How Mac Changed the World

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The Macintosh computer has never lacked for enthusiasts ready to paint the machine with cosmic significance. More than any other personal computer, the Mac comes wrapped in hype, most of it directly traceable to Steven Jobs, former chairman of Apple. He loved to tell his designers that the computer they were building -- with its icons, its pull-down menus and its mouse -- would not only change the world, but also "put a dent in the universe." As if to hammer his point home to the rest of America, Jobs launched the new machine in January 1984 with the famously melodramatic commercial -- aired just once, during the Super Bowl -- in which a woman clad in a Mac T shirt smashed a screen image meant to represent the brain-dead PCs of archrival IBM, the Big Brother of computing.

The heavy-handed marketing campaign, as any business-school student can testify, worked for a while and then backfired. After an initial spurt of sales, word got out that the radical new machine was annoyingly underpowered and grossly overpriced -- a yuppie toy. Although Apple eventually solved most of the computer's problems, IBM compatibles still dominate the personal- computer business. The Macintosh today remains stuck in a niche, with a market share that hovers around 10%.

But a look at the information landscape 10 years after the launch suggests that the Macintosh may turn out to be almost as important as Jobs promised. Not only have the icons and pointing devices pioneered by Apple become ubiquitous -- both on rival computers and on new vehicles being designed to navigate the emerging information highways -- but the Mac has also played a key role in making society comfortable with the central technology of the age.

"Macintosh was the crucial step, the turning point," writes Steven Levy in a new book, Insanely Great (Viking; $20.95), published to commemorate the machine's 10th anniversary. (The title comes from Jobs' typically hyperbolic claim for how great the Mac would be.) Levy, the author of Hackers and a columnist for Macworld magazine, believes the Mac set in motion a subtle intellectual process that is changing the way people think about information and, ultimately, thought itself. "In terms of our relationship with information," he writes, "Macintosh changed everything."

That overstates the case, but there's something to what Levy says. The crux of his argument is that the Mac moved computer users into the realm of metaphor. By making the internal workings of a machine as cozy as a living room, the Macintosh allowed people to feel at ease in cyberspace, that "ephemeral territory perched on the lip of math and firmament," as Levy describes it, or, more simply, "the place where my information lives."

The central metaphor of the Mac is the desktop. Like a typical office, the Macintosh screen is filled with folders, documents and stacks of paper. There is even a trash can for throwing things away. Rather than having to memorize ^ abstract commands like A: INSTALL, Macintosh users simply point and click.

Buttressing the desktop are dozens of subsidiary metaphors. Overlapping windows let users peer into different areas within the computer without having to stop what they are doing. Pull-down menus drop like window shades from the top of the screen, eliminating the need to look up commands in a manual. Elevator bars scroll long documents up and down; buttons and toggle switches pop up when there is a decision to be made.

On the Macintosh, the medium is the metaphor, and users begin to think not in words but in symbols. Paint programs come equipped with electronic pencils, paint buckets, spray cans and erasers. Desktop-publishing programs come with electronic scissors and pasteboards. Photographs are processed in electronic darkrooms; digital movies are spliced in electronic videotape editors.

These ideas, of course, did not spring fully formed from the mind of Jobs. Any good Mac historian will trace the machine's ancestry to Vannevar Bush (a White House science adviser who was dreaming about electronic desktops in 1945), Douglas Engelbart (who invented windows and the mouse) and Alan Kay's team at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in California (which put the ideas to work in a language called Smalltalk and a machine called the Alto). Levy re-creates in vivid detail the December 1979 "daylight raid," when the scrappy engineers from Apple, invited to see the Alto, walked into a Xerox demo room and walked out with something more valuable than Federal Reserve notes or gold bullion: a working paradigm for what a computer should be.

It's clear, however, that Apple significantly improved on Xerox's work. In Smalltalk, for example, all commands are executed through pop-up menus. On the Mac, users can reach right into cyberspace and manipulate documents directly, grabbing a file with a mouse, dragging it across the screen and dropping it into a folder or trash can. Much of the genius of the Mac -- its look and feel -- is in the accumulation of such details: the pinstripes across the top of a window; the gray tint in the scroll bar; the way an icon zooms to fill the screen when a new program is opened.

Despite all this, the Macintosh almost didn't survive. Even worse than its initial hardware problems was the sneering contempt of "power users," reared on IBM machines, who made it clear to anybody who asked that real men didn't use mice. Ironically, Microsoft's Bill Gates, whose company owned the operating system at the heart of the IBM-PC, was plotting all the while to shift the entire market to the Mac way of doing things. Today, two-thirds of the computers that use Apple's desktop metaphor are made by the company's competitors.

There is more to a computer than its metaphor, of course. Charles Piller, author of The Fail-Safe Society, argues that it was the PC itself, not the so- called user interface, that drove the computer revolution. "The automobile altered society in fundamental ways," says Piller. "The automatic transmission did not." But it is not always clear where metaphor ends and reality begins. Linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggest in Metaphors We Live By that when people accept a metaphor like "argument is war," with such attendant expressions as "attack a position" and "indefensible," it actually changes how they argue -- and how they think.

As the information highway grows and driving gets more complicated, people may find themselves relying more and more on their metaphors. The Macintosh interface has already been adapted by such network services as CompuServe and America Online (on which sending a message is like posting a note on a bulletin board). A similar Mac-like program called Mosaic is making the vast resources of the Internet increasingly accessible.

Meanwhile, ever more powerful metaphors are being designed to smooth over the complexities of 500-channel TV, interactive video and other new media. General Magic, designing software for the new generation of pocket-size computers, draws on the metaphor of a street lined with buildings. Apple, in the design of its new online service, uses a village. Time Warner, for its video Full Service Network, is building an electronic shopping mall.

Someday, virtual-reality technology may enable people to put the screen icons behind them and step directly into the metaphor. In the future, says Levy, "we will cross the line between substance and cyberspace with increasing frequency, and think nothing of it." That's what Jobs would call a dent in the universe.