Over on John Gruber’s Talk Show Podcast, Gruber had Adam Engst on, one of the founders and keeper of TidBits. TidBits is probably the oldest internet publication covering Apple, let alone the oldest publication on the internet. Engst and Gruber reminisced about the early days of the Macintosh in the late 1980s and Engst and his wife’s early days with the TidBits sites.
Engst and his wife were at Cornell University as students when they first got into the Macintosh and Apple. Same with me. I was there also as student and also got into the Macintosh. While I can reminisce, and appreciate how amazed I was in the past, I don’t miss the old technology.
The original Macintosh came out in 1984. I got my first Macintosh in 1986. My first Macintosh was the Macintosh Plus, which was the third version of the Mac.1 The big feature of that Mac is that it came with a whopping 1 megabyte of RAM, four times the amount of the original Macintosh. That Macintosh, also known as the Macintosh Plus, retailed for $2,599. Looking back, that was a lot of money. In today’s money, that is $6,114.2. It is funny that I now hem and haw about replacing my broken-down 2010 iMac and whether to spend more than $2500 on a replacement and whether to get a dream machine like the Mac Pro which costs at least around $6000. But back in 1986, when I was a student, I got that Macintosh Plus which in today’s money is more than $6000. Now back then I purchased the Macintosh Plus through the school. So I got a big discount. I think around 30% discount. So I think I paid around $1,819 and with tax, over $1,900. In today’s money that is around $4,500. Back then my family helped me out and purchased it.
I was thrilled to have that Mac. It was my first personal computer. Earlier in school several years before, I had taken a computer course where I worked at a terminal that was hooked up to some mini-frame computer or mainframe computer. I took a course where we learned the Fortran language.. I don’t remember much about that computer language but I remember it was supposed to be helpful for scientific classes and economics. I remember I could send a message to other students on another terminal in the room. There was no internet at that time. Sending a message to another terminal in the same room was considered pretty amazing back then. The key thing about that terminal computer course is that you typed out the instructions to the computer. There was no mouse and there was not Graphical User Interface.
The Mac was totally different. First, I didn’t have to go to a room in school to use it. I could use it in my apartment. Second, it it had a GUI and a mouse. No computer I used prior to that Mac used a mouse. The mouse was revolutionary. You could just click and point and move around on it. It seemed so easy. The way I first felt about it about how easy it was to use is similar to how people who first used an iPhone felt compared to a regular computer. That is how revolutionary it was. In 1986, Microsoft had just come out with Windows 1.0 in late 1985 but it could not yet compete with the Mac’s operating system. It wasn’t until later after several generations of Windows that Windows was as good at the Macintosh’s operating system, and then with Windows XP it passed the Macintosh.
Back in 1986 I was excited by several software programs. First I was amazed that you could print out documents that looked like what you had on the screen. Prior to the Mac, printing of course didn’t look exactly like what you had on the screen, because there was no GUI. The Mac had the first GUI (for everyday people) that let you create a document on the screen like what you wanted printed. Seems crazy now that prior to the Mac you couldn’t do that. No the printer I had for the Mac, which came from Apple, was a dot matrix printer. It printed slow and put dots on the paper. It wasn’t sharp. Not by today’s laser print standards. But it what you printed looked like what you had on the screen. You could among other things, print rudimentary graphics with your texts. At the time, that was mind-blowing. It spawned a whole industry of desktop printing.
I quickly realized you could other crazy things with the GUI. I was into music. I quickly purchased software that came out that allowed you to control keyboard and music devices and record music onto the Mac. It used a technology that is still used now: MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). I remember I had Opcode’s MIDIMAC Sequencer which came out in 1986. You have MIDI now in every iPhone, iPad or Mac you purchase. It is built into Garageband, Apple’s free music creating app. Opcode’s MIDIMAC was rudimentary and limited compared to Garageband today. Essentially, you could arrange notes on the MIDIMAC which would then use Apple’s limited sound synthesizer chip. The sounds were very cheesy and sounded nothing like real acoustic instruments. It took years for computer to become powerful enough to record audio directly from microphones into computers. Back then, the only recording of sound was highly limited into dedicated samplers where you could only record a few seconds. That didn’t come to the Mac for many years. Instead, back then one purchased a separate “Sampler” device.
Finally, the third category of programs that made my early Macintosh fun were games. There were crazy graphic games. At colleges and universities these Macintosh games flourished. I remember going to a computer room in a university I was at and finding many Mac games on a common Mac in the room. I copied them and then had many free games on my Mac. This was revolutionary. Prior to that, purchasing a game, like a video game, was expensive and you needed a special console for your tv. With the Mac, you could copy games from another Mac and share them with your friends. That is until copy protection came out.
The only thing I really reminisce about those days is just remembering how impressed and blown away I was about that new technology. Looking back, that technology looks like a joke. My first Mac had 1 MB of RAM. My current Mac that I am writing this on has 16 GB of RAM. I know have 16,000 times more RAM than the first Mac. My first Mac didn’t even have internal storage. I had to put floppy disks into the Mac to run a program and save files. Nothing was stored on the Mac. That didn’t come for me until a few years later when I upgraded to the Mac SE/30. That first hard drive totally changed the way I used that Mac. It made it so much easier. No longer did I have to use a floppy disk to load a program and save a file. With the hard drive, I could use a program just by starting up my Mac. No floppy disk needed to first be loaded.
But get your mind around this. That first internal hard drive I had was 30 MB in size. That was considered a large amount of storage at the time. The floppy disks I used prior to that were 512k or half of that in storage size. That 30 MB hard drive size is now not large enough for basically one photo file that my camera shoots. And at most, it would hold just a few of the photos my iPhone 11 Pro shoots. I can purchase a MacBook Pro now with 4 terabytes of storage. Think about that difference. One gigabyte is 1,000 MB. One terabytes is 1,000 GB. So a 4 terabyte Mac today has more than 1 million times storage than my Mac SE/30.
My reminiscing is really just limited to remembering how I felt when I saw the technology that the Mac had back in the 80s. It was the future for me. But back then, I could only compare the Mac with what was the technology then or before then. I couldn’t compare it with the future. And what I found out was that compared to the near future, the Mac I had in the late 1980s was not great. By today’s standards its a joke. Because technology goes forward very fast. Everyday I see new technology that blows me away. And by tomorrow that technology is average or old.
Proof of this is Apple’s recent upgrade to Logic Pro which came out yesterday, May 12, 2020, just as I am finishing this post. Take it a look at its features and then go back and see what the music making program that was on the Mac back in the late 1980s could do. You can’t even compare it. It you went back in time with the Logic Pro from today you would freak out anyone back then and they would think you were from another planet. Imagine then what the Logi Pro app in the future in 20 years from now would be like!!!
- See Wikipedia. ↩︎
- See inflation calculator ↩︎