updated 08:00 pm EST, Thu January 24, 2013
Rare look back from forward-thinking, revolutionary company
Seven years ago, at the MacWorld conference in January of 2006, Steve Jobs stunned his audience by taking a few seconds at the end of the keynote to comment on the fact that Apple would be turning 30 years old on April 1 that year. It was a very rare look back from a man who prided himself on his vision going forward, who eschewed museums and awards and other such remembrances. Tim Cook yesterday noted that today is the 29th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh in a similarly brief way.
The Mac is the longest-running product brand name in the entire history of personal computers, and although Apple may be leading the charge to kill off the PC industry as we know it -- Cook acknowledged that Apple's own iPad and tablets like it were eating into the sales of portable and desktop computers, including the Mac -- the acknowledgement of the anniversary was another rare note of celebration of what Apple has accomplished in what has been a relatively brief period of tumultuous change.
The personal computer industry -- which had itself been kickstarted by Apple with it's Apple I and II computers -- was still in its nascent stages when Jobs and a skunkworks team staged the first of many complete reinventions within the company by undermining Apple's flagship products at the time with something very new and different, taking the best of what had been done to that point and recasting it in a new image. The Macintosh was introduced on January 24, 1984 at a shareholder meeting in San Francisco, and wowed the audience by doing things no consumer computer had ever been seen doing: playing full polyphonic music, scrolling text, utilizing a mouse, showing off fonts and typography and drawing programs, and last but not least speaking.
Today, such abilities are so routine we can do almost all of them using the smartphone in our pocket. The paradigms introduced by the Mac -- not all of which were invented by Apple, but most of them brought into the mainstream consciousness by Jobs -- are commonplace in all computing devices today, and then as now Apple was seen to be setting the standard that other companies would follow.
Cook has said on several occasions that the tablet market will likely surpass the PC market over time, and indeed that is already starting to happen. The iPad, along with the MacBook Air, have already effectively killed off the netbook (once publicly lambasted by Jobs as a computer that "isn't good at anything"), has broken the stranglehold of IT departments on their workers, and has taken off with mainstream consumers who have always felt that personal computers were needlessly complex and intimidating for the generations who grew up before they became ubiquitous.
Jobs himself, once asked what he would do if he returned to Apple (just months before he did), famously said he would "milk the Macintosh for all it's worth -- and get busy on the next great thing." The iMac -- a complete reinvention of the Mac -- was the first step, and ironically took the company from the edge of bankruptcy to heights it had not seen since the days when it had the personal computing market all to itself. Apple has periodically reinvented the iMac's look, but the fundamental concept -- hide the computer and leave the user with only a large, beautiful screen -- unifies the line from the first one to the present day.
Interestingly, many of the goals Jobs was most keen on accomplishing with the original Macintosh -- lightweight, portable, easy networked, silent operation, advanced graphic processing, multimedia, intuitive operation -- are the same goals driving the design of Apple's Mac lines today. Meanwhile, as we head towards the Mac's 30th anniversary next year, Apple is "getting busy on the next great thing" -- a rumored reinvention of televisions, a subtle revolution in textbooks and e-publishing, popularizing the cloud, and polishing the iPad among other ideas.
These concepts, particularly when working in tandem, have already changed the way we interact with technology and promise to continue that revolution. As long as there are industries that need disrupting, Apple is likely to never run out of fresh ideas for reinventing and redefining technology into "insanely great" products.