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Saturday, 25 January 2014

Remembering my first Mac experience

My first experience of the Mac was at university. We had a whole lab full of the original 512k Macs.

These machines had one floppy drive and no hard drive. You booted them from an Operating System floppy, which took an age. If you wanted to use MacWrite or MacPaint you then needed to put that floppy in the drive. Frequently the machine would request the OS floppy back because it needed some bit of code for the OS. We used to spend a lot of time swapping floppies in and out.

Only this didn’t matter at all.

Everyone was in complete awe of the Mac. It was unlike anything else at the time.

Back in the late 80’s there were two types of computers. Big VAX things that took up an entire room and that you experienced through a “green screen” terminal. They were slow and the screens were dreadfully blurred, only displaying green ASCII characters. The PCs were almost as bad. They were faster, but were still attached to poor-quality character-based displays. Nobody had heard of the word “font”, as the concept of changing a font-size was just as alien as changing the font itself.

Printers were just as character-based as the displays. Everyone’s printouts looked the same. A word processor might have been more flexible than a typewriter, but the printed output looked the same.

Both the terminals and the PCs were the ugliest pieces of utilitarian design you could imagine. Massive, heavy, square, industrial-looking things. You could easily imagine some East German communist factory creating those monsters.

And then there was the “Mac Lab” as it was called in our University. It was populated with machines that were so different from the world I just described, that they seemed to be a gift from an alien species.

The Macs had these incredible high-resolution black-and-white displays. The refresh resolution was insanely high, so they looked and felt like a piece of paper. In contrast, all the other displays flickered away with their eery green glow.

The Macs were small, portable, with a handle on the top. They were cute. Someone had clearly designed them to be “human”. The scale was different from everything else, and everyone loved them.

They had this novel attachment called a “mouse”. We’d never seen one of those before. We moved the mouse and a little arrow moved across this high-resolution bit-map display. Awesome!

The Mac taught us the word “font” and everyone became crazy for a while. Helvetica, Times New Roman, Bold, Outline, Underlined - the ability to produce a document styled in your own way was such a huge contrast to everything else. And when you printed on the attached “imageWriter” dot-matrix printers, your print looked just the way it did on the screen; either beautiful or slightly wild if you’d got carried away with the font menu.

The Mac even sounded different. Every other computer beeped in an electronic “make a noise” kind of way. The sounds on the Mac were crafted by a genius. They sounded like notes from a musical instrument - well formed, with rising and lowering pitch. The noise massaged your ears, rather than assaulting them.

We wrote documents in MacWord, painted pictures in MacPaint, wrote programs in Pascal. And we loved it. Using a Mac didn’t seem like work. In contrast to all our other assignments using terminals and PCs, these Macs felt like they were from a different planet. Everything was different; the size, the design, the screen-quality, the colour of the screen, the high-resolution display, the mouse, the ability to change fonts, the bit-mapped printouts that matched the display.

When we used a Mac we all knew we were looking into the future. The Mac was such an enormous change, we knew the computing world would be turned on its head. And it was. At my first job after university we were still using DOS PCs and terminals. A couple of years later I moved companies and got a PC running Windows 3.1. It was the start, but to be honest it was dreadful. If you were used to DOS, Win–31 was attractive. But to a Mac user it was obviously a facade over the DOS that still lurked beneath. But it was a start.

Windows–95 was the first time the PC started to feel like it was really learning from the Mac. Of course the machines themselves were still big and ugly, but the software was catching up. But this was 10 years after the Mac had arrived. It took 10 years for the rest of the industry to start to compete. I think that gives some feeling for how far advanced the Mac really was when it launched in 1984.

The style, sense of design and the cuteness have never been copied though. There was something so human about that first Mac. Its a puzzle that, whilst all the component parts might have been copied, they never quite add up.

A set of ideas, crafted into a single whole, created an entirely new vision for the industry. Nobody cost-justified every design decision on the original Mac. It was obvious that everything about it had been created with a single purpose; to make a statement. Things can, and will, be different. This was the start. It doesn’t matter what computer you use today; they are all derivatives of that 1984 Mac. Thirty years later, we’re all Mac users really.

Oh, one more thing!

Even the floppy was different. It was rigid, 3.5 inches and fitted in a pocket. All the other machines of the day had "floppy" 5.25 inch monsters that were fragile and difficult to carry around.

1 comment :

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