mouse input, but
several innovations that would go on to become standard
features in
Mac OS
, Windows and other modern operating systems: files
represented by icons, pull-down menus, and drag-and-drop
functionality. It also pioneered Apple’s QuickDraw
screen-drawing technology.

Lisa also shipped with a suite of productivity applications
that included spreadsheet, drawing, word processing, graphing,
project management and terminal-emulation programs—and a file
manager. This was an important inclusion, as the Lisa was
incompatible with any other software on the market (including
the Mac when it was released).

Despite pioneering many technologies, the Lisa never developed
a significant following, largely because of its $9,995 price
tag. Other factors in its failure were its incompatibility with
other systems, its somewhat finicky floppy drives and rumors
that Apple was working on a less-expensive “baby Lisa.”

Apple did drop the price to $6,995 later in 1983, and the Lisa
2 was priced at $3,495 when it shipped in 1984. Still, Lisa
sales failed to take off. Eventually, Apple converted its stock
of Lisas so they would work with the Mac OS and sold the
remaining units as the Mac XL. A conversion kit was also sold
to existing Lisa owners. When the Lisa was finally discontinued
in 1989, Apple literally buried the product, interring all
unsold Lisas in a landfill in Logan, Utah.

The original Mac concept

Jef Raskin

Despite the fact that the Mac would go on to be a revolutionary
product, it had humble beginnings. Commissioned in 1979, the
Mac was conceived as a low-cost personal computer intended for
the average consumer, with a price tag of around $500. The Mac
project was initially considered a research product, one that
didn’t have the high profile of either the Apple III or the
Lisa. Jef Raskin, at the time Apple’s director of publications
and new product review, was chosen to oversee it.

The somewhat obscure nature of the Mac project was one of the
factors that led to its radical re-imagining by Steve Jobs.
After the failure of the Apple III, the Apple board had
reservations about allowing Jobs to manage another high-profile
project. When Jobs asked to take over the Mac project, the
board allowed him to do so, feeling that the relatively unknown
project wasn’t critical to Apple’s well-being.

Under Jobs, the Mac went from being a low-cost computer with a
traditional text-based interface to being a less-expensive
version of the Lisa. But duplicating the work happening on the
Lisa wasn’t the only goal Jobs had in mind. He envisioned the
Mac as expanding on the Lisa’s advances.

The result was a resolution by Jobs and his Mac team not only
to make a “baby Lisa” but also to turn the Mac into a product
that could advance the computing industry as much as or more
than the Apple II had done—or, as Jobs has been quoted as
saying, to “put a dent in the universe.”

The Lisa and Mac teams actually worked simultaneously on
similar technologies for some time, and a rivalry between the
two groups developed. The Mac team fancied themselves as
pirates—going so far as a to fly a pirate flag outside their
workspace—as opposed to the more corporate-oriented Lisa team.
During the race to get both products to market, Jobs made a
$5,000 bet with Lisa project manager John Couch that the Mac
team would win. In the end, the Lisa made it to market first,
but the Mac developed a much larger following—and a much longer

The drive to develop the Mac took on an almost religious
fervor, with Jobs giving T-shirts to his engineers that read
“90 HRS/WK AND LOVING IT.” Throughout the process, ideas and
even employees were regularly poached from other teams within

One casualty of this zeal was Raskin; after repeated conflicts
and a final showdown with Jobs, he chose to leave Apple and the
Mac behind. Raskin eventually did end up developing some of his
original ideas for the Mac into a word processor, which was
sold in the late 1980s as the Canon

Despite the passion and long hours that went into its
development, the Mac slipped past its ship dates more than
once—largely because the difficulty of developing the system
was underestimated. After the team missed one date in 1982,
Mike Markkula, chairman of Apple’s board at the time, gave Jobs
a woman’s black undergarment, saying that it was “the Mac’s
last slip.”

What the Mac became

The machine that started it all

While many things changed during the Mac’s development, some of
the original design concepts remained. Conceived by Raskin for
the “person in the street,” the Mac was from the beginning
aimed at being simple to use without complications such as
expansion slots or cables. This consideration meant that users
wouldn’t need to worry about opening the computer for any

The idea inspired the Mac’s all-in-one look (and lack of
expandability). Even the “person in the street” idea ended up
informing the Mac’s eventual tagline as “the computer for the
rest of us.” Indeed, although Jobs took over the Mac project
and Raskin left Apple before it shipped, Raskin is often
credited as the father of the Mac.

Still, the computer that Apple shipped in 1984 bore only a
passing resemblance to Raskin’s original Mac concept. In fact,
rather than costing the consumer $500, the first Macintosh to
ship cost Apple about that much to produce. The ultimate cost
for new Mac owners was $2,495.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac on Jan. 24, 1984, it was
something the likes of which the world had never seen. The new
computer featured a bright graphical display and all-in-one
design, relied on a mouse for input, and even offered speech
synthesis capabilities. It garnered praise from both computer
and mainstream publications, though some criticized the
monochrome display, lack of expandability and incompatibility
with existing software. 

Paltry by today’s standards, the original Mac featured a 9-inch
black-and-white display, 3.5-inch floppy drive (which could
store 400KB of data on each disk), 128KB of RAM and a Motorola
68000 processor running at 8 MHz. It shipped with MacWrite, a
word processing tool, and MacPaint, a drawing tool. Later the
same year, Apple shipped the Mac 512K, which doubled the
installed RAM but kept the same design.

In fact, it wouldn’t be until early 1987 that Apple would ship
Macs that offered expansion slots or deviated from the
all-in-one style of the original (a design still used by
today’s iMac line). Embedded on the inside of the case of every
original Mac are the signatures of each member of the team that
helped create it, including Raskin and Jobs.

Over the years, the Mac has grown and changed significantly.
The original model has given way to hundreds of updated models
over the years. The processor family on which the Mac is based
has gone through two major changes. Apple has even successfully
managed to change the core of the Mac operating system in the
release of Mac OS X.

And yet the Mac remains true to its beginnings, an icon of how
simple a computer can be and how much it can do.

This story, “In the beginning: The making of the Mac” was
originally published by Computerworld


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