A Brief and Warped History of the Mac, part 7 (Soul of a Mac)
Welcome to the HitchHikerâ€™s Guide to the Macintosh.
Firstly, I want to say thanks to all the people who emailed me or left feedback on the site in relation to my six-part history of the Mac feature. Hopefully many of you will keep reading the column as I move on to other topics.
It is human nature to anthropomorphise the objects around us â€“ we all like to think that our pets have the same sort of thoughts as we do and we like to think that the objects around us have personalities. Can you honestly say that as a child you never looked at a car and thought of the headlamps as eyes and the radiator as a mouth with an expression?
Well, in this column I want to explore the aspects that give the Mac a distinct personality and ask â€˜What is the soul of a Mac?â€™
The first thing I can imagine readers shouting at their monitors is, â€˜Mac OS X, duh!â€™ so I will start there. In fact, I will start at the beginning â€“ back in 1984 when the Mac was born.
As most people will know, especially those who read Episode 2 of this column, the Mac was Appleâ€™s second attempt at creating a computer with a graphical user interface, rather than a complex and confusing command line interface.
Various things marked the original Mac from not only the other personal computers of its time, but also the Apple Lisa, which it succeeded. The refinements to the OS were many and subtle and it boiled down to not only extra experience on the part of the engineers, but also the huge number of influences that went into the Mac. The biggest influencers to the project were the father of the Mac â€“ Jeff Raskin, who originally developed the name as well as the concept of a multi purpose home computer, and Steve Jobs who took over the Macintosh development team. If youâ€™ve not already done so, check out original Mac engineer Andy Hertzfeldâ€™s site www.folklore.org, in which he features stories from all those who worked on the Mac.
The operating system that was developed was revolutionary and much of what we work with today owes its design to it. The original Macâ€™s System Software flourished over many years as the Mac family grew and became Mac OS 9. Looking back, the versions of the classic Mac OS 7-9 that I used had a few problems â€“ but I still preferred Mac OS to Windows. Mac OS was always more elegant than Windows, in fact until 1995, it was the most popular true GUI in existence. Where Mac OS 9 was occasionally prone to spectacular crashes, Windows always seemed to me to crash far more frequently. But the worst part of Windows for me has to be its unresponsive feel that grates on my nerves and makes me feel like I’m trying to hack my arm off using a nail file.
Back in the 1980s there were other competing operating systems â€“ such as Acornâ€™s RISC OS and Amiga DOS. In fact, back when the Mac was only showing black and white, the Amiga had a full colour display and offered a truly multi-tasking, multi-threaded operating system. However, the Mac had some major advantages â€“ one of the greatest being the consistent design between applications. Every application on the Mac uses the same menu and the same style of windows. The Mac’s operating system was somehow more refined and polished than the competition.
This is still true to this day, when the biggest selling point of the Mac is that it doesn’t run Windows. It is amazing how Apple managed to completely change the Macâ€™s operating system and still keep the essential soul of the Mac. Mac OS X has nothing in common with the classic Mac OS aside from its name and a few system conventions that were copied over – partly for consistency and partly to keep the Mac geeks happy. While Apple caved to popular demand and made the ‘Apple’ menu functional rather than the pointless eye candy that was originally planned, it does something totally different in OS X to what it did in the old Mac OS. The menu bar itself however, stayed at the top of the screen where it had always been. These are just some obvious examples to show how different the systems actually are – but how there are still some similarities. Mac users for the most part took the new OS to their hearts, because even though it was very different, it had been designed with the same ideals as the system it replaced – and of course is technically supurb.
Because Apple were still focused on creating the best operating system in the world with the same ease of use, Mac OS X still feels like a Mac should.
Apple have adopted a brilliant strategy in recent years with the advent of the â€˜digital lifestyle.â€™ By building the best applications for managing your digital music, pictures and movies, Apple have found away to make life easier for current Mac users and encourage switchers to the Mac platform. This means that not just the operating system, but the whole experience of using a Mac for day to day tasks is flawless.
The user experience of the Mac is a large part of what defines its personality – smooth and fluid to use, with most things working the way you’d expect them to and everything being simple to work out. Apple’s policy of a one-button mouse might be unpopular with many users – but it forces the interface to be easy to use, and good enough to perform every necessary function without the use of right-clicking. This is something that Microsoft should definitely look at because on Windows, some tasks cannot be achieved at all without right clicking – there is no menu option or alternative button on the interface, and that makes things hard to use.
But the OS is not the whole story. Another factor in the Mac’s make-up is the hardware. The original Mac was ahead of its time and over the years Apple have introduced some amazing technologies, such Floppy Diskettes, SCSI ports and of course USB. Of course, the area of design innovation that Apple are most famed for tackling is the aesthetic appearance of the machine. Now it seems so obvious that to appeal to the consumer market it is a huge advantage to have a machine that looks as good as it works – but this though apparently never occurred to the likes of Dell, who even now produce some of the most eye of ending apparatus on the market. Steve Jobs had recognised the importance of great product design back in the 1980s when he enlisted top industrial design agency, Frog Design to develop a uniform look for the Mac product family that could be used on every model. Remember that the Apple II was the first desktop computer with a plastic case in history.
Apple don’t just design cases to look good – contrary to popular myths, the looks of the Mac follow the essential design mantra – “form follows function”. Devices like the iMac are created from the ground up as a complete solution, based around the needs and expectations of the target market. The iMac G4 is evidence of this – when Apple decided to upgrade the iMac, they could have simply bolted a TFT display onto the front of an existing iMac, but instead, they went back to the drawing board and came up with an entirely new solution. The iMac G5 is even more proof – looking at the previous model, Apple scrapped the expensive arm to deliver a cheaper machine – an obviously popular move in the consumer market – and designed an elegant machine that fits in with the way people live and use their Macs.
Apple’s design practice is exemplary – where most computers are fabricated from standard components to keep costs down, Apple design many of their own components that allow for more innovative designs. The circuit boards inside the iMac G3 were shaped to fit perfectly inside its curved casing which shows that the whole product was developed with this in mind. All too often in the design industry (and I know about this stuff) a company will develop the guts of a product and then call upon a design team to simply hang an external facade on it to hide away the inelegance of what is underneath. Windows PCs are most often square boxes with a shaped plastic front – there has been no real innovation in PC design since the first beige towers – despite the introduction of iPods, the internet and digital photography bringing the computer out of the office where it can be happily hidden away and into the living room where a design that looks good can add to the style of your house. The way we use computers has evolved – but Apple’s answer to this is not an evolution of existing designs – but revolutionary new hardware, built from the ground up to suit the end user’s needs.
Hardware quality and design innovations are a major aspect at the heart of the Mac.
Another element in the soul of the Mac is the people who use them. Whether itâ€™s a power user designer, student or just some one who wants an easy to use digital experience, there’s something cool about Mac users. More often than not Mac users can spot each other – though this may, of course, be due to the stickers that Apple gives away with their products. I have always enthused about the Mac and encouraged a number of people to adopt Apple computers. From my experience it seems that most of us Mac users love or machines and want to promote them to others.
However, the key ingredient that gives the Mac the quality, reliability, and power that it is famed for is fact that the same company engineers both hardware and software. In other words – the Mac is an integrated system. The problem faced by Microsoft is in building an operating system that can run on the millions of possible PC configurations available. To give them credit for this – they somehow manage to pull off what should be a nearly impossible task of producing an operating system that runs on computers built by companies they’ve never heard of – but not knowing what your operating system will be run on means that it must be very vague in its optimisation. Apple on the other hand control the make-up and quality of every machine they make, and can ensure that the operating system is fully optimised to get the most out of each model of Mac.
The soul of the Mac is something very hard to trace, but is based firmly in the passion of one company to create the best computers in the world. Because our expectations of computers keep changing, Apple keep innovating and in that way the soul of the Mac evolves. In pursuit of the goal of making ever more amazing products, Steve Jobs recently announced the switch to Intel processors. It may seem that changing something so fundamental in the platform might take away part of what makes it so great – but as long as the company’s spirit remains, be assured – the Mac’s soul will be preserved.
Watch this space soon, when next time I get personal in my quest for the most desirable Mac ever.
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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.