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Thirty years of Macintosh

Digital house cleaning on its own and more
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Bit Depth
Three decades ago, Steve Jobs introduced an underpowered computer with a hitherto unknown graphical user interface to the public. Nothing has been the same since then.

I wasn’t there from the start, I have to admit. I wasn’t even paying attention, really, to the announcement of the new computer by Apple that was causing such a fuss in the US.


I’d seen the Apple II, and it didn’t excite me much. 


A colourful screen of coarse dots didn’t seem like much of an improvement over a green screen of coarse dots.


So it wasn’t until I was doing a photography coaching session at the Guardian in 1989 that I saw what was up. 


The ah-ha moment came when I saw Michael Haynes, then a management trainee assigned to getting the fussy IIsi and Mac II systems up and running, remove a blemish on a photograph with two clicks of a mouse.


It’s hard for modern users to imagine just what an astonishing thing that was, but that single moment led me to work with the paper for two years, as much to guide the photographic department as it was to sneak downstairs to study these new computers.


I’ve since lost count of how many Macs I’ve owned.


Along the way, I’ve shed the snobbery that was part of being an early Mac user, quit a brief side career as a repair person for the systems and now move data back and forth between an Android phone, a Windows tablet and a MacBook and MacPro server.­­­­­



In some ways, Macs are far less interesting now than they were back in 1992, when I’d do madness like restore a single file from a Retrospect backup and end up with a hard drive wiped clean except for that one file.


Now, Macintosh systems just work, for weeks, even months at a time. For most users with a Mac portable, there’s no need to shut down and the system can run web and office productivity software for years on end.


The UNIX-based engine that powers the modern Mac OS does most of the digital house cleaning on its own without user intervention, and the permissions-based system makes it almost impossible for even the most arbitrarily curious user to inadvertently wreck the software.


I’ll be honest here. Using a Mac today is actually somewhat boring.


Early Mac systems had the type of ornery character that makes character actors in Westerns so much fun to watch. My first Mac Classic was a nippy but underpowered little runt of a computer, constantly over-reaching itself. 


The Mac IIci, one of the best machines of the early era, was a packhorse of a thing, a stolid box that accepted all the expansion boards that I cheerfully sourced and stuffed into it. There were NuBus cards for this, SCSI interface cards for that and the accelerator cards that strapped a rocket onto the back of the squat mule of a Mac and blasted it off on a new round of adventures.


Mac users would sneer at Windows users trying to connect devices to their systems, but those had to be people who hadn’t had serial devices run out of power, SCSI drives immersed in civil-war-scale conflict and struggled to configure pinout connectors to make off-brand displays work.


But through all of that, and the insanity of extension conflicts and doing the math to increase application memory allocations and RAMDoubler and OptiMem, and all the software sleight of hand designed to make underpowered hardware marginally more capable, there was an enormous sense of fun and community that’s been leached out of being a Mac user.


If you were travelling and met someone with a Mac trying to squeeze a few more minutes out of their dying system by dimming the screen almost to pure black, you’d exchange a knowing nod.


Now it’s just another hip Apple product in a line of products that’s become ubiquitous.


Read an expanded version of this column online here: (


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