A Brief and Warped History of the Mac, part 6 (in which the Mac rocks)
Welcome back to my column â€“ I imagine that many readers will be wondering when this insight into the past of the Mac will end â€“ well this is the final part of the saga. The story flows much like Star Wars if youâ€™ll allow me to recap with a strained analogy.
The first part of our story was the discovery of computers and the growth of Apple computers with the Apple II. Next came the action packed ordeal of developing the Mac, but this ended in the sad loss of one of the Macâ€™s parents â€“ Steve Jobs. No clones though, they didnâ€™t attack quite yet.
By part three, things had gone seriously pear-shaped with Apple doomed to financial and technological purgatory.
In part four, a New Hope was revived with the purchase of NeXT. Last week, I covered the story of how Apple took that and rebuilt the Mac OS â€“ and this is largely where the analogy falls down â€“ no-one gets their hand cut off. However, The Mac Strikes Back would be a fitting title for that section.
But in this final part we will see how the story unfolds up to now and word count allowing, even ponder the future. This is the story of the triumphant Return of the Mac.
2001 was a landmark year for Apple, releasing Mac OS X after a successor to the Mac OS had eluded them for so long. The iPod had been released and the iMac had rescued the companyâ€™s finances. This great looking machine was selling well and had revolutionised the computer industry.
Sadly, Mac OS X uptake was slow and at first Apple shipped computers with the capacity to boot with either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X â€“ in fact the default was Mac OS 9, making OS X an optional extra. Apple were also upping the hardware stakes too, and by 2002 had upgraded the PowerBook and the iMac to G4 processors while steadily increasing the top speeds of the PowerMac G4. Setbacks with Mac OS X lead Apple to re-introducing single processor G4 machines at higher speeds.
The iMac G4 is said to have been inspired by sunflowers in Steve Jobsâ€™ garden. The solution to building a computer with an integral LCD screen was not to just stick it on the front of an existing iMac, but to make it float in mid air, suspended on a chrome arm. It wasnâ€™t a cheap solution, but was very elegant. The iMac G4 yet again pushed back the boundaries of computer design, and eventually 17â€ and 20â€ screen versions were introduced and the speeds moved up. This column is being written on one of these machines, which was my first venture into modern Macintosh having lived with beige machines up until then. It didnâ€™t disappoint.
Building on the technical success of Mac OS X 10.1, Apple introduced 10.2 Jaguar in 2002. It introduced a huge number of improvements and new features, making it probably the first version of Mac OS X that was actually usable as an operating system. With Jaguar, Apple had cracked it â€“ they had built an operating system better than anything else on the planet and on which they could continue to innovate.
The killer feature of Jaguar, from a technical point was the Quartz Extreme graphics technology. While Mac OS X had inherited its graphics philosophy from NeXT step, it substituted PDF as the graphics system in lieu of a full postscript graphics engine. What Jaguar introduced was nothing short of groundbreaking. While Mac OS 9 allowed each application to render its own content, Mac OS X first combined everything on screen and rendered it together. With Quartz extreme however, this compositing was done not by the computerâ€™s CPU, but by the graphics processor. For the first time in an operating system, the graphics cardâ€™s power could be captured for things other than fragging seven shades of thargoid out of your mates in 3D games â€“ which I believe was still popular at the time.
If Quartz Extreme was Mac OS X 10.2â€™s killer technical feature, its best marketing feature was the name â€“ Jaguar and the faux fur marketing that would accompany it would suddenly make the Macâ€™s software seem as cool as the great designed hardware.
Mac OS X 10.2 soon became the default operating system on Appleâ€™s computers, giving people the confidence to switch to Mac OS X. Mac OS 9 development stopped with the last ever version, Mac OS 9.2.2 shipping in 2001
But with Jaguar, the Mac lost something that had identified since its birth in 1984; something that would be mourned by the Mac community and missed by users as they sat down at their new Jaguar Macs. The smiley Mac face that welcomed us when we turned the computer on had been replaced with an Apple logo. RIP Happy Mac, 1984-2002.
The eMac was introduced in 2002 and originally only sold in the education market. This was probably due to Steve Jobs’ remarks that CRT is dead following the discontinuation of the iMac G3 which for a time had been produced simultaneously with it’s G4 successor. But huge demand for the budget system – especially given the price of the iMac G4, persuaded Apple to release the eMac for everyone once they had built up a large enough supply.
The Xserve was announced a month later and started Apple’s push into server technology. Apple had not sold a server configured system since the Workgroup Server 9650 – a variant of the PowerMac 9600, the biggest of the G2 machines. Apple’s selling point of the server technology was genius – the machine came as standard with Mac OS X Server, QuickTime server software and other server software. This differentiates it from PC servers where software solutions tend to be licensed separately from hardware on a yearly basis.
2003 saw the launch of iLife. Apple had launched iMovie well before, and had brought out iTunes, iDVD and iPhoto, but iLife saw these applications packaged together and with integration for the first time.
Other advancements were the 12â€ and 17â€ Powerbook G4 replacing the Titanium case with aluminium, new iMac revisions and the Safari web browser â€“ which aimed to overthrow Microsoftâ€™s Internet Explorer as the top browser for the Mac.
The third generation iPod was announced in 2003 and it now included the solid-state touch wheel, backlighting and came in sizes up to 30Gb. It even worked with Mac or Windows â€“ up until that point, Apple had sold separate iPods for Mac and Windows. What made this even more exciting in April 2003 was the iTunes Music Store. iTunes 4 allowed US Mac owners to buy music for 99c, and the rest of us to browse music and get very frustrated that we couldnâ€™t actually buy anything. The rest of the world had to wait until 2004 for the first international iTunes music store, though I pity all those in unsupported countries still waiting.
By October, the iTunes Music Store was running on PCs and Windows based iPod owners could stop fiddling around with Music Match and get to grips with the real thing. So began the Apple domination of the digital music age.
The 3G iPod was the device that really started the digital music revolution. Thinner and with more functionality than its predecessors, it added the must-have ingredient to the iPod. Indeed, I had to have one but Apple were short on supply and I did not manage to get my hands on one until the models were revised to have larger 40Gb hard disks.
The biggest news in 2003 came with the introduction of the PowerMac G5 â€“ the first Mac with a 64-bit processor. Unlike Windows PCs, the PowerPC architecture had been designed with this jump in mind, allowing Mac OS X to run natively on these new machines with little alteration. This was incredible because it suddenly allowed massive memory in these computers as well as more efficient data handling. Where Windows was founded on 32-bit technology, the Mac was able to instantly work on 64-bit.
The G5 was also marked by its striking new metal enclosure and hundreds of holes through which to cool the processor. It also had an incredible new system architecture that made fully use of both the processors in the high-end models.
Panther arrived a few months later, bringing even better performance and 150+ new features. With Mac OS X 10.3, Apple were indisputably ahead of the competition in the OS wars. This version introduced the current Finder as well as useful functions like ExposÃ©, iChat AV and fast user switching. These were demonstrated to me at a Mac show in London where I caved in and forked out Â£99 for the upgrade.
By 2004, iLife â€˜04 had itâ€™s fifth family member, GarageBand and the iPod had a little brother, or maybe a clone â€“ iPod mini me. Everyone was expecting great things from Apple in 2004 â€“ the actual twentieth anniversary of the Mac.
In many ways, the real twentieth anniversary Mac was the iMac G5. Somehow Apple had managed to create a machine even more desirable than the iMac G4 (if you like the column, maybe youâ€™d like to buy me one â€“ please?). Appleâ€™s industrial design department had outdone themselves, with a machine that fitted the guts of the computer behind the screen in the thinnest desktop design ever. It oozed delicious design touches like the piece of metal in the plastic case in just the right place for a magnetic iSight mounting, and perfect balance so that it would sit wherever it was angled on the aluminium foot without the need for the iMac G4â€™s complex metal arm. The simpler design allowed Apple to drastically lower the price of this model â€“ making it even more attractive. (again, contributions to the column are welcome â€“ PLEASE?!)
A new version of the iPod appeared with the iPod miniâ€™s click wheel and the U2 iPod Special Edition and iPod Photo followed soon â€“ adding to the iPodâ€™s ongoing success story from a possible dud to Christmas stocking essential to cultural icon.
Bringing the story up to the now, the iPod shuffle, Mac mini, iLife â€˜05 and Tiger were launched in 2005.
The technology of the Mac has evolved from its humble 8Mhz beginnings to almost 3Ghz 64-bit silicon beasts that require liquid cooling. Technology is progressing so fast that no-one batted an eyelid at the Mac mini fitting a processor almost three times faster than the Cube G4â€™s into a case around one quarter of the size â€“ and if thatâ€™s not incredible progress for just 4 years, I donâ€™t know what is.
Appleâ€™s future could be pretty good. With a massive slice of the Digital music scene with both iPod and music store, Apple are making a comeback into the public eye. Hopefully this will introduce more people into the world of the Macintosh.
The iLife suite and now iWork are making the Mac more and more suitable for first time computer owners and those who donâ€™t want to dip their toes in the digital lifestyle without having their lives taken over by computers. The Mac is still stable and reliable for all the existing professional users and is carving itself a huge market in professional video production and distribution.
Mac OS X is now the most popular UNIX operating system â€“ largely because most users donâ€™t even notice the UNIX is there. But for Universities and research labs who like UNIX, it has everything they need. To be honest, Iâ€™m sure that even in the most serious labs they like nothing better than listening to iTunes at the end of a long day.
Steve Jobs recently announced the switch to Intel processors. This could be a make or break move for the Mac. This could be a great opportunity that may eventually lead Apple to rival Microsoft in terms of software suppliers. In time, Apple could even open Mac OS X to run on third party Intel machines – though current plans are to allow Mac OS X to run on just Apple hardware.
Though it may mean a premature lack of support for users of older machines, and initial problems for early adopters of the Intel system this could be a great move if Apple are right and Intel are offering the best processors in the future. Apple are not just going to abandon the PowerPC, with some new PowerPC products coming soon, but the transition could be a problem period for the company and despite any efforts will cause confusion and complications. I wish Apple all the luck for the future and look forward with interest to the new products to come in the next few years.
Apple have built the best computers for the last 28 years, and intend to carry on leading the industry for years to come.
I hope you found this series informative and interesting. If you did, email me with your questions. If you didnâ€™t â€“ you may enjoy next weekâ€™s column, where I will start on a new topic.
Read this column next week for something completely differentâ€¦
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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.