Impact of Mac through the years

From the start, Apple's Macintosh shattered conventional notions of what a computer should be.

In a 1984 Super Bowl commercial still considered one of the best ads ever, an athlete tries to save humanity from conformity. The ad, which aired 30 years ago last week, alluded to Big Brother from George Orwell's "1984" and was seen as a dig at Apple's main rival at the time, IBM. The Mac, the ad implied, would save people from a computing future dominated by IBM.

Apple's Macs never succeeded in toppling IBM's PCs. But Macs did make a lasting impact. By 1995, Windows PCs came to look much like Macs. Apple would release several other notable Macs:

Apple's first laptop, the Macintosh Portable, came out in 1989. The machine itself wasn't noteworthy, but it would lead Apple on a path of making devices for use on the go, culminating with iPhones and iPads.

Do computers have to look boring? Not according to the late Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder. In 1998, Apple came out with its first iMac. PCs at the time were typically housed in beige boxes. The first iMacs looked more like TVs and came in a variety of colors. The iMacs were also famous for ditching floppy drives in favor of CDs and incorporating USB ports - now standard in computers.

The iBook G3 in 1999 was among the first laptops with a Wi-Fi card. It was so new that Jobs used a hula-hoop to show he was surfing the Web without any wires.

The Power Mac G4 Cube in 2000 was praised for its design, even though it didn't sell well. The computer fit into a cube measuring 7 inches on each side. It's now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 2008, Apple started selling the MacBook Air, notable for being thin and light. In introducing it, Jobs stuffed one into a manila envelope.

Last month, Apple rolled out its newest Mac. Aimed at professionals, the Mac Pro has more power than most consumers would need, squeezed into a cylinder-shaped case that's about one-eighth the volume of the previous model. It starts at 12 gigabytes, or about 90,000 times more than the original.

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Look around. Many gadgets you see drew inspiration from the original Mac computer.

Computers at the time typically required people to type in commands. Once the Mac came out 30 years ago, people could instead navigate with a graphical user interface. Available options were organized into menus. People clicked icons to run programs and could drag and drop files.

The Mac introduced real-world metaphors such as using a trash can to delete files. It brought us fonts and other tools once limited to professional printers. Most importantly, it made computing and publishing easy enough for everyday people to use.

Apple sparked a revolution in computing with the Mac. And that sparked a revolution in publishing as people began creating newsletters and brochures from their desktops.

These concepts are so fundamental today that it's hard to imagine when they existed only in research labs, primarily Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in California. Apple co-found-er Steve Jobs and his team got much of its inspiration from PARC, which they visited while designing the Mac.

The Mac has had "incredible influence on pretty much everybody's lives all over the world since computers are now so ubiquitous." says Brad Myers of Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

Apple didn't invent these tools, nor was the Mac the first to use them. Xerox Corp. sold its own mouse-based Star computer, and Apple's Lisa beat the Mac by months.But the Mac prevailed and thus influenced generations of gadgets.

Complete departure

The Mac owes much of its success to the way Apple engineers adapted those pioneering concepts. For instance, Xerox Corp. used a three-button mouse in its Alto prototype compu-ter. Apple settled on one, letting people keep their eyes on the screen.

While Lisa had those improvements first, it cost about $10,000. The Mac was a "low" $2,495 when it came out on Jan. 24, 1984.

Apple insisted on uniformity, so copying and pasting text and deleting files would work the same way from one application to another. That made it easier to learn a new program.

And Apple put a premium on design. Early Macs showed a happy face when they started up. Icons and win- dows had rounded corners. Such details made computers seem friendlier and easier to use, Myers says.

One of the first applications enabled by the Mac's interface was desktop publishing. Early computers generated text the way a typewriter would, character by character, a line at a time. The Mac was one of the first to approach displays like a TV: Text gets incorporated into a graphic that the computer projects on the screen pixel by pixel.

With those tools, would-be publishers could change fonts, adjust typeface sizes and add attributes such as italics. They could mix images with text. Anyone could design and print newsletters on a Mac.

Of course, the Mac's success was never guaranteed. Initially, many people "thought it was a waste of time and a gimmick," says Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

The original Mac had little memory and a small screen, and it lacked a hard drive. Although the Mac's processor was fast for its time, much of that power went to the graphical interface instead of tasks common for research and commerce.

But initial sales were lukewarm. For years, it was mostly a niche product for publishers, educators and graphics artists. Corporate users stuck with IBM and its clones, especially as Microsoft's Windows operating system grew to look like Mac's software.

Now the world's most valuable company, Apple Inc. nearly died in the 1990s as its market share dwindled. After a 12-year exile from Apple, Jobs returned in 1997 to rescue and head the company. A year later, he introduced the iMac, a desktop computer with shapes and colors that departed from beige Windows boxes at the time.

Then came the iPod music player in 2001, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad tablet in 2010. They weren't Macs, but shared the Mac's knack for ease of use. Elements such as tapping on icons to open apps have roots in the Mac. The popularity of these devices drove many Windows users to buy Macs.

The Mac has aged to the point that it's starting to draw inspiration from iPhones and iPads. Several Mac apps have been refined to look and work more like mobile versions.

Yet without the Mac, we may never have had the iPhone or the iPad, and phones might do little more than make calls and send email.