40 Years of the Mac
It's still Apple's most beloved product.
Today, the Mac turns 40.
On January 22, 1984, Apple ran what is still one of the most iconic commercials of all time. Two days later, it introduced what would become one of the world's most beloved products. It is certainly Apple's.
It's hard to express the extent to which there was a time when the Macintosh was one of the most aspirational and inspirational products there was. There's a reason Steven Levy called it "the computer that changed everything" in his 2000 book, Insanely Great. It really did change everything, both for Apple and for personal computers as a whole.
Unlike any other personal computer, it included a graphical user interface (GUI), a mouse for navigation, and a built-in display, all of which were revolutionary at the time. It also endeared its users in a way few other consumer products ever have.
So much of Apple's identity today is driven by the iPhone, but for the last 40 years, the Mac has remained the most beloved product Apple ever gave the world. I know that's a big claim. I also know a lot of people reading that will dismiss it as an exaggeration, but I stand behind the idea that the Mac is far more valuable to Apple as a part of its brand than anything else it has ever made.
Look, I know the Mac is no longer the primary driver of Apple's revenue--or even its reputation. For all intents and purposes, most people view Apple as the iPhone company. That's understandable, considering the iPhone might be the single most important consumer tech product ever. It's certainly the most successful.
While the Mac has had a better-than-average run over the past few years, it's still just a fraction of what the iPhone sells. In the last year, it was less than half of what Apple generates in Services revenue and roughly the same as the iPad. Still, it's hard to overstate the importance of the Mac to the existence of Apple as a company, and as a consumer brand.
Look, I know iPhone users love their iPhones, and there are plenty of people who love their AirPods or Apple Watches, but it is not the same. People who use Macs just think differently about their computers. They may be a (relatively) small group of users, but they are disproportionately passionate about using their computers.
The original Macintosh 128k. The colorful G3 iMac. The playful G4 model version that looked like a Pixar character. The impossibly thin original MacBook Air. These are iconic computers that defined their respective categories, and the people who use them wouldn't trade them for anything, except, maybe a newer Mac.
This is especially relevant on the eve of Apple shipping its first new major product category in eight years, Vision Pro. Apple, as a company, is far less beloved than it once was, largely because it has gotten so big because of the iPhone, that it's hard not to think it has lost a sense of what people love.
The success of the iPhone has distorted two of its most important relationships--with its customers and developers. Apple used to view its customers almost as partners. It often felt as though Apple saw its mission as making computers its customers could use to make whatever it is they make.
Now, however, it seems like when you buy an iPhone, the primary objective is to get you to sign up for a cascade of Apple's services. The company even shows you ads, poorly disguised as helpful suggestions, right in the settings app.
As for developers, Apple seems to have completely lost the plot. Many of Apple's largest developers appear to be sitting out the Vision Pro launch altogether.
The Mac is still the one platform that Apple continues to allow to remain open. It's open for developers to create interesting and delightful software. Unlike the iPhone, iPad, Watch, and (presumably) Vision Pro, you can install whatever you want on the Mac, from anywhere you want.
You can use a Mac to make movies, watch YouTube videos, design brochures, edit photos, write novels, or do your homework. Sure, you can do all of those things on a hundred different types of devices, but--for someone who does them on a Mac, it's just better.
Here's an interesting test: ask someone who has used a Mac for more than 15 years which they would give up if they could keep only one: their iPhone or their Mac. If it were me, I'd keep my Mac. There are plenty of Android phones that would be just fine. I wouldn't love giving up my iPhone, but--if I had to--I could make it work. There is no way I would give up my Mac, however.
The Mac may no longer be the most important product to Apple's bottom line, but I don't know how anyone could argue it isn't important to its brand. There's a simple lesson, which is that designing products that delight your customers is the single best way to earning their affection and loyalty. Sure, Apple makes a lot of money collecting commissions on apps people install on their iPhone, but there's nothing delightful about that. It's the Mac that remains the most beloved product Apple has ever made.
A version of this first appeared in my column at Inc.com
More on the 40th Anniversary of the Mac
The Upgrade guys (Myke Hurley and Jason Snell) had a great group of guests talking about the 40th anniversary of the Mac on their most recent episode. You can catch a video version of it on YouTube.
My friend and co-host, Stephen Robles, was on MacBreak Weekly, which also covered the occasion
My first Mac
While I was around when the first Mac came out, I was not old enough to own one—or any computer for that matter.
When I was growing up, we did not have a Mac. My dad was (and still is) a PC guy. We had some Packard Bell something or other. That said, I am old enough to have had friends who had an original Macintosh 128k, and I can remember thinking it was the most amazing thing ever.
We had Macintosh Performas at school, but I didn’t buy my first Mac until I was out of college, a Titanium PowerBook G4. Like my first impression of the original Mac, I thought the PowerBook G4 was the most amazing thing ever. I bought it to use Final Cut Pro and Photoshop, and it was the Mac that got me forever hooked on Macs.
Since then, I’ve had a series of Macs, including an Aluminum 15-inch PowerBook G4, various versions of the MacBook Air, a 27-inch iMac, and now a 14-inch M3 Max MacBook Pro. In all, I counted eight (maybe nine) different Macs I’ve owned since 2001.
My current Mac gives me the same feeling—it’s amazing. It’s by far the fastest computer I’ve ever used, and—to be fair—it’s way overkill for what I do. If you subscribe to the member content of my new podcast, Primary Technology, you can hear Stephen and I talk about which Apple devices we’d pick if we could only have two, and the MacBook Pro is not one of my picks.
You can also listen to our regular episodes in your favorite podcast player:
Other 40th Mac-related news:
The Mac is immortal (Dan Moren at Six Colors)
History of the Mac (Cult of Mac)
40 Facts about the Mac (iMore)
The weirdest and rarest Macs (ArsTechnica)