Sunday, June 26, 2005

Who invented the Macintosh?

Posted by AmishThrasher at 11:55 am
Who 'invented' this?
As the full implications of the technology revolution become increasingly apparent, it seems a worthwhile exercise to reflect on the history of the earliest personal computers. Of particular interest is the first commercially successful GUI (Graphical User Interface) based personal computer, the Apple Macintosh. During my research for this essay, I came across several ‘technological determinist’ accounts of the development of the Macintosh, which had attempted to present an individual (for example Steve Wozniak, or Jef Raskin) as deserving single-handed praise for this important event in the ‘computer revolution’. From a cultural determinist standpoint, such accounts are somewhat misleading in that they overemphasise the importance of the individual at the expense of other, arguably more influential, socio-political, economic and cultural factors. In the example of the Macintosh, some of these factors include years of academic, government, and privately funded research and development, business / consumer demand, external competition, and business / consumer reaction.

Please note that there are several key limitations on the scope of this essay, the most notable of which are the length of the essay, and the time limitations to complete it in. To condense the subject matter of many books, covering events spanning many years, a range of key issues, and countless individuals into 3,500 words is an impossible task. Claiming otherwise would create an account that does not do justice to its subject matter, and doing so is not my intention in this essay. Rather, my intent is to create as rich an account as possible for analysis (discussing the aforementioned socio-political, economic and cultural factors) within the academic framework of cultural determinism; in contrast to other accounts based on a ‘great man of history’ technological determinist framework.


Great man of history’ accounts
A good example of a ‘great man of history’ account is Lee Butcher’s book ‘Accidental Millionaire: The Rise and Fall of Steve Jobs at Apple Computer’. Butcher’s book sets up a great man of history narrative from the very first two paragraphs of its introduction, which state that “It isn’t possible to write a meaningful biography of Steven Jobs without including Stephen Wozniak. Wozniak was the young genius who created the first Apple computer.”1 The reason why Butcher does not believe that a biography of Jobs can be written without discussing Wozniak is simple: Wozniak is the great man of history who ‘created’ Apple, and Job’s role in this ‘morality play’ narrative is as the great pretender - a villain - who falsely claims credit for what ‘great man’, Wozniak, single-handedly ‘created’. In this ‘morality play’ we see Jobs, who was “a true child of the sixties, a youngster who explored the world of mind-altering drugs, tried hippie communal life, and had an avid, if short-lived interest in alternative lifestyles and philosophies”2 . Meanwhile, our great man of history, “Unlike Jobs, ... was a ‘straight arrow’ who had a healthy distrust of drugs. He also escaped experiments with alternative lifestyles, largely because he was so involved with electronics.”3

Brian Winston was critical of such accounts, stating that in such accounts “Real contributions are seen as coming solely from the genius of a single figure, when, in fact, they were the product of collective inventiveness.”4 In the case of Butcher, the inventiveness of Wozniak (who ‘created’ the first Apple) and Raskin (who ‘designed’ the Macintosh), at the expense of a vast array of people whose work eventually led to the Macintosh. When it comes to explaining how great inventions come about, “The only explanation offered... is that great men, out of their genius, think of them”5. For these reasons, great man of history accounts, like Butcher’s, are thoroughly inadequate in understanding the history of communications technologies. This essay will investigate the other factors - political, cultural, and economic - left out by biographers like Butcher.

Academic and Government Involvement
Long before Raskin, Jobs, or Wozniak, the first steps towards modern GUI - based computers were being made in government, and academia. Levy believes that theoretical work written by MIT’s Vannevar Bush (in the wake of World War II) “...sparked a chain reaction that led, almost forty years after the article was published, to the Macintosh computer.”6 According to Levy, Bush’s hypothetical memex machine would be “...capable of sucking in many kinds of input - mathematical, textual, vocal, and visual.” Levy also quoted Bush’s own description of the memex’s design: “On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.”7 A later piece of key research, cited by Levy, was led by Douglas C. Engelbart, who “...was hired by a think tank called the Stanford Research Centre (SRI), and he set up a group called the Augmentation Research Centre.”8 A lot of key work - building on Bush’s theoretical work - was undertaken by SRI, including the development of the computer mouse, and a window-based computer interface.9 The elements were clearly moving into place well before Wozniak’s first creation, or Raskin’s first ‘design’.

Perhaps as interesting is that the United States Government, through ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency) invested in early theoretical, research, and development work. Levy notes that “Engelbart’s project had a single major patron: the Advanced Research Project Agency of the United States Department of Defence.”10 The same ARPA which funded key research into what has become the modern internet also funded key research into modern computing and GUIs. Decades before a profitable product would emerge, the US government funded research which it believed would allow it Cold War military and technical superiority; work often undertaken out of academic inquiry rather than a profit motivation. What we can infer from this is the pivotal role that government and academia can play in developing new technology.

Private Research
The academic and ARPA funded research carried computer technology development through to the early 1970’s, when private research took over. Often cited as the most important research in regards to the Macintosh was carried out at Xerox’s PARC (Paolo Alto Research Centre) facility. According to Levy, there were two key factors precipitating the shift from private to public research. The first of these were short-sighted fiscal conservatives in the US government; “For eight years the money flowed... until some persnickety senator forced the agency to limit its spending only to projects with specific military applications.”11 The second was Xerox realising - and feeling threatened by the fact that - “the ‘office of the future’, to use Engelbart’s term, was yet to be invented.”12 The commercial value of the previously public research was becoming apparent. Thus Xerox hired ARPA’s Bob Taylor, who “ran his domain as if it were a continuation of the ARPA effort to push computation into the realm of the intimate.”13

Education and Microprocessors
While PARC was important both to the Macintosh, and its successors (both MacOS and Windows based), perhaps more important - to the computer revolution in general - was the development of microprocessors. The cultural forces leading to the microprocessor is an essay in itself, though it is interesting to note that “ 1975 Intel itself thought its microprocessors were too limited to be useful as anything but specialised controllers, say, for traffic light systems.”14 Meanwhile another cultural factor was at play:

Secondary schools and colleges could afford to buy, or rent time-sharing space on, DEC’s minicomputers, and they vaguely understood that ‘computer literacy’ would be important in future decades. A number of the better secondary schools began to offer the brightest kids elective courses in BASIC.15

By the late 1970’s, microprocessors allowed hobbyists to begin assembling ‘micro’ versions of the minicomputers they had used in high school and university. Entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs), seeing an emerging market, began selling hobby-kits (like the Altair and the Apple I). Later models, like the Apple II and Commodore VIC-20 came pre-assembled to fill a market demand, and software (like the VisiCalc spreadsheet) saw the market expand beyond hobbyists. While, as Butcher happily points out, Jobs had little to do with the design of the early Apples, Jobs was arguably important in that he commercialised them.

IBM enters the market
The entry into this emerging microcomputer market by IBM was a key event leading to the Macintosh. This was both because of Big Blue’s rapid growth in market share, and because of a resulting market shakeout. Ferguson and Morris note that “PC revenues for the last four months of 1981 were $40 million”16 , and this was growing fast: “In 1984, its third full year of life, PC revenues were $4 billion.”17 Similarly, Moritz notes that “IBM’s share of world-wide sales... grew from 3 percent in 1981 to 28 percent in 1983.”18 What IBM’s rapid microcomputer growth led to was a ‘shakeout’ of its competitors. Amplifying the shakeout, in the wake of IBM’s entry - following the reverse-engineering (by Compaq) of IBM’s BIOS chips - there was a range of companies manufacturing IBM compatibles. The effect of this move in the marketplace to the IBM PC was devastating to many hobbyist-founded computer companies:

Osborne Computers and Victor Technologies declared bankruptcy; Fortune Systems, Coleco, Vector Graphic, and Eagle were weakened by losses; Texas Instruments, Timex, and Mattel pulled out fo the battle to sell low-priced machines.19

Apple, as the largest competitor to IBM, was far from immune, as “Apple’s share slumped from 29 to 23 percent.”20 In this situation, Apple was faced with three choices: either join the clone vendors, produce a superior product, or go out of business.

Cannibalising Products
Making the decision more urgent was the fact that 8 - bit microcomputers like the Apple II were becoming low end commodity products, and Apple’s product line needed updating. This is often done through market cannibalisation, where a superior product takes market share from an inferior product manufactured by the same company. Butcher attacks Jobs for following such a strategy with Lisa / Macintosh and Apple II, by stating:

Jobs had vowed that they should compete on the open market, and was confident that the Macintosh would blow the Apple II away. Fortunately for Apple, he was dead wrong in his feelings about Apple II, and the cannibalising that could have occurred without market divergency was avoided.21

Given Butcher’s narrative, as the cannibalisation decision was Jobs’, the cannibalisation must automatically be bad. This point is contradicted by David Lammers, who writes in an article on the introduction of DVDs that “Getting DVD systems out on the market in late 1996 is of critical importance to Japan's electronics companies, which continue to suffer from a lack of new products and market ‘price destruction’ ”22. The computer business, like the home electronics business, is often centred around selling new technology to consumers at ‘premium’ prices, rather than undercutting competitor’s prices on commodity products. Similarly, one of Ferguson and Morris’ conclusions from their study of IBM’s early 1990’s downfall is that “The issue is not whether a company’s technology will be supplanted, but by whom. Companies that resist internal cannibalisation will die at the hands of outsiders...”23 Unlike Butcher, Apple clearly recognised this with their strategy.

Business and Consumer Perceptions and Needs
The question then emerges as to why Apple would choose to cannibalise their Apple II market share with a superior product, rather than just take the easy route, and produce an IBM compatible like Compaq. As explained by Kawasaki:

Most people told Apple that it had to create an MS-DOS clone if it wanted to survive. The genius (or luck) of Macintosh was understanding people needed an easy - to - use, what - you - see - is - what - you - get computer that integrated text and graphics.24

Thus the superior product option was largely chosen due to consumer perceptions about computers, and their needs in navigating, and creating, data. Another reason for choosing to further develop this GUI-based platform, rather than adopt another standard, was widespread tech-illiteracy in the general population. As stated by Steve Jobs (in 1984), “...of the 235 [million]25 people in America, only a fraction know how to use a computer.”26 As we have already seen, a key priority in the PARC line of research was ease of navigation for large amounts of information.

Another reason Lisa (and later Macintosh) was built on the work already done by MIT / Bush, ARPA / SRI, and Xerox / PARC, rather than moving in another direction with their OS was the simple reason that it was available. While those familiar with the folklore of Silicon Valley have undoubtedly heard of the Alto (an unreleased research computer based on Xerox’s PARC technology), fewer people are familiar with the commercial product of this research: The Xerox Star minicomputer. Ferguson and Morris note that the Star, released in 1981, “by common consent, was a truly impressive piece of engineering”27 , yet one which ultimately failed in the marketplace. The fundamental reason seems to be that Xerox was fundamentally a photocopier manufacturer which did not understand the computer business, and thus “Xerox salesmen were trained to sell photocopiers and probably never completely understood the Star’s power and potential”28 . Xerox also kept the Star’s technology closed and proprietary, like a photocopier:

Xerox purposely shut out independent software vendors from writing Star programs: if customers wanted a spreadsheet program, they would have to wait for Xerox to provide one.29

In spite of owning superior technology, in many respects, 2 decades ahead of its time, Xerox’s foray into the computer market was a commercial failure. And with the failure of the Star, Xerox would close PARC and licence their technology to Apple.

A common - and untrue - myth is that Apple received Xerox’s technology whole, with no need for further development. The truth is that, upon securing a licence for Xerox’s PARC intellectual properties, Apple engineers engineers undertook further research and development for the Lisa platform. This research is the source of many of the conventions of GUI-based computing even today. Take, for example, “Apple’s successor Xerox PARC’s pop-up menu - the pull-down menu.”30 The Lisa designers also improved the level of interactivity in contrast to PARC - “In the PARC world, things mostly got done by moving selections on pop-up menus”31 , while Lisa allowed users to drag-and - drop to move icons or resize windows. Another legacy left by the Lisa designers (and interestingly enough lifted into Windows) is the double click, which came about as a result of the Lisa designers choosing to use a single-button mouse. Even issues around something as mundane as Save As would have to be decided by Apple’s engineers, where “the open question was, which of the two - the original file or the newly named file - should be the one remaining on the screen, ready for more text?”32

This research was informed by extensive user testing to make the Lisa as user friendly as possible, with Levy noting that “User testing was a Larry Tesler’s fetish”33 (Tesler being in charge of the division designing Lisa division at the time). When the Lisa engineers were having difficulty deciding how to implement a feature, Tesler would sit a user - who was unfamiliar with computers...

before a Lisa and conduct controlled experiments on isolated features... After four or five testers had slithered through this interface maze, the correct solution would usually emerge.34

Much of this work was carried forward into the Macintosh platform - as Kawasaki notes “Lisa Technology bought to Macintosh a user interface (pull-down menus, windows, desktop metaphor), bitmapped graphics, and integrated applications.”35 Doing so, far from being Raskin’s ‘original’ design, was spelled out in the Macintosh Product introduction plan, which stated that “Lisa Technology at a recognisable price / performance advantage... will allow us to successfully compete with IBM for the next 18-24 months.”36

Business Consumers
One of the largest changes that occurred to the computer industry with IBM entering the market occurred in the business market. It is for this market that the Apple Lisa had been targeted. The problem, for Apple, in targeting this market was that “the one hundred strong sales force Apple set up to call on large companies was puny compared to IBM’s 8,500 regiment”37 , while “ departments were intimidated by Lisa’s price.”38 Lisa also suffered from a lack of software, and these factors would eventually see IBM’s DOS-based PC - and its clones - defeat the technologically superior Lisa in the marketplace.

The same business consumers who sunk Lisa would play a pivotal role in the success or failure of the Macintosh. As explained by Jobs “Macintosh is targeted at... the 25 million 'knowledge workers' who sit behind desks, and particularly those in medium, and small-sized businesses.”39 The success, or failure, of the Macintosh platform would hinge on its ability to attract the business market, and doing so would mean a platform that rectified the mistakes Apple made with Lisa. Similarly, the failure of Lisa in this market would play an important role in shaping the Macintosh.

Say ‘Hello’ to Macintosh...
It was in this environment that, on January 24th, 1984, Apple would introduce the Macintosh. The release came with lofty ambitions: Apple “forecast total first years sales of 425,000 units... by the end of 1984”40 , according to Kawasaki. In retrospect, “...the amazing thing was not our optimistic projection, but that we were able to sell 250,000 units of a 128K computer with no [bundled] software and no hard disk.”41 For comparison purposes, “in December 1983, [the Apple II] sold more than 100,000 units or about three-quarters the number that had been sold for the first four years of its life.”42 Yet Kawasaki need not have felt so surprised; the Macintosh met a number of key consumer demands that were not met by either the Star, or Lisa. First, there was a concerted effort to ensure adequate software was available at the time of its release. Behind the scenes, Apple (and its team of ‘software evangelists’) worked overtime to secure developer support for the platform, with a goal “to have five-hundred applications out into the marketplace by the time Macintosh had been out for the year, and double that the next year.”43 Secondly, Apple’s sales and advertising efforts had improved significantly over those for Lisa. Beyond Apple’s now-famous 1984 Super Bowl advertisement (and the subsequent advertising campaign), it ran two particularly successful sales promotions. “To persuade dealers and their sales staff that Mac was a dream, Apple offered them their own machines for $750”44, under the Own-a-Macintosh promotion, while Apple “enabled [its] dealers to loan Macintoshes to customers for a test drive”45 under the Test Drive a Macintosh. Finally, where the Star had cost $16,000 (with Xerox imposing a $250,000 minimum purchase) and a Lisa had cost $10,000, “Macintosh would cost $2,495.”46

Yet while the 1984 launch of the Macintosh was clearly a success, “It took four years - until 1988 - to achieve the 1984 sales forecasts.”47 While the foundations of the Macintosh platform (the focus of years of research and development) were solid, a number of key pieces would need to be put in place before it could be the success that Apple had hoped for. The first of these was a letter-quality business printer (named LaserWriter); a key peripheral for attracting corporate clients. “More than anything else, [LaserWriter] showed the distinct advantage of owning a Macintosh and... enabled Apple to re-emerge from 1985.”48 Yet “from 1984 to 1986, the front door of most corporations was [still] closed to Apple and Macintosh.”49 This began to change in the late 1980’s with the introduction of desktop publishing. This was an application which, while not possible given the limits of the original Macintosh - was made possible on later Mac’s due to the platform’s foundations. “The advertising, communications, and marketing departments bought Macintoshes for desktop publishing and graphics, not desktop computing.”50 The Mac was now a viable platform with a strong niche, and a backdoor into corporate America.


This is not to negate the influence, or importance, of individuals like Wozniak, Jobs, and Raskin. However, it is critical to remember that individuals act, and history transpires within the context of, socio-political, economic and cultural factors. As interesting as great men of history biographies may be, their narratives come at the expense of some of the insights that could otherwise be drawn, and some of these insights have become readily apparent even within the limits of this essay.

The first is the importance of government and academic involvement in new technology. Decades before a useable end-product (like the Macintosh) was on the horizon (which would make corporate research was feasible), essential research was being carried out by Bush at MIT, and ARPA’s SRI. Xerox and Apple used this pool of research when - due to changes in the office environment and competition from IBM respectively - the marketplace called for new products. Similarly, the computer hobbyists who fuelled the computer revolution were products of education policy (putting minicomputers in schools and teaching students BASIC), and it is from these hobbyists that the microcomputer market emerged.

The second big insight is the role of various economic factors. It was competition from IBM, the erosion of market share, and the comodification of older products which prompted Apple to adopt, and further develop, research into the graphical user interface. We have seen the role of consumer demand; the failure of the technologically superior Star and Lisa was due to the failure to meet such demand for reasonably priced, powerful computers, with good software, and peripheral support. Thus superior technology can be stifled by cultural and economic factors.

Ultimately, this provides a deeper, and more insightful explanation into how the original Macintosh came to be, than those that can be accomplished in a ‘great man of history’ technological determinist account. For it is a collection of cultural, social, and economic factors, as well as the research of countless people over many decades, that has created and shaped the Macintosh; rather than the work of a brilliant individual who mistrusted narcotics.


Butcher, Lee, “Accidental Millionaire”, New York, New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1988.

Ferguson, Charles H., and Morris, Charles R., “Computer Wars”, New York, New York, and Toronto, Canada: Random House, 1994.

Jobs, Steve, “1984 Apple AGM Keynote”, in TextLab, “The Lost 1984 Commercial”,, downloaded 27/3/2005.

Kawasaki, Guy, “The Macintosh Way”, Glenview, ILL: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1989.

Lammers, David, “Despite agreement, DVD camps still at odds”, in “Electronic Engineering Times”, Oct 23, 1995 n871 p22(1).

Levy, Steven, “Insanely Great”, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia: Viking, and Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 1994.

Moritz, Michael, “The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple Computer”, New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984.

Winston, Brian, “How are the Media Born and Developed?”,, downloaded 27 / 3 / 2005

1 Butcher, Lee, “Accidental Millionaire”, New York, New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1988, p. ix.

2 ibid, pp. ix - x.

3 ibid.

4 Winston, Brian, “How are the Media Born and Developed?”,, downloaded 27 / 3 / 2005

5 ibid.

6 Levy, Steven, “Insanely Great”, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia: Viking, and Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 1994, p. 31.

7 ibid., p. 33.

8 ibid., p. 35.

9 ibid., pp. 36-42.

10 ibid., p. 43.

11 ibid., p. 44.

12 ibid., p. 51.

13 ibid., p.52.

14 Ferguson, Charles H., and Morris, Charles R., “Computer Wars”, New York, New York, and Toronto, Canada: Random House, 1994, p. 18

15 ibid., p. 19

16 ibid, p. 321.

17 ibid.

18 Moritz, Michael, “The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple Computer”, New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984, p. 32.

19 ibid.

20 ibid.

21 Butcher, Lee, “Accidental Millionaire”, New York, New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1988, p. 153.

22 Lammers, David, “Despite agreement, DVD camps still at odds”, in “Electronic Engineering Times”, Oct 23, 1995 n871 p22(1).

23 Ferguson, Charles H., and Morris, Charles R., “Computer Wars”, New York, New York, and Toronto, Canada: Random House, 1994, p. 29.

24 Kawasaki, Guy, “The Macintosh Way”, Glenview, ILL: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1989, p. 54.

25 If you listen closely, Steve Jobs actually stated “of the 235 people...”. I assume this to be a misstatement, given that 235 million is a somewhat closer estimate of the US population than 235.

26 Jobs, Steve, “1984 Apple AGM Keynote”, in TextLab, “The Lost 1984 Commercial”,, downloaded 27/3/2005

27 Ferguson, Charles H., and Morris, Charles R., “Computer Wars”, New York, New York, and Toronto, Canada: Random House, 1994, p. 135.

28 ibid.

29 ibid.

30 Levy, Steven, “Insanely Great”, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia: Viking, and Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 1994, p. 93.

31 ibid., p. 91.

32 ibid., p. 174.

33 ibid., p. 92.

34 ibid.

35 Kawasaki, Guy, “The Macintosh Way”, Glenview, ILL: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1989, p. 77-8.

36 ibid., p. 49.

37 Moritz, p. 319.

38 ibid.

39 Jobs, Steve, “1984 Apple AGM Keynote”, in TextLab, “The Lost 1984 Commercial”,, downloaded 27/3/2005

40 Kawasaki, p. 20.

41 ibid.

42 Moritz, p. 323.

43 Levy, p. 162.

44 Moritz, p. 325.

45 Kawasaki, p. 20.

46 Levy, p. 180.

47 Kawasaki, p. 20.

48 ibid., p. 22.

49 ibid., p. 79.

50 ibid., pp. 79-80.