The Mac still influences, 30 years later

Shown in January 1984, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who was CEO, and John Sculley, who was president, present the company's new Macintosh desktop computer in Cupertino, Calif.

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.

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.