24 milestones in the Mac's 30-year history

A look back at the high points -- and some low ones -- in the evolution of the Mac since 1984

old mac
Jason Snell

Today, it's easy to take the Mac for granted. The whole platform, along with Apple itself, has been reinvented time and again as the tech world has changed, and at the ripe young age of 30 it shows little sign of going away. But there were many times over the past three decades when the Mac's future, and Apple's, was far from certain.

Apple marked the anniversary by posting a lengthy and visually rich timeline on its website. And it even highlighted the date on its home page.

apple at 30 Apple

Apple marked the Mac's 30th anniversary on its home page.

Here are some of the most important milestones -- and some of the serious missteps -- in the Mac's 30-year history.

Original Mac introduction (1984): When Steve Jobs unveiled the original Mac on Jan. 24, 1984, he introduced the world to a new type of computing experience. Although GUI systems, including the Apple Lisa, had already been developed, the Mac was the first such system to be unveiled to the general public. Until then, such computers had largely been developed as experimental prototypes at labs like Xerox PARC or pitched to specific markets, often with a significant price tag. (The Apple Lisa originally sold for $9,995 -- in 1984 dollars.)

Note: Hardware teardown expert iFixit marked today's anniversary by tearing down an original Mac.

Test-drive a Mac program: Despite the innovation the Mac represented compared to other common personal computers of the early 1980s -- the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the IBM PC, for instance -- consumers were wary of the new system because it was priced higher than many of its early competitors. In an effort to show off the value of the Mac and its GUI, Apple CEO John Scully devised a program where potential buyers could borrow a Mac for a few days, take it home and test-drive it. While the program helped raise awareness about the Mac experience, it didn't succeed in jump-starting sales. Many would-be Mac buyers praised the computer when returning it -- then bought something less expensive.

The first expandable non-all-in-one Macs, the Mac II and SE (1987): Early Macs followed the same integrated all-in-one design as the original Mac, including the limited screen size and lack of upgrade or expansion options. Apple broke with that trend in 1987 when it launched the Mac II, the first Mac to use an external display, and the all-in-one Mac SE. Together, they were the first Macs that could be upgraded with additional RAM or expansion cards that could extend the hardware feature set.

Mac user base reaches 1 million (1987): Three years after the Mac's rollout, the number of Macs in use worldwide topped 1 million.

Diversification gone awry (1987-97): The Mac II may have been the first major departure from the original Mac design, but it was far from the last. During the decade that followed, Apple released an incredible number of models, eventually creating multiple product lines for a range of different markets. The Quadra line was for business, the Performa family was for home users, and LC line was aimed primarily at schools. Despite the different markets and occasionally different case designs, many of the Macs shared similar, if not identical, hardware regardless of name or model number. Things got even more confusing when Apple began selling Macs with model numbers in each line that differed only in the software that came pre-installed on them. The diversification became so pervasive that, at one point, Apple provided poster-size product matrices to Mac resellers just so they could keep the lineup straight.

The PowerBook 100 (1991): Apple's first attempt at a laptop was a miserable luggable computer called the Mac Portable that weighed 16 lbs. and was the antithesis of today's sleek MacBooks. Following the Portable's dismal launch, the company retooled and developed the PowerBook 100, which featured the now-iconic clamshell design of modern notebook computers with a pointing device (in those days a trackball) positioned between two built-in wrist rests. Several models followed, diversifying across price points and features. Apple eventually broke out some models with different designs to create the PowerBook Duo and PowerBook 500 series.

powerbook 100 Game Gavel

The PowerBook 100 opened the door for future, sleeker Apple laptops.

The PowerBook Duo (1992): The PowerBook 200 (a.k.a. the PowerBook Duo) was an early precursor to today's MacBook Air and ultrabook systems. It was the thinnest and lightest notebook computer on the market when it arrived. Apple shaved weight and space from the design by eliminating many components and ports, including floppy or optical drives, support for external drives of any kind, any type of display connector, and the ADB port used for Apple keyboards of the time. The only ports included were a single serial port for connecting to printers and other peripherals and a proprietary docking port. (An internal modem was an option, as well). When Duo users wanted access to other ports, they relied on an optional docking station called the Duo Dock -- a device that resembled a cross between a desktop Mac and a VCR. When a Duo was inserted into a Duo Dock, it could act as a desktop Mac with a full set of ports and other components. The PowerBook Duo line continued for several years and was, in many ways, ahead of its time. After canceling the Duo, Apple released a minimalist notebook in 1997 called the PowerBook 2400 and, of course, in 2008 the stunningly sleek and popular MacBook Air.

The first Power Macs (1993): Macs sold in the 1980s through the mid-1990s relied on Motorola's 680x0 processor family. In the early 1990s, Apple, Motorola and IBM teamed up to develop a new line of more powerful and modern processor designs that became known as PowerPC processors. Working together, the trio hoped to rival Intel and AMD in the PC market. Apple launched the new processors in a series of Power Macs across its various Mac lines. In transitioning to the newer processors, Apple needed to ensure backward compatibility with software -- including many parts of the Mac operating system -- written for the earlier models. The process wasn't entirely smooth, and it took several years to complete the transition, but it was ultimately successful. Apple's experience with that transition almost certainly came in helpful in two later transitions -- the launch of Mac OS X in 2000 and the switch to Intel processors in 2006.

The Copland fiasco (1994-96): Along with ensuring modern processors for Macs, Apple faced a challenge in creating a modern version of the Mac OS. Through the 1990s, Mac OS continued to run on a kernel and architecture designed for the original Mac. That operating system received major updates and revisions, of course, but there were core computing capabilities in areas like memory management, multitasking and isolating processes so a single app crash wouldn't bring down the entire system. Those features couldn't be added without a major overhaul. Apple made a serious attempt to develop a modern Mac operating system under the code name Copland (intended to be shipped as Mac OS 8) that dealt with those issues, but the project spiraled out of control. Work was eventually halted, though some facets of its interface design and user-centric features were introduced in later Mac OS versions.

The Mac clones (1995-98): As Microsoft began to dominate the personal and business computing markets, it did so by licensing Windows and other software to many third-party manufacturers. Under pressure, Apple attempted to license the Mac OS under the belief that Mac clones would target markets outside of Apple's core customer base (education and design) and expand the platform's market share. Things didn't work out as planned, and many clones began cannibalizing Apple's own sales. When Steve Jobs returned as Apple's "interim" CEO in 1997, he quickly canceled the clone licensing deals. To do that, Apple had to work around a clause in the agreements that gave clone makers access to all versions of Mac OS 7 up to Mac OS 8.

Be vs. NeXT (1996-97): Following the failure to develop a modern operating system for the Mac in-house, Apple went searching for a company that had already created a similar OS, one that could be used as the underpinning for the Mac interface, user experience and software. In 1996, Apple had two options: NeXT, the academic-focused computer company that Jobs launched after being forced out of Apple in 1985, and Be, a company founded by onetime Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee. At one point, Be looked like the option Apple would select, but during negotiations over the terms of a deal with Be, Apple unexpectedly announced its intention to acquire NeXT instead. That decision allowed Steve Jobs to return to the company and within months be installed as interim CEO after Apple's board fired then-CEO Gil Amelio.

The Power Mac G3 (1997): The Power Mac G3 was the first Mac to use the PowerPC G3 processor designed specifically for Mac OS. The model also stands out because it was the first Mac released under a new strategy that eliminated the confusion of the 1990s by breaking the Mac lineup into just four categories -- professional desktop, consumer desktop, professional notebook and consumer notebook. With minor exceptions like the Power Mac G4 Cube, Apple remained true to that strategy for several years and was successful with it.

Rhapsody and blue and yellow boxes: Figuring out how to integrate NeXT's Unix-based operating system with the aging Mac OS was a complicated process, largely because it required more than just grafting a Mac interface onto NeXT's foundations. Apple also needed to provide a way to run older Mac apps in the new OS and to provide developers a road map and the tools needed to migrate their code. The initial strategy was called Rhapsody and involved two independent user environments running next to each other, known as the blue box and the yellow box, that users would switch between. The blue box was conceived as an updated version of the old Mac OS along with its familiar interface; the yellow box represented the new operating system along with all its modern computing underpinnings. Rhapsody never became a product as originally envisioned, but the blue box concept did find its way into OS X in the form of the Classic environment that could be used to run Mac apps that hadn't been updated for Mac OS X.

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