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They felt like pirates and stole the show from big brother IBM with a small computer and an advertising clip: Forty years ago, Apple introduced the first Macintosh and fundamentally changed our relationship with computers. A business machine became an everyday object for users.

By Thomas Wagner

Video (1984): Steve Jobs presents the very first Apple Macintosh, Image: IDG

Thinking positively, believing in utopias, reprogramming the present and giving it a surprising twist – Steve Jobs and Apple celebrated the spirit of Silicon Valley with great self-confidence when many tech freaks were still dreaming of big success in their garages. “On 24 January 1984, Apple will introduce the Macintosh computer – and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.” The advertising clip with which the ambitious company presented its new computer is as unusual as it is daring. The advert, which cost USD 750,000, was directed by none other than Ridley Scott, who made films such as “Alien” and “Blade Runner”. Based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”, the short film openly plays with the pathos of a revolt against Big Brother: shaven-headed men in grey prison garb listen to the words of the powerful leader until a woman in a tight sports outfit, chased by security guards, sprints into the hall and hurls a sledgehammer into the screen. That’s the end of Big Brother.

The Times They Are a-Changin

The advert, which was initially broadcast in the USA during the Super Bowl, was so spectacular that TV stations across the country repeated it on the evening news. And when the Macintosh was presented at the Apple Annual General Meeting, Steve Jobs recited a song by Bob Dylan: “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. The production still has an impact today: Forty years later (an eternity in the computer industry), the nimbus of a revolutionary innovation still surrounds the original Mac. The theatre of revolution may have been somewhat bombastic, but from Apple’s perspective, nothing should ever be the same again. Control society or not, the celebrated anti-totalitarianism could be skilfully diverted with the nice, friendly Mac. Nobody dared to believe that it could take power and start a war of machines against humans, which was played out in the 1984 film “Terminator”. The little box that greeted you with “hello” in cursive was stylised as the antithesis, programmed for fun and communication rather than fear.

© picture alliance/dpa/Apple

From Underdog to Champion

It should not be overlooked that when the first Macintosh was released in 1984, Apple was an underdog in an industry that was just beginning to change. Today, Apple leads the global brand rankings. With a brand value of 517 billion US dollars, the company has just reclaimed the title of the world’s most valuable brand by a large margin in the “Brand Finance Global 500” and increased its brand value by 219 billion US dollars, which corresponds to an increase of 74%. IBM, the “big brother” from back then, ranks 71st. It was not the one-box design that was decisive for the turnaround, nor was mobility. In fact, the market launch was initially unsuccessful.

Taking Users Seriously

There are two features that characterised the first Macintosh and which still play an important role in the company’s success today: A visual user interface that spoke directly to the user and made the annoying keyboard commands of the business machines from “Big Blue” with the legendary “hello” look outdated and old-fashioned. Anyone using a Mac felt that they were taken seriously as a user. What you were offered appeared to be dialogue-based and aesthetic in the sense of sensorimotor perception loops. You no longer needed long chains of commands and path names to interact with the machine. Anyone who switched on an IBM PC with a green glowing monitor and encountered the MS-Dos prompt “C:>” in those years knows how different it was. Clever marketing took care of the rest and staged the role of the pirate crew challenging “Big Brother” both skilfully and self-deprecatingly. The hardware of the 1984 Macintosh was designed by “frogdesign” under Hartmut Esslinger. Like the Apple IIc, the case appeared in off-white, known in America as “Snow White”. In addition to the motherboard, it contained a black and white monitor, a disc drive and a separate keyboard. The original Mac stood upright, was compact and turned towards the user. It felt solid, didn’t look like work on the desk and was intuitive to use. The Macintosh was available in all kinds of updates for almost ten years. Commercially, things were different: The original Mac did not sell as well as expected, it had too little power, too little software and could not be expanded.

© Apple

hello (again)

Brand researchers and sociologists may assess in detail how the focus on the user, skilful marketing and a number of other factors contributed to taking the PC out of the business world and actually turning it into a personal device that belongs in every household. It is no exaggeration to say that Steve Jobs later completed the revolution with the iPhone and in conjunction with the Internet – with all the social consequences that this had far beyond Apple. Despite the Macintosh, however, Apple initially went downhill. After a phase characterised by conventional devices such as the “Performa”, it was only the iMac (Steve Jobs had been forced out of the company in 1985 and returned to Apple in 1997) that heralded the brand’s resurgence in 1998.

Steve Jobs and Macintosh Computer, January 1984
© Bernard Gotfryd

The computer designed by Jonathan Ive – together with the iBook – was now fully transformed into a lifestyle product, a colourful bubble in five trendy colours. The all-in-one design remained the same. As with the Macintosh, everything was contained in a monitor housing. There was also a keyboard – also translucent in parts – and a rather ergonomically unsuccessful mouse. When introducing the iMac, Steve Jobs spoke of the marriage of the Internet and the simplicity of the Macintosh. With its organoid shape made of translucent plastic and its candy colours, the iMac was a belated homage to the time of the hippies and pop art. However, it was not only the beginning of the age of the computer as a consumer item and lifestyle product. It was also a product that visibly combined function with emotion for everyone.

Delusion and Magic

The Macintosh story teaches us something else when it comes to innovation: in the early days of the PC, it took a good dose of magic to turn a simple calculating machine into a truly personal computer. Steve Jobs not only possessed the necessary delusion; he also knew how to motivate and utilise magical thinking. This was the only way to create a myth. For example, when one of the conferences was about welding together the team that developed the Macintosh, Jobs wrote on the blackboard: “Let’s be pirates!” Of course, challenging power alone did not guarantee success. The gloomy “no future” mood of the 1980s could hardly be brightened up by prescribed enthusiasm for technology. What changed the perspective and gradually helped to integrate computers into almost all areas of life was probably the promise of being able to participate in the media. (After the mouse and the click wheel, Apple later launched several revolutionary user interfaces on the market with the multi-touch interface, according to Jobs). The transformation of the modern self from a reader subjectivity into a “user” was only completed with the general networking that began in the 1990s through the Internet. However, it was Apple that first placed the user at the centre of the digital world with the Macintosh.

© Apple

Black Discs as the New Standard

Now that the original Mac has turned forty, we can ask ourselves how the design of computers – or rather personalised electronic devices – is faring in general. Smartphones, smartwatches and tablets have become the mobile standard. Their housings are consistently presented as thin rectangles with a dark glass monitor panel running increasingly complex programmes. It is no coincidence that the operating systems of stationary computers and laptops are increasingly being adapted to those of tablets and smartphones. And as far as the now ubiquitous AI is concerned, it is basically shrinking every device (right down to data glasses) into an interface that users can use to connect to a simulated world. Such worlds are generated by programmes whose structure was created by others and whose consequences cannot be controlled in the slightest.

If you travel back in time to 1984, you will be amazed at the developments that have taken place since then. Even if it wasn’t just the Macintosh – nothing stayed the same after 1984. In the dystopias of the future, Orwell was wrong, not only grey (communist from a Cold War perspective) masses march; in the ubiquitous media parallel universe, colourful illusions, increasingly produced by AI, circulate. While, according to Neill Postman, George Orwell feared that what we hated would destroy us, Aldous Huxley feared that it would be what we love.

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