24 milestones in the Mac's 30-year history

24 milestones in the Mac's 30-year history

A look back at the high points -- and some low ones -- in the evolution of the Mac since 1984

Today, it's easy to take the Mac for granted.The whole platform, along with Apple itself, has been reinvented time and again as the tech world has changed, and at the ripe young age of 30 it shows little sign of going away. But there were many times over the past three decades when the Mac's future, and Apple's, was far from certain.

Apple marked the anniversary by posting a lengthy and visually rich timeline on its website. And it even highlighted the date on its home page. Apple marked the Mac's 30th anniversary on its home page today.

Here are some of the most important milestones -- and some of the serious missteps -- in the Mac's 30-year history.

Original Mac introduction (1984): When Steve Jobs unveiled the original Mac on Jan. 24, 1984, he introduced the world to a new type of computing experience. Although GUI systems, including the Apple Lisa, had already been developed, the Mac was the first such system to be unveiled to the general public. Until then, such computers had largely been developed as experiment prototypes at labs like Xerox PARC or pitched to specific markets, often with a significant price tag. (The Apple Lisa originally sold for $9,995 in 1984 dollars.)

Note: Hardware teardown expert iFixit marked today's anniversary by tearing down an original Mac.

Test drive a Mac program: Despite the innovation it represented compared to other common PCS of the early 1980s -- the Apple II, Commodore 64 or IBM PC, for instance -- the Mac was priced higher than many of its early competitors. In an effort to show off the value of the Mac and its GUI, Apple CEO John Scully devised a program where potential buyers could borrow a Mac for a few days, take it home and test drive it. While the program was a successful in raising awareness about the Mac experience, it wasn't successful in jump-starting sales. Many would-be Mac buyers praised the computer when returning it -- then bought something less expensive.

The first expandable non-all-in-one Macs, The Mac II and SE (1987): Early Macs followed the same integrated all-in-one design as the original Mac, including the limited screen size and lack of upgrade or expansion options. Apple broke with that trend in 1987 when it launched the Mac II, the first Mac to use an external display, and the all-in-one Mac SE. Together, they were the first Macs that could be upgraded with additional RAM or expansion cards that could extend the hardware feature set.

Mac user base reaches 1 million (1987): Three years after the Mac's rollout, the number of Macs in use worldwide topped one million.

Diversification gone awry (1987-97): The Mac II may have been the first major departure from the original Mac design, but it was far from the last. During the decade that followed, Apple released an incredible number of different models, eventually creating multiple product lines for a range of different markets. The Quadra range was for business, the Performa line went to home users and LC line aimed primarily at schools. Despite the different markets and occasionally different case designs, many of the Macs shared similar, if not identical, hardware regardless of name or model number. Things got even more confusing when Apple began selling Macs with model numbers in each line that differed only in the software that came pre-installed on them. The diversification became so pervasive that, at one point, Apple provided poster-sized product matrixes to Mac resellers just so they could keep the line-up straight.

The PowerBook 100 (1991): Apple's first attempt at a laptop was a miserable luggable computer called the Mac portable that weighed 16 pounds and was the antithesis of today's sleek MacBooks. Following its dismal launch, the company retooled and developed the PowerBook 100, which featured the now iconic clamshell design of modern notebook computers with a pointing device (in those days a trackball) positioned between two built-in wrist rests. Several models followed, diversifying across price points and features. Apple eventually broke out some models with different designs to create the PowerBook Duo and PowerBook 500 series.

The PowerBook 100 opened the door for future, sleeker Apple laptops.

The PowerBook Duo (1992): The PowerBook 200 (a.k.a. the PowerBook Duo) was an early precursor to today's MacBook Air and ultrabook PCs. It was the thinnest and lightest notebook computer on the market when it arrived. Apple shaved weight and space from the design by eliminating many components and ports, including floppy or optical drives, support for external drives of any kind, any type of display connector, and the ADB port used for Apple keyboards of the time. The only ports included were a single serial port for connecting to printers and other peripherals and a proprietary docking port. (An internal modem was an option, as well). When Duo users wanted access to other ports, they relied on an optional docking station called a Duo Dock that resembled a cross between a desktop Mac and a VCR into which the Duo was inserted, which allowed it to act as a desktop Mac with a full set of ports and other components. The PowerBook Duo line continued for several years and was, in many ways, ahead of its time. After canceling the Duo, Apple released a minimalist notebook in 1997 called the PowerBook 2400 and, of course, in 2008 the stunningly sleek and popular MacBook Air.

The first Power Macs (1993): Macs sold in the 1980s through the mid-1990s relied on Motorola's 680x0 processor family. In the early 1990s, Apple, Motorola and IBM teamed up to develop a new line of more powerful and modern processor designs that became known as PowerPC processors. Working together, the trio hoped to rival Intel and AMD in the PC market. Apple launched the new processors in a series of Power Macs across its various Mac lines. In transitioning to the newer processors, Apple needed to ensure backward compatibility with software -- including many parts of the Mac OS -- written for the earlier models. The process wasn't entirely smooth and it took several years to complete the transition, but it was ultimately successful. Apple's experience with this transition almost certainly came in helpful in two later transitions - the launch of Mac OS X in 2000 and the switch to Intel processors in 2006.

The Copland fiasco (1994-96): Along with ensuring modern processors for Macs, Apple faced a challenge in creating a modern version of Mac OS. Through the 1990s, Mac OS continued to run on a kernel and architecture designed for the original Mac. That OS received major updates and revisions, of course, but there were core computing capabilities in areas like memory management, multitasking and isolating processes so a single app crash wouldn't bring down the entire OS. These couldn't be added without a major overhaul. Apple made a serious attempt to develop a modern Mac OS under the codename Copland (intended to be shipped as Mac OS 8) that dealt with these issues, but the project spiraled out of control. Work was eventually halted, though some facets of its interface design and user-centric features were introduced in later Mac OS versions.

The Mac clones (1995-98): As Microsoft began to dominate the personal and business computing markets, it did so by licensing Windows and other software to many third-party manufacturers. Under pressure, Apple attempted to license the Mac OS under the belief that Mac clones would target markets outside of Apple's core customer base (education and design) and expand the OS's market share. Things didn't work out as planned and many clones began cannibalizing Apple's own sales. When Steve Jobs took over as Apple's "interim" CEO in 1997, he quickly canceled the clone license agreements. To do this, Apple had to work around a clause in the agreements that permitted clone makers access to all versions of Mac OS 7 up to Mac OS 8.

Be vs. NeXT (1996-97): Following the failure to develop a modern OS for the Mac in-house, Apple went searching for a company that already had created such an OS, one that could be used as the underpinning for the Mac interface, user experience and software. In 1996, Apple had two options: NeXT, the academic-focused computer company that Jobs launched after being forced out of Apple in 1985, and Be, a company founded by one-time Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee. At one point, Be looked like the option Apple would select, but during negotiations over the terms of a deal with Be, Apple unexpectedly announced its intention to acquire NeXT instead. That decision allowed Steve Jobs to return to the company and within months be installed as interim CEO after Apple's board fired then-CEO Gil Amelio.

The beige Power Mac G3 went on sale in 1997.

The Power Mac G3 (1997): The Power Mac G3 was the first Mac to use the PowerPC G3 processor designed specifically for Mac OS. The model also stands out because it was the first Mac released under a new strategy that eliminated the confusion of 1990s by breaking the Mac lineup into just four categories -- professional desktop, consumer desktop, professional notebook and consumer notebook. With minor exceptions like the Power Mac G4 Cube, Apple remained true to that strategy for several years and was successful with it.

Rhapsody and blue and yellow boxes: Figuring out how to integrate NeXT's Unix-based OS with the aging Mac OS was a complicated process, largely because it required more than just grafting a Mac interface onto NeXT's foundations. Apple also needed to provide a way to run older Mac apps in the new OS and to provide developers a road map and the tools needed to migrate their code. The initial strategy was called Rhapsody and involved two independent user environments running next to each other known as the blue box and yellow box that users would switch between. The blue box was conceived as an updated version of the old Mac OS along with its familiar interface while the yellow box represented the new OS along with all its modern computing underpinnings. Rhapsody never became a product as originally envisioned, but the blue box concept did find its way into OS X in the form of the Classic environment that could be used to run Mac apps that hadn't been updated for Mac OS X.

The first iMac (1998): The launch of the original iMac was one of the most significant moments in Apple's history. It represented a return to the ease and enjoyment of use that typified the original Mac. It also returned to the Mac's all-in-one roots and introduced the world to the design genius of Jonathan Ive. The iMac also illustrated Apple's commitment to the future by shipping without a floppy drive and with USB, then a new technology that had yet to become a major standard, as its only peripheral interface. With the focus on USB, a technology initially designed for PCs, the iMac also showed Apple's commitment to interoperability with PCs.

The Blue and White G3 (1999): The second-generation Power Mac G3 followed in the iMac's design footsteps, but it was significant for a much different reason. It was easier to open, upgrade and expand than any Mac before it. Lift a simple latch and the side folded out to reveal the motherboard, processor (which was removable and upgradable), RAM slots, PCI expansion slots (another PC standard) and drive bays for as many as three hard drives. Apple maintained much of the extremely flexible and easy-to-work-with design in its Mac Pro towers for nearly 15 years, right up until it introduced the new cylindrical Mac Pro that went on sale in December.

The iMac G3 arrived in 1998 in "Bondi" blue.

The digital hub strategy and iLife (1999): In addition to announcing the Blue and White Power Mac G3, the next-generation iMacs and the original iBook in 1999, Jobs also articulated a new concept of everyday computing that he called the digital hub. The concept involved having the Mac serve as a centralized way for users to incorporate all of the digital content and media in their life -- including photos, home movies, music, and data. This strategy remains a guiding principle for Apple. In the years since Jobs first coined the phrase, Apple has pushed it forward with apps like iPhoto and iMovie as well as other products like the iPod. The digital hub is still a core part of the Apple experience and one that has transcended the Mac. The iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and iCloud features such as Photostream still align around the digital hub concept.

Mac OS X (2001): If the iMac represented a commitment to the future of the Mac as a piece of hardware, OS X represented that commitment to progress and innovation as a platform. Looking back to the initial release of OS X in 2001 (following a Public Beta in 2000), is to look at a very raw work in progress. It wasn't until Jaguar was released in 2002 that OS X became the polished product we know today and it wasn't until Leopard's release five years later that many of the features we take for granted now were introduced. It's also worth remembering that OS X isn't just an operating system that runs on Macs. When Apple developed the iPhone and the original Apple TV, the company developed variants of OS X to power those devices, which gave rise to today's iOS.

Apple retail (2001): Before Apple opened its own retail stores beginning in 2001, the experience of shopping for a Mac, finding answers to questions, or troubleshooting problems was often a very different and difficult one. Unless you lived near an independent Apple reseller, finding hardware and getting answers was hard. Many retailers didn't carry Apple products, those that had them rarely showcased them in a positive light and most salespersons didn't have the knowledge to answer questions. (In fact, many would steer a buyer to PCs if you asked about Mac hardware.) Apple retail gave the company a way to change that dynamic and although it started as something of a quirky experiment, it has been successful beyond anyone's predictions.

Apple's stylish Xserve arrived in 2003.

The Xserve (2003): Alongside OS X, Apple introduced a server platform called OS X Server (the initial version of which actually shipped before OS X). In 2003, Apple set its sights on the server room and data center by introducing the Xserve, its first rackmount system designed for use in enterprise environments. Ultimately, Apple altered its approach to the enterprise and discontinued the Xserve with a focus on selling products not to IT departments, but to end users and making certain that its products can interoperate with little or no effort in major enterprise systems.

The iTunes Store (and App Store and iBookstore) (2003): The iTunes Store was significant for Apple in many ways and was the vehicle through which Apple transformed the music industry and established the dominance of the iPod. The iTunes Store has repeatedly been expanded, first to sell movies and TV shows, and later to sell iOS apps, ebooks and Mac software. In the process, Apple has revolutionized how we look for and purchase digital content and applications for both mobile devices and desktops. It's a model that's been replicated by virtually every major tech company, including Google, Amazon, Samsung, BlackBerry and Microsoft.

The switch to Intel (2006): In 2006, Steve Jobs introduced first Intel Macs. During the course of that year, Apple transitioned its entire Mac product line to Intel processors, an astounding feat for any company. The transition was generally smooth, thanks in part to a PowerPC to Intel translation feature called Rosetta that allowed users to run their old PowerPC apps on new Intel Macs. One major advantage of the switch was the ability to run Windows and Windows apps on a Mac using either Apple's Boot Camp dual-boot feature or virtualization tools from Parallels and VMWare.

MacBook Air (2008): The MacBook Air remains one of Apple's most popular Macs of all time. The sleek notebook delivers incredible portability and battery life and is partly responsible for the creation of ultrabook PC laptops. In designing the MacBook Air, Apple jettisoned many traditional components, including an optical drive and a built-in Ethernet port (though the company provided USB versions of both). The company also embraced flash storage and developed its own battery design, moves that it later followed with other MacBook models.

Mobility brings more diversification (2007-2010): In 2007, the now-iconic iPhone revolutionized the smartphone market, upending the relationship between hardware makers and wireless carriers. Three years later, Jobs introduced the first iPad, and one again scrambled the moribund tablet market. Though both the iPhone and iPad are offshoots from the Mac, they are as important -- if not more so -- to the company's bottom line now than the company's traditional Mac line-up. They also mark a continuation of the company's digital hub strategy, since iCloud allows for the sharing of digital content across both mobile and desktop hardware.

The new Mac Pro (right) compared to the old version (left).

The new Mac Pro (2013): At the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple execs unveiled the new, completely revamped Mac Pro, a small, black, cylindrical desktop machine that makes a sharp break with earlier models. The Mac Pro, which actually went on sale in December and starts at $2999, is aimed squarely at Mac professionals who need the latest, fastest hardware available. It's already proved so popular that delivery dates have been pushed back into March 2014.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at and follow him on Twitter ( @ryanfaas).

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Tags AppleMac OS Xhardware systemsdesktop pcsMacintoshMac desktops

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