The Mac turns 40 — and keeps on moving

Twenty years ago, on the Mac’s 20th anniversary, I asked Steve Jobs if the Mac would still be important to Apple in the age of the iPod. He scoffed at the thought of the Mac not being important: “of course” it would be.

Yet, 10 years later, Apple’s revenue was increasingly dominated by the iPhone, and the recent success of the new iPad had given another banner product for the company. When I met Apple exec Phil Schiller for the Mac’s 30th anniversary, I found myself asking him about the Mac’s relevance, too. He also scoffed: “Our view is, the Mac keeps going forever,” he said.

The Mac turns 40 :

Today marks 40 years since Jobs introduced the original Macintosh at an event in Cupertino, and it once again feels right to ask what’s next for the Mac.

Next week, Apple will share financial results that will reinforce that Mac sales are among the best they’ve been in the product’s history. Then, a day later, Apple will release a new device, the Vision Pro, that will join the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch in an ever-expanding range of which the Mac is only one small part.

As the Mac turns 40, it’s never been more successful — or more unimportant to Apple’s bottom line. It’s experienced massive changes in the past few years that ensure its survival but also lash it to a hardware design process dominated by the iPhone. Being middle-aged can be difficult.

Mac against the wall

Mac users — and I’ve been one of them for 34 of those 40 years — have been on the defensive for most of the platform’s life. The original Mac cost $2,495 (equivalent to more than $7,300 today), and it had to compete with Apple’s own Apple II series, which was more affordable and wildly popular. The Mac was far from a sure thing, even at Apple: in the years after the Mac was first presented, Apple released multiple new Apple II models. (One even had a mouse and ran a version of the Mac’s Finder file manager.) It took a long time for the Mac to rise from the Apple II’s shadow.

And as revolutionary as the Mac’s interface was — it was the first popular personal computer to have a mouse-driven, menu-oriented user interface rather than a simple command line — it also had to overcome a huge amount of resistance for being such an outlier. Once Microsoft truly embraced the Mac’s interface style with Windows, it took over the world, leaving the Mac with measly market share and diminishing chances.

Apple itself was on the brink of bankruptcy when Jobs returned, shipped the original iMac, and gave the company breathing room to build Mac OS X and the iPod. And yet, the success of some of the goods that followed led to more consternation.

In the mid-2010s, a lot of Mac users felt some of those same bad vibes that we hadn’t felt since the depths of the late ’90s. Apple was promoting the iPad as the future of computing, most notably in a 2017 ad that questioned the entire idea of a computer.

Mac technology was stagnant. Apple launched an unpopular and unreliable laptop keyboard design that led to years of bad reviews, complaints, repair programs, and class action lawsuits. After the debacle of the trash can-shaped 2013 Mac Pro, Apple planned to stop making the high-end Mac at all, replacing it with a boosted-spec iMac Pro instead. Shiny new iOS features would appear limited or broken on the Mac — when they showed at all.

It felt very much like the Mac had lost its way and that Apple was putting it on life support. All signs led to Apple having declared the Mac a legacy platform, while future investment and growth would happen on the iPad.

And then something changed. Only people inside Apple know for sure, and they’re not telling, but Apple suddenly seemed to start caring about the Mac again. It held a journalist roundtable to proclaim its love of the Mac and professional users, promising that a new Mac Pro would appear years before it would actually be put on sale.

Over the next few years, that Mac Pro shipped, the laptop keyboard was replaced with a new model, and most importantly, Apple committed to converting the entire product line from running on stock Intel processors to running on Apple-designed processors like the ones in iPhones and iPads.

Without saying a word publicly, Apple seemed to be acting like it knew exactly what a computer was — and that it looked like a Mac, not an iPad.

Meet the new Mac

This week, I asked Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of global marketing, the same question I asked Jobs for the Mac’s 20th anniversary and Schiller for the Mac’s 30th: as Apple adds yet more platforms and priorities, what does the Mac’s future look like?

No surprise, Joswiak gave me pretty much the same answer: “The Mac is the foundation of Apple… and today 40 years later it remains a critical part of our business,” he said. “The Mac will always be part of Apple. It’s a product that runs deep within the company, and defines who we are.”

But Joswiak also pointed out how much the Mac has changed over that time to stay relevant, especially on the hardware front. And indeed, the last few years have brought probably the most drastic changes to the Mac’s hardware in its entire existence. By adopting Apple’s own processors, the Mac has inherited the goals Apple used in designing those chips for iPhones and iPads.

That has resulted in some huge advantages — the first M1 Macs were so much faster than their predecessors and offered vastly better power consumption that extended laptop battery life. But it’s also led to some odd distortions, such as the release of a Mac Pro that can’t use graphics cards. Modern Macs have high-speed integrated GPUs and RAM that can be very fast, indeed, but at the cost of an inability to use industry-leading external GPUs (or, for that matter, RAM improvements).

Apple Silicon also has implications for the future of macOS as a software platform. Modern Macs can run unmodified iPad apps, and iOS app developers can use the Mac Catalyst feature to add some more native Mac functionality to their existing codebase without having to know how to write a traditional Mac app. Apple’s 2014 introduction of Swift and 2019 introduction of SwiftUI have urged developers to write software for all of Apple’s platforms using one codebase.

Then-interim CEO Steve Jobs unveiling the iMac G3 in 1998. Photo by John G. Mabanglo / AFP via Getty Images

That’s great news for the Mac in the sense that developers will be able to write apps for iPhone and iPad and get Mac in the deal. But it shows the truth of today’s Apple platforms: the iPhone is such a huge part of Apple’s business that it gets the lion’s share of attention. The future of Mac apps (beyond the maintenance of existing longstanding codebases like Microsoft Office, the Adobe Creative Suite, and stalwarts like Bare Bones’ BBEdit) increasingly looks like iPhone apps expanded to the iPad and Mac to reach users in more places.

And that’s if the future of standard PC environments even involves traditional apps at all. More of the software desktop and laptop users rely on, like Slack and Discord, is built with web technologies and put in a web wrapper. Even more apps are able to reside fully in a browser. And of course, AI applications promise to upend everything we know about how we use software.

Still, given just how much technology history the Mac has survived, it’s hard to bet against it. Even Apple seems to have come around from seeing it as a product fading away into retirement to seeing it as the most powerful and full device it makes, capable of doing everything the iPad and iPhone can do, plus all the stuff traditional computers can do. After all, as Joswiak told me, “We run Apple, one of the largest companies in the world, on Mac.” Fair point.

And consider the Vision Pro, Apple’s newest computer platform. Out of the box, it’ll run iPad apps as well as native apps. But Apple’s also pushing another visionOS feature, one that required a complete rewrite of the Mac’s screen-sharing infrastructure: you can use the Vision Pro as a big Mac monitor.

It remains to be seen how well it’ll all work, but the fact remains that Apple’s shiniest new toy is… a Mac device. Not bad for a 40-year-old computer platform

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