Major Moments in 30 Years of Mac History

Thirty years ago today, Steve Jobs introduced the world to the first Macintosh. Rather, he let Macintosh introduce itself.

Although it’s easy today to refer to this introduction (the first of many masterful Steve Jobs introductions) on January 24, 1984 as an epochal moment in computing history, it’s easy to forget that the first Mac wasn’t necessarily all that revolutionary in its own right. Apple’s first GUI computer came out a year ago as the ill-fated Lisa, and the Mac itself suffered rather slow performance, and was still somewhat high-priced. (The $2495 retail price in 1984 was equal to $5200 in 2010 dollars.)

But the first Mac set a new benchmark for the future of computing, one that would both evolve and become imitated. The features of today’s OS X, Windows, and even mobile devices can all trace their roots back to that first Mac introduced in 1984.

For those less familiar with the evolution of the Mac platform over these past 30 years, I’ve prepared a list of the most significant moments and releases in the Mac’s history.

Macintosh 128 K

1984: Macintosh 128K
The first Macintosh had the 128K moniker added once a 512K version came out that September. Priced at $2,495, the first Mac had an 8 MHz Motorola 68000 processor, no internal hard drive, a 400k floppy disk drive, 128 KB of built-in memory (RAM), and sported a 9-inch 512×342 pixel monochrome screen. No graphics card, no expansion slots, no networking, but it did have 3 serial ports. At Steve Jobs’ insistence, the Mac was made notoriously hard for users to upgrade. The 128K shipped with System 1.0.

Macintosh Plus

1986: Macintosh Plus
The Plus was the first significant upgrade to the Macintosh line, yet still maintained much of the legacy of the first Mac in form-factor and function. Priced at $2,599, it kept the same 8 MHz Motorola 68000 processor, the same 9-inch 512×342 monochrome display, and still had no internal storage. A larger 800k floppy drive, and an increase to 1 MB of built-in memory were the primary upgrades, as well as the debut of a SCSI port, which became the expansion standard on Macs for the next 12 years. The Plus could be upgraded to 4 MB of RAM, and the Mac Plus’ keyboard was the first Mac keyboard to have a numeric keypad and directional-arrow keys. The Plus shipped with System 3.0.

Macintosh II

1987: Macintosh SE and Macintosh II
The Mac lines began to diverge in 1987 with the introduction of these new Macs. The SE carried on the classic legacy with the same processor, memory, and display as the Macintosh Plus, but added a new drive bay to allow for a second floppy drive or an optional hard drive. For the first time, it added a cooling fan and an expansion slot, and the base model sold for $2900. A system with a 20 MB hard drive was $3900.
The Macintosh II was the first Mac shipped as a horizontal box with no built-in screen; all previous Macs had been all-in-one machines. At the steep price of $5,500, the II packed a faster 16 MHz Motorola 68020 processor, two floppy disk drives, and its 1 MB of memory could be upgraded to 20 MB. A graphics card finally allowed Macs to be used with color displays for the first time.
Both Macs shipped with System 4.1, and they set the starting line for a variety of derivative Mac models that would follow into the 1990s.

Macintosh Portable

1989: Macintosh Portable
The Macintosh Portable was Apple’s first laptop Macintosh, but at 15.8 lbs, you probably would not want it on your lap. Price and weight were sacrificed in order to offer high performance, and lead-acid batteries contributed to the weight, and difficulties with recharging. The $6500 machine shipped with a 16 MHz Motorola 68000 processor, 1 MB of memory (expandable to 9 MB), an optional 40 MB hard drive, and a 1.44 MB floppy drive. The screen was a 9.8″ active matrix LCD display with a 640×400 resolution. The Macintosh Portable shipped with System 6.0.4.

System 7

1991: System 7 Released
The original Mac OS from 1984 saw a series of small iterative software updates over the course of is first seven years. System 7, released in 1991, was the most substantial upgrade to the OS yet, and it set the baseline for Apple for the next ten years. Key features included virtual memory, personal file sharing, and the introduction of QuickTime. System 7 was the first Mac OS release to ship on a CD (though the first release was also available on 15 installation floppy disks). System 7.0 was also the last free Mac OS upgrade offered by Apple until 2013; starting with System 7.1, major Mac OS upgrades were sold at cost. System 7 would later see the Mac through the introduction of the internet, the transition to PowerPC, and System 7.5 would bring many key features of the late classic Mac OS to the fore. Finally, the “System” moniker would finally be dropped with the release of officially-named “Mac OS 7.6” in 1997.

PowerBook 100

1991: PowerBook 100
The PowerBook 100 (along with its two higher-end cousins, the 140 and 170) succeeded the Macintosh Portable as a truly portable laptop computer. Its form-factor set the standard for laptop computing, and it pioneered key laptop features that we still recognize today. It placed a trackball pointer in front-and-center of a recessed keyboard, providing palm-rests for typing, and it weighed only 5.1 lbs and only cost $2500.
The PowerBook 100 had a 16 MHz Motorola 68000 processor, 20 or 40 MB hard drive, 2 MB of memory (expandable to 8 MB), and sported a 9-inch LCD display. Unlike the Portable, it did not include a built-in floppy drive.

PowerPC 601 Chip

1994: Transition to PowerPC; Power Macintosh 6100/7100/8100
In 1994, Apple began the first of two major processing system transitions in its history. The Motorola 68k chipset began to be left behind, and the new PowerPC architecture co-developed by IBM and Motorola were adopted. Apple debuted PowerPC-based Macs in 1994 with its first three Power Macintosh models.
The Power Macintoshes used PowerPC 601 chips starting between 60-80 MHz. All models packed CD-ROM and floppy disk drives, 8 MB of built-in memory, and hard drives starting at 160 MB (low-end model) up to 2 GB (high-end model). The 6100 started at $1700, up to the 8100 which started at $4250. All models shipped with System 7.1.2, the first Mac operating system release compatible with PowerPC.

Macintosh Clone

1995: Macintosh Clone Program
With a desire to increase market penetration of the Macintosh, Apple began allowing third-party manufacturers to license the Mac OS. As many as eight companies began selling PowerPC-based Mac clones, but their high-end products ended up cannibalizing the sales of Apple’s Macintosh products. By this time, Apple itself had the Macintosh split up into Classic, II, LC, Quadra, Performa, Centris, Power Macintosh, and PowerBook lines, with multiple models of each, leading to great confusion among customers and sales reps.

NeXT Logo

1996: Apple Acquires NeXT
File this in the category of Greatest Corporate Acquisition Ever. After many years of failure by Apple to move forward with the development of a modern operating system to replace the classic Mac OS, Apple opted to acquire NeXT for $429 million and 1.5 million Apple shares, inheriting NeXT’s rock-solid OPENSTEP operating system, and more importantly, NeXT’s CEO Steve Jobs. OPENSTEP would go on to form the backbone of Mac OS X.

Mac OS 8

1997: Steve Jobs Becomes Interim CEO of Apple; Mac OS 7.7 renamed as Mac OS 8
1997 was a year that most thought Apple may not survive to see the end of. Weeks away from bankruptcy, Steve Jobs was installed as interim CEO of Apple, and began laying out an aggressive plan for Apple’s recovery. Most significantly, he laid out Apple’s first solid plan for a modern operating system, anticipating Mac OS X. And through identifying a legal loophole, he effectively ended the Mac clones program by renaming Mac OS 7.7 to Mac OS 8. Due to Apple’s financial challenges at the time, many pirate groups refused to distribute Mac OS 8 and encouraged people to buy it instead.
Mac OS 8, and its successor Mac OS 9, brought many key PowerPC optimizations to the Mac platform leftover from the ill-fated Copland project, and helped make the Mac much more internet-friendly.

iMac (Bondi Blue)

1998: Four-quadrant strategy announced; iMac Introduced
Apple debuted a significantly-different product strategy in 1998: in contrast to the earlier hodgepodge of Mac models, Apple announced plans to offer only four Mac product lines: consumer and pro versions of both desktops and laptops. The iMac was introduced as the flagship product of this new strategy: a consumer desktop machine with a radically-new colorful design. Steve Jobs reprised his 1984 Mac introduction through a grand introduction of the iMac at the same theater. The iMac’s design aesthetic went on to influence all of Apple’s later Mac lines, as well as the design of Mac OS X. The iMac was notable for abandoning built-in floppy disk drives and SCSI ports, instead adopting new USB ports, which pushed USB forward to become an industry-standard.

"Clamshell" iBook

1999: iBook
It’s easy to forget that the iBook actually made a substantial contribution to the evolution of 21st century laptops. The first “clamshell” iBook had a radical new design inspired by the iMac. It used no latch to close the screen, had a built-in handle that snapped into place, had strong impact protection, and brought modern I/O to laptops. Most significantly, the iBook was the first laptop with built-in support for wireless networking; Apple debuted its 802.11b AirPort base station and networking card alongside the iBook, making 802.11 Wi-Fi an industry standard that all mobile devices use today.

"Digital Hub"

2001: Steve Jobs Shares ‘Digital Hub’ Strategy
Steve Jobs set the Mac up for the 21st century by sharing Apple’s Digital Hub strategy, foreseeing that the personal computer would become the central hub for the digital lifestyle. This predicated the release of key digital media apps (iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, etc.) that would facilitate the creation of high-quality digital content captured and consumed with portable electronic devices. The Digital Hub would also indirectly facilitate the growth of social media, where sharing of music, photos, and movies are still key features of those services today. The Digital Hub apps would eventually become co-branded as iLife, and serve as a key draw to the Mac platform.

Titanium PowerBook G4

2001: Titanium PowerBook G4
Apple’s fascination with metal in its products can be traced back to the release of the first PowerBook G4, originally crafted out of titanium. Apple played the lust-card in its marketing for the computer, which at 1-inch thin, was Apple’s thinnest notebook to-date. The Titanium PowerBook also brought DVD-ROM drives and the new PowerPC G4 chip to the PowerBook line for the first time; which Mac notebooks would remain with until the 2006 Intel transition. Apple broadened the PowerBook G4 line in 2003 with 12″ and 17″ aluminum models, and the 15″ PowerBook would eventually follow suit with aluminum, which remains Apple’s standard to this day.

Mac OS X

2001: Mac OS X Released
For nearly seven years, Apple had been trying to replace the classic Mac OS of the 1980s with a modern operating system. Mac OS X, based on the open-source UNIX and the OPENSTEP system acquired from NeXT, finally delivered a shipping operating system with an unprecedented user interface. Even so, the first release of Mac OS X was criticized as not fully-ready for primetime, and it had limited support from apps. Apple fixed many issues with a free Mac OS X 10.1 update six months later, and Mac OS X finally began to see wide adoption with the 2002 release of Mac OS X 10.2 “Jaguar.” To-date, there have now been ten major release of Mac OS X since 2001.

Power Mac G5

2003: Power Mac G5
The Power Mac G5 was introduced as the first personal computer with a 64-bit processor, and Apple hailed it as the “world’s fastest personal computer.” It made waves to this effect 10 months later when Virginia Tech university networked 1,100 Power Mac G5s together into a cluster that was ranked as the world’s third-fastest supercomputer in early-2004.
The Power Mac G5 also marked the beginning of the end of Apple’s relationship with the PowerPC chipset: the high power consumption of the G5 chip prevented Apple from bringing the G5 to the PowerBook line, and Steve Jobs’ promise to have a 3 GHz Power Mac G5 shipping in 2004 was never met. The design of the Power Mac G5’s aluminum enclosure, however, was retained for the next ten years, becoming Apple’s longest-lived Mac design.

iMac G5

2004: iMac G5
That a G5 chip was coming to the iMac was no big surprise in 2004. What was surprising about the iMac G5 was its design, leading many to ask, “Where did the computer go?” Not only has every iMac since the iMac G5 retained the same basic form-factor with the computer behind the display, but the iMac G5 began a trend of targeting the mid-level professional market alongside consumer, relegating the Power Mac G5 (and later, the Mac Pro) to the ultra-high-end professional market.

Apple and Intel

2005-06: Apple Switches from PowerPC to Intel Processors
The announcement that Macs were moving to Intel processors caught many of the Mac faithful off-guard when Steve Jobs announced it in 2005. Many were skeptical, until the first Intel iMac and the new MacBook Pro were introduced in January 2006 boasting enormous speed improvements over the PowerPC predecessors. Apple successfully moved their entire lineup over to Intel–creating the successful new MacBook family of laptops in the process–in just over seven months, executing what critics have hailed as the smoothest computer platform transition in history.

MacBook Air

2008: MacBook Air
The first MacBook Air was deemed more of a niche product. More expensive, yet slower and with fewer features than the MacBook, most consumers avoided the first version. Unbeknownst to them, the MacBook Air set the standard for Apple’s present-day laptop and desktop design, pioneering the “aluminum unibody” construction that Apple brought to the MacBook Pro lineup that fall. The second-generation MacBook Air in 2010 would go further to standardize Apple’s use of flash storage and lack of optical disc drives across all Macs, and would eventually replace the white-plastic MacBook as the entry level Mac laptop line.

Mac App Store

2011: Mac App Store, OS X Lion, and iCloud
Apple signaled a major shift in Mac software strategy in 2011 that they initially labeled as “Back to the Mac.” The Mac App Store, an OS X Lion feature released early to Snow Leopard users, initially appeared to be Apple’s attempt to recreate the iOS App Store for Mac users. Instead, Apple ceased releasing major OS X updates on retail discs, and instead sold OS X updates for online download through the Mac App Store, and moved to an annual OS X release cycle. (Apple went furthest with this in 2013 by releasing the OS X Mavericks update for free.) All of Apple’s software moved to the Mac App Store as well. And iCloud signaled Apple’s intention to move away from the Digital Hub strategy, and focus heavily on beefing up the Mac’s interoperability and built-in syncing with mobile devices via the cloud.

Retina MacBook Pro

2012: MacBook Pro with Retina Display
Representing the biggest jump forward in the display technology of any all-in-one Mac or Mac laptop since the turn of the century, the 15″ Retina MacBook Pro packed a stunning 2880×1800 resolution, delivering 5.184 million pixels. (By comparison, that’s over 1 million more pixels than Apple’s 2004 30-inch Cinema Display offered.) The Retina MacBook Pro also began the transition of MacBook Air design choices (flash storage, no optical drive or hard drive, no FireWire, and a radically-thin design) over to the MacBook Pro, and later to the iMac and Mac Pro lines.

Mac Pro

2013: Mac Pro
It’s only been out for a month, so we have yet to see what the true impact of the new Mac Pro will be. Still, this latest Mac from Apple represents the biggest shift to Apple’s vision of a professional desktop computer in a decade, and may very well serve as a harbinger for the standards of design, expansion, and performance that Macs will be moving towards in the coming years.

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About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.