Looking back on 40 years of Macintosh

Looking back on 40 years of Macintosh

The Apple we know today is far removed from the one that built the first Macintosh computer that Steve Jobs showed off in a very silly presentation on January 24th, 1984. It’s been the most valuable company in the world for most of the last decade. It has a global, carefully curated supply chain, retail stores around the world, and near-constant legal and regulatory trouble. And its main hardware driver is a phone.

40 years of Macintosh :

But Apple still makes the Macintosh, and some would say that we’re living in a new golden age for the machines. They’re faster than ever and as sleek as any made during Jony Ive’s time going ham on the company’s industrial design, but they’re also useful in a way they haven’t been since MacBooks started abandoning all but the USB-C ports in 2015.

The Macintosh line has had plenty of fantastic computers over the years, and just about all of them have at least a small and loyal group of fans (even the lowly Performa 550, aka the first computer I ever owned). But there are plenty, too, that have left an indelible mark on the computer world and even society at large. The iPhone might be Apple’s bread and butter these days, but its 15-plus years of being a flat thing with a screen has nowhere near as many ups and downs as the last 40 years of the Mac.

1984 – 1997: From revolution to stagnation

Apple’s first few years of Macintoshes didn’t take root in every home, but they did leave a big impact on the world: They kicked off the desktop publishing revolution, thanks to their introduction of the computer mouse and software like Aldus PageMaker

The peak of these beige all-in-ones with black-and-white screens was the Macintosh SE/30 in 1989. It looked a lot like the first Mac, but it was faster, could be equipped with an internal hard drive, and it allowed up to 32MB of RAM (though you could ultimately cram in 128MB). Just about every part of it was open and upgradeable, including the CPU.

Apple computers in the 1990s didn’t make the same splash. In fact, the company was facing bankruptcy by the time Steve Jobs returned to it in late 1996, thanks to a run of computers that were less capable than competing PCs and just as plain to look at. But the company still made moves that set the course for modern computers, especially when it came to the laptop. The PowerBook 100 in 1991 set the standard for laptop design when it moved the keyboard back from the front edge and stuck a mouse input in the palm rest area (in this case, a trackball). Practically every laptop since has followed that style.

1998 – 2019: The Mac’s heyday (and mayday)

You’re not stretching things if you say there would be no modern-day Apple without the iMac — it saved the company with its transparent plastic exterior and friendly face, and it came with USB ports, a first for Macintosh computers. Also, Jeff Goldblum kept telling us to buy it.

For years afterward, Apple products took an approachable plastic design. This age saw the release of the white MacBook, the first iPod, and what I won’t hesitate to call Apple’s coolest computer design, the iMac G4. This era of Apple design also clearly inspired other products, like the clear blue plastic George Foreman iGrill.

Ten years after the original iMac, Steve Jobs pulled the first MacBook Air out of a manila package and Macs in general became Serious Business. Apple abandoned plastic and began to push the bounds of the congenial minimalism of Macs to an uncomfortable degree.

The MacBook Air’s surprising thinness came at the cost of port choices, but its portability made the tradeoff worth it. But it turns out, those qualities were… portentous of things to come, as the ultra-slim MacBook Pro models from 2016 to 2019 dropped everything but USB-C — even MagSafe.

Apple’s compression obsession also hit Mac computers. The iMac during this time was cleverly designed and pretty, though in a rigid way that was everything the original iMac wasn’t. Its back tapered to a convincing lie of an edge that was only 5mm thick, giving the appearance of impossible thinness, and the models from 2014 to 2020 had gorgeous, sharp 5K retina displays. It may have been a little awkward, but like the MacBook Air, it seemed to have a place.

But Apple pushed the limits with the 2013 Mac Pro, also known as the “trashcan Mac.” It was an amazing feat of artistic design and engineering, but it was also kind of a mess. The new Pro’s compactness, it turns out, made it incompatible with the entire direction of the GPU market, leaving a whole section of Mac fans who wanted modularity nowhere else to turn. At the same time, it was too expensive for anyone else.

2020 – Now: The Mac is back

Nobody expected the MacBook Air that came out in 2020 to be so good. Packed into the same chassis as the last Intel model, it now had an M1 chip, Apple’s new breed of super-efficient ARM processors. Its CPU performance was, unbelievably, faster than even the best Intel chip in the 16-inch 2019 MacBook Pro, and the battery felt like it could go all day long.

The next year, Apple put the same chip in a totally remade iMac that, for the first time since 2001, came in colors. Seven of them! It came with a 24-inch, 4.5K retina display, a new Magic Keyboard with a Touch ID sensor, but just two Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports (plus two more regular USB-C ports if you upgraded).

Since then, Apple Silicon chips have come to every part of the Apple line, sticking them in MacBook Pro models, the Mac Mini, the new Mac Studio (the Mini’s chunky and powerful big brother), and even the Mac Pro. The company also brought ports back in a big way, endowing its 14- and- 16-inch Pro models with HDMI, SD Card, and even MagSafe, which was taken away during the dark times. Apple also offered a MacBook Air in 2022 with MagSafe.

There are so many more iconic Macs than I’ve listed above — computers like the titanium PowerBook G4 (the “TiBook”) or the colorful clamshell iBook. There’s the original aluminum-enclosed Mac Pro (the “cheese grater”) and a whole slew of non-Apple Macs from the ‘90s. All of them have their fans, and many also have their downsides — whether it’s the chipping paint and fragile hinges of the so-called TiBook or the compact but woefully underpowered 2015 12-inch MacBook, with its single USB-C port.

Today, Apple seems to have finally learned some important lessons. As much as people might love the premium, high-concept look and feel of Apple’s computers, many — if not most — of their fans shell out the extra money because they plan to use them, often for many years. If Macs aren’t useful, there’s no reason to buy them. Thankfully, the reuptake of ports on computers aimed at professionals, keyboards that don’t seem to break from using them, and three revisions of the Mac Pro in five years leave the impression that Apple is again ready to meet its users a little closer to where they are.

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