It was thirty years ago today that Sergeant Jobs taught the band to play. Sergeant Jobs together with Privates Smith, Atkinson, Kawasaki, Crow, Espinosa and the rest of the Apple Macintosh team, not to mention all those back at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and the crew at Stanford who had built the first computer mouse, and back before them, of course, all the geniuses in a line back from Steve Wozniak and Gordon Moore to the original pioneers like Von Neumann and the great Alan Turing.
I like to claim that I bought the second Macintosh computer ever sold in Europe in that January, 30 years ago. My friend and hero Douglas Adams was in the queue ahead of me. For all I know someone somewhere had bought one ten minutes earlier, but these were the first two that the only shop selling them in London had in stock on the 24th January 1984, so I’m sticking to my story.
I didn’t see Ridley Scott’s legendary Macintosh commercial until it crept onto English television screens way past its dramatic Superbowl debut, but it has become as much a part of the story of Macintosh’s arrival as the subsequent sacking of Steve Jobs by Apple President John Sculley, the man Jobs had brought in to put Apple into the kind of fighting shape that could make it go head to head with the great enemy: Big Blue, IBM. Steve Jobs saw many things but he did not see that it was the business manoeuvrings and manipulations of Bill Gates in buying for $50,000 an operating system called QDOS that would outsmart Apple and IBM and see Microsoft take over the 80s and 90s as the great giant and cause Bill Gates and his MS partner Paul Allen to be rated the richest men in the world. IBM isn’t even in the PC business anymore. They sold that out to the Chinese company Levono. That was how complete Gates’s victory was.
QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) was renamed by Gates MSDOS (Microsoft Disc Operating System) and he licensed it to IBM who sorely needed a new OS, for its original operating system CP/M and its creator had, not to put too fine a point on it, cracked. Crucially, Gates insisted that he could licence his MSDOS not just to IBM but to other computer manufacturers and plumb spang into that trap IBM fell. They had thought the money was in the box, not in the OS.
The Macintosh on the other hand was a revolution. Yes, it took the best bits of many people’s other ideas, just as the Model T Ford and Spitfire did, but it was the first home consumer or small office computer with a graphical user interface or GUI and that had to be the way forward, unless you were a cretin. Your screen was a white representation of a virtual desk, office icons and wastepaper basket (or trashcan if you prefer) included. There were folders, windows, pull down menus, all of which could be operated and manipulated, not by keyboard commands but by this mystical magical mouse, a rolling pointing clicking device that completely altered the way you related to everything you did on your computer.
The first Macintosh had a monochrome display, the footprint of an A4 piece of paper, offered 128K of RAM and a single disk slot, a new kind of a square stiff disk, not like the black cardboard floppies still being used in IBM and the new wave of IBM compatible machines that were exploiting Gates’s licensing deal with IBM and running MSDOS on their machines, which whether IBM or not, relied on a phosphorous glow of green or orange text and the keyboard for inputting instructions.
The difference was astounding, and the refusal of corporate Systems Analysts to see that Macintosh was the way forward absolutely baffled me. I wasn’t married to Steve Jobs. I had no shares in Apple. I just couldn’t understand why people would sweat away at an ugly, inefficient, head-ache inducing monster like an ICM PC when they could be writing books, publishing them even (by the end of the year the Apple LaserPrinter came out opening up the world of Desk Top Publishing) and enjoying it. Yes, having fun and working at the same time.But it was not to be, we were sneered at, derided, told our devices were toys for people with too much money and not enough business sense. WIMPs (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) PC users gleefully told me over the years, were for wimps.