The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Macintosh: Part 3

Written by: Adam Christianson

Categories: Editorial

A Brief and Warped History of the Mac, part 3 (in which the Mac sucks)

Welcome back to my column – I am surprised you’re still reading this given last weeks warning. Read on, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. In last week’s column, Apple had unveiled the Mac which was rapidly becoming a huge success in the design and graphics industry.

Following Steve Jobs resignation from Apple, John Sculley took on complete control of the company, and hoped to get the most possible from the Mac. He oversaw the Mac product line grow from the original Mac to a whole family – the all-in-one Macs such as the Mac SE/30 that improved on the orignal Mac with a more powerful MC68030 processor and had a built-in hard disk – and also the Mac II series of machines that came in large boxes with separate monitors. The SE/30 was the most powerful of all the all-in-one Macs and I actually have one. My SE/30 hasn’t worked since a month after I bought it in 1998 for £20 from my college Maths tutor, the problem is that no-one fixes Macs that old these days.
Anyone who’s ever had a beige Mac will know the SCSI port, ADB port and Apple serial port used for printing and networking – these were pioneered in the Mac Plus in 1986. The most innovative member of the new Mac family was the Mac portable – the world’s first, um… not really a laptop. In 1989, this machine was released – it was big and bulky and not much lighter than the all-in-one Mac. It did pioneer the use of an active matrix LCD screen on a Mac though.

But having seen the Mac, Microsoft decided they wanted to build their own graphical interface. Windows 1.0 was a poor attempt at developing an interface that worked on top of MS-DOS, but the fact it was no competitor to the Mac (at that stage anyway) didn’t stop John Sculley from taking legal action against Microsoft. This was in fact a highly costly mistake for Apple – Sculley didn’t even seem to realise that Apple hadn’t invented the graphical user interface, but had simply copied elements from Xerox PARC.

Even the introduction of the Mac Classic and bigger Mac II models in 1990, could not hold back the simple fact that Microsoft was become unstoppable. Thoughts of licensing the Mac’s operating system to other companies or porting Mac OS to work on Intel based machines were rumoured for the first time .

In this time, progress at Apple had focused on improving the Mac with new versions of the MC680x0 processor and revised versions of the Mac’s operating system. By 1990, the Mac was already on version 6 of its system software. A lot of progress had been made here, by allowing the Mac to now support larger disks than the 400Kb disks that the original had used, and also work with folders inside folders. Yes – a surprising as it may seem, the original Mac had limited folder use. Folders could only exist in the first level (root) of a disk, and you couldn’t store one folder inside another. In fact, there was no ‘New Folder’ command, just a folder called ‘untitled folder’ on your disk – which when renamed would automatically spawn a new empty folder. While the system interface was still in a simple black and white, the Mac II could display images and work in colour. While the original Mac would only run one application at a time, a program called MultiFinder was added to System 6 to allow several applications to run at once. This solution was somewhat bodged on to the rest of the system however, and meant that a simple task like clicking a menu would stop progress of anything running in the background. While in its time System 6 seemed perfectly adequate, some of the problems it had seem positively stone age today – including the fact that Apple had to produce different versions of the system for different members of the Mac family. You would have to make sure you bought the right version for your system.

Apple were becoming increasingly aware that while the Mac was their greatest asset, the lack of innovation that had gone into keeping the Mac up-to-date would be costly. The problem was that most of the code from the 1984 Mac was still running the machine, and by System version 6 it had been augmented by additional code to allow it to do other things. But there was no hiding the fact that the original Mac was designed to run one application at a time on a machine with 128Kb RAM. The original Mac was never meant to last this long. A plan was devised to do something about this. Microsoft had proven that old hardware could be revived with a new operating system, and Apple decided that rather than devise a whole new computer, they would develop a new software system to bring the existing Macs up to date. Three strategies were developed for the new Mac and they were given colours. Blue was the short-term strategy of continuing to add to the existing system and would lead to Mac OS 7. Pink was the long-term strategy of building a whole new operating system that would bring the Mac up to date with features like true multitasking and other modern features. Red was the extreme-term strategy for any ideas that would be nice to put in pink, but seemed too ambitious.

Sculley’s reign at Apple did deliver a few interesting technologies and two of Apple’s most important products – the PowerBook and the Newton. Sculley must have thought the Mac was Steve Jobs’ contribution to history and decided that his would be a hand-held computer that would recognise the user’s handwriting and in so doing invented the PDA. But by 1993, the board demoted Sculley and installed Michael Spindler in his place.

Spindler’s period at the top covers the height of the classic Mac, although very little innovation was actually achieved and the company began its decline. In 1990, Apple introduced a new series of machines to the family – the LC range. LC stood for Low Cost and reflected not only that these slim-line Macs were cheaper than other models, but they also had LC processors. The all-in-one Mac configuration was rebranded as Mac Classic, and three new lines were introduced. The Centris line was the mid-range professional machine, while the Quadra range was the top-of-the-line Mac and featured MC68040 processors. The Performa line were essentially rebranded LC or Centris machines aimed at the now flourishing home computer user. With the choice of Classic, LC, Performa, Centris and Quadra machines – and even the PowerBook, not only you reading this, but also the buying public were finding it hard to keep track of what Mac to get. New technologies were appearing, such as the CD-ROM, Apple were initially slow to respond. The biggest of all the classic Macs was the Quadra 950. Running at 33Mhz and vastly expansible up to 256Mb RAM, it ran the software of the day lightning fast. This machine is actually special to me because it was the first Mac I ever saw, running in a design agency that my father used to work with. It was watching a designer working with Photoshop 3 that I formed my love affair with Apple.

At Apple, the sense of slipping behind in the technology battle culminated in dropping the MC680x0 family of processors in favour for something new, developed joined with old rival IBM and Motorola. Based on the Power processor used in high-end mainframe computers, the PowerPC processor was a revolutionary chip when it first appeared in 1994. Unlike the MC680x0 or the Intel x86 processors that powered PCs at the time, which used CISC (Complex Instruction Set Code) technology, the PowerPC used RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Code) technology. This was essentially a completely new approach to how a processor should work.
Apple managed to convert the Mac over to use PowerPC processors. The first of which was the PowerPC 601 processor used in the first PowerMacintoshes, the 6100, 7100 and 8100. The 601 processor was based on the Power 1 core and boosted the Mac to 110Mhz in the biggest specification 8100.

To run on these new PowerMacs, Apple had to develop System 7. It had coloured tints on the interface and more importantly one version could run on a number of different Mac models, as long as they were powerful enough and had a hard disk. Getting rid of the MultiFinder, System 7 was rebuilt to natively allow a form of multitasking, Virtual memory and support for PowerPC processors. It also introduced the Extension – small files that loaded up with the system and added functionality. While they allowed the Mac to do a lot of new things, in other ways they were a curse – causing conflicts with each other and leading to crashes.

By 1996, Apple owed $1 billion and could not keep up with the demand for machines. New models were blighted by trying to use a PowerPC chip with components designed for a 680×0 Mac. My first Mac was one of those affected. The Performa 6320 was one of the machines to use a PowerPC 603 processor. However, it’s motherboard used parts from a Performa 630 and it had 32-bit memory even though the processor had a 64-bit bus. This meant that the processor had to spend much of its efforts just keeping the motherboard running, before it could even get on with doing any work.

The PowerPC 603 got a bad reputation from problems like this, but its big brother, the PowerPC 604 was used in wholly new high-end Macs. These two processors were the second generation of PowerPC.

It was starting to look desperate, with nothing coming from the Pink software strategy, Mac hardware unable to respond to the ever growing PC – largely due to budgetary problems, a confusing product-line, and poor finances. Anyone who tells you Apple are in financial trouble and are about to go bust have not read the news since 1996, because as Michael Spindler resigned, Gil Amelio was appointed to save Apple.

Read this column next week to discover how Apple escaped from the abyss…

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There are 7 comments on The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Macintosh: Part 3:

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  1. Ryan | Jul 05 2005 - 09:48

    Love it, will read next week

  2. Jason | Jul 05 2005 - 11:25

    This really should be in audio format. Can someone please do that? The articles contain awesome info and it’s top-notch writing, but it’s very long (as it should be!) and the audio-version would be fantastic. I would listen (maybe more than once!) and I’d get all my friends to listen!

  3. Brecht / DJBRX | Jul 06 2005 - 12:13

    Love it. You make a great contribution to the common mac-knowledge for switchers and newbies.
    And i’m convinced that a lot of other people learn from your column too !
    Great Job !

  4. maccast | Jul 06 2005 - 09:53

    Listener Kevin pointed out that you can use Apple’s text to speech feature in Safari to have it read to you. Highlight the text in Safari and choose ‘Start speaking’ under the ‘Safari’->’Services’->’Speech’ menu. You could then use an app like Audio Hijack to record the sound to MP3.

  5. Jason | Jul 06 2005 - 02:04

    Alas, I have no Mac. I am chained to my XP desktop, desperate to unload it so I can get a Powerbook.

  6. Craig Patchett | Jul 07 2005 - 04:44

    I was at the official rollout for the Mac “Portable” at Universal Studios in 1989. (I was editor-in-chief of “PC Laptop Magazine” at the time.) It was a cool machine, even if it wasn’t so portable (thanks partly to the lead acid batteries).

    The IIci was introduced at the same event.

  7. rickt42uk | Jul 11 2005 - 03:12

    Thanks to everyone for their support with the column.

    As a fan of the MacCast and being passionate about all things Macintosh, I had at one point considered doing my own Podcast. But then again, I wouldn’t want to compete with Adam bacause he’s such a top-notch bloke and does a great job on the show.
    So when the opportunity came up to write something to go on the MacCast website, I jumped at the chance. The first 6 editions were written in one massive session and are of course themed on the History of the Mac – this is largely because I knew I was going on holiday and wanted to have a few articles in the bag while I was away. Future columns will probably be a little more diverse, in everything from tips and tricks to buying advice to product reviews, speculation or just opinion.