A Brief and Warped History of the Mac, part 5 (in which the Mac is reborn)
Welcome back to my column â€“ by now Iâ€™m sure only the dedicated Mac Geek will be with me so I can probably say whatever I like. Knickers.
Last time, we left the Mac in 1997 preparing a comeback, having bought NeXT, and in so doing regained Steve Jobs. The new PowerMac G3 had been launched and the PowerBook G3 was on its way.
But, what people were waiting for â€“ well, what I was waiting for anyway â€“ was a consumer Mac based on the G3 processor to replace the Performa range of computers. The machine we got was not what had been expected.
A few years before this, Apple had recruited a young British designer, Jonathon Ive to their design department to work on projects like the eMate (a laptop computer for schools based on the Newton) and Twentieth Anniversary Mac. Jobs approached Ive with plans for a machine that would return to the Macâ€™s roots and revolutionise the computer industry yet again. He wanted Ive to design the future â€“ and it was going to be Bondi Blue.
Apple, it seemed had not been as idle on the hardware front as it had appeared. They had been an integral part of the development of USB, a new technology for device connectivity. It had plenty of advantages over older ports such as SCSI, because it could support up to 144 devices using a hub, and also could recognise new devices when they were connected, rather than after a restart.
The iMac debuted in 1998 and sent ripples through the computer industry. The Mac community were generally in favour of anything that looked this cool and what it might do for the Mac as a platform, but most people knew they would miss their SCSI ports because few people had ever heard of a USB port and there were no printers around that had them at first. It didnâ€™t take long for the computer world to go translucent Bondi blue crazy and printer companies like Epson building new products with USB ports in matching colours for the iMac.
A few people might have missed the floppy drive on the iMac and it was true that the loss of removable writable storage was a problem for some. The iMac was the first Mac not to use ROM instructions loaded from a chip on its motherboard, instead loading them into memory â€“ a process that allowed Firmware updates. This process incidentally could also be used to load things like microkernels into memory – which may give you an indication of Apple’s future plans.
The original iMac with its PowerPC G3 processor at 233Mhz, 4Gb Hard Disk, funky design and unusable round mouse was an instant hit that began to turn around Appleâ€™s fortunes.
Soon, the whole product range went Bondi, with the Blue and White PowerMac G3. Apple were making a huge statement â€“ USB was the future, and you had to move with Apple or get left behind. In 1999, Apple introduced their fully line-up of products with the iBook â€“ their first consumer targeted laptop. The product range was so simple, iBook and iMac for consumers, PowerBook and PowerMac for professionals.
1999 was also an important year for Appleâ€™s operating system as it saw the last version of the â€˜classicâ€™ Mac OS â€“ Mac OS 9. In itself, it did not provide much innovation that we could see, but it was designed to pave the way for the transition to a wholly new Mac OS, based on technology bought from NeXT.
The first previews of this operating system were code-named Rhapsody, and ran only on Intel based PCs, which many thought was strange, as NeXT step was already designed to run on the PowerPC architecture used in the Mac. Rhapsody was basically NeXT step with a Mac OS 8 style Copland interface. But Apple was getting to grips with the issues facing them in overhauling NeXT step into Mac OS X.
Apple surprised many people in 1999 with Mac OS X Server 1.0, which managed to combine parts of Rhapsody with Mac OS 9 in a bizarre mishmash, and came with WebObjects as standard. But despite the roman numeral in its name, this did resemble the Mac OS X that any of us now know.
Mac OS X as we know it was shown for the first time to developers in May 1999 and featured the first view of the Aqua interface with its Dock and flashing blue buttons. There were a bunch of things wrong with it including an ornamental Apple logo in the centre of the menu and the Dock didnâ€™t initially look promising. However, Apple finally had an operating system that boasted the features theyâ€™d been promising since the early 1990s.
1999 also saw the relaunch of the iMac. The redesigned model had a slot loading CD drive rather than the tray loading drive. It also had a truly translucent back; the original iMac had metal shielding inside the casing which hid the actual guts of the machine. But more importantly, the iMac became the first consumer computer to come with FireWire ports. This move was due to several things. Apple had been largely behind the standard and wanted to push it at much as possible and also digital video cameras were beginning to gain popularity. Putting the two technologies together in the iMac, Apple created iMovie â€“ the first of what we now think of as the iLife applications.
In 2000 Steve Jobs delivered a huge keynote in which he announced that most of the Apple range was being overhauled. The G4 machines that they had been selling for some time now (and had been stuck at a maximum speed of 500Mhz) were all getting dual-processors in preparation for Mac OS X. Apple must been confident about this strategy, as there was actually no advantage to the second processor in the machine while running Mac OS 9, apart from in specific applications like Photoshop when using plug-ins to allow it to utilise both chips.
The iMac range was also completely updated and the fruity colours were replaced with bold primary colours. Apple even introduced a replacement for its universally unpopular round mouse â€“ the optical Pro mouse and keyboard, which have been largely unaltered since. At the same keynote, the new Apple Cinema displays were unveiled â€“ Apple showing that LCD was the way they intended to go.
Apple also announced a new machine to fit in between the PowerMac and iMac. The gorgeous PowerMac G4 Cube was one of the most incredible machines Apple had ever engineered â€“ somehow fitting the 500Mhz G4 processor into a tiny 8â€ cube suspended in a clear plastic casing and featuring a slot loading DVD-ROM that popped up like a toaster.
Sadly, the Cube didn’t offer the expandability of the PowerMac G4, which made it unsuitable for professionals, and the extra power was not enough to make iMac buyers want to pay the extra money that it cost. I remember being in a shop once and some people were looking at the Cube and seemed confused. They could see the monitor, the keyboard, and the mouse â€“ but were somewhat confused where the computer was and what the little box with the Apple on it was. The remarkable machine sank into oblivion after less than a year.
A developer preview of Mac OS X shipped. I saw this at university on a friendâ€™s G3 where it crashed badly and all he could get up was a Unix command line, which he didnâ€™t quite know what to do with.
Mac OS X had also added the same API that had been quietly slipped into Mac OS 9, developed for Appleâ€™s Copland OS it had now morphed into Carbon â€“ a type of application that would run natively on either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X. This sat along side the Classic environment which allowed Mac OS 9 applications to run on a virtual machine â€“ albeit slowly and with lots of crashes, and the new Mac OS X applications using the new Cocoa API.
Mac OS 9.1 shipped on the next revision of iMacs that came in garish Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power designs. This added something that the Mac had not had before â€“ support for CD-Burning built-in. It was needed for the CD-RW drives in these machines. But Apple also realised that these machines would be used for music. To respond to this, they built a jukebox application that would easily integrate with the iMacâ€™s CD-RW â€“ iTunes.
iTunes arrived in 2001 and with iTunes version 2, released at the end of the year it paved the way for another Apple innovation. The iPod.
For those who donâ€™t remember, the original iPod could hold 5Gb â€“ around 1,000 songs. It did not have the iPod connector that we use today, instead used straight forward FireWire. On top of this, the wheel actually physically rotated as you turned it with your finger – the solid state scroll wheel was added later. The other buttons were mounted around the outside of the wheel.
It was an obvious design triumph, but the cost of the device and relative cheapness of Personal CD players meant that it was little more than an expensive novelty for total Apple fans. Personally, I wondered what Apple were up to because it seemed such a strange new direction to take â€“ the future of music was not as clear back then. I remember attending a Mac show in London and being pursued by Apple staff wielding headphones trying to get people to listen to the new device. It was cool â€“ but it would take some time to catch on.
March 2001 saw the launch of Mac OS X. Version 10.0 bares most of the elements we would know today but was actually little more than a beta version. It didnâ€™t stop the Mac geeks from queuing outside stores to get their hands on a copy of the new operating system. Of course when they actually got it home and installed, they realised it would probably be a good idea to use Mac OS 9 instead because there werenâ€™t actually any Mac OS X applications at the time.
It wasnâ€™t long before the launch of Mac OS X 10.1 in September 2001, and with it many refinements to the operating system. Partly to make up for the wasted money people had spent on Mac OS X, Apple offered this as a free upgrade to early adopters. Microsoft had built their new Office suite to take advantage of developments in Mac OS 10.1, and other developers were soon following â€“ Adobe refreshing their whole product line to use the Carbon API so they would be compatible with either system.
Apple had all the ingredients in place, and now it was only a matter of refinement
Read this column next week as we bring this series to a close with the current Mac lineupâ€¦
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The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was written by the late Douglas Adams who was an avid Mac fan and owned the first Mac to be sold in Europe on which many of his works were written.